WEvery time I get my hands on a bag of pretzels, I always feel like I can’t put it down until it’s all gone. After consuming too much sodium in one sitting, my mouth starts to feel like the desert in a heat wave, I have a sudden urge to swallow all five Great Lakes and immediately wish I hadn’t eaten it all just then. one time. It was so good though… #noregrets. I mean, though, like most things in life, even the best salty snacks are all about moderation.
Of course, we know that sodium is important for biological function, and in fact, you can fall into sodium deficiency if you don’t have enough. Plus, it’s one of a chef’s favorite not-so-secret ingredients for creating super tasty dishes. However, according to the CDC, consuming too much can lead to high blood pressure, which increases the risk of heart disease and stroke.
So does that mean we are destined to eat only bland, tasteless food forever if we want to keep our health in tip-top condition? Definitely not. In fact, a recent study from the European Society of Cardiology that looked at the effects of taste adaptation intervention (also known as the results of eating less sodium) showed that your taste buds can actually acclimate, and even learn to really enjoy , a low-salt diet. To understand how to train your taste buds to enjoy low-salt foods, we spoke with a registered dietitian and the lead researcher on the study to find out how.
What does taste adaptation intervention mean?
According to Misook Lee Chung PhD, RN, FAHA, FAAN, a professor at the University of Kentucky College of Nursing and an author of this study, a taste adaptation intervention can help reduce salt intake and increase enjoyment of a meal with sodium restriction. Diet in hypertensive patients. “We have conducted randomized controlled trials (RCTs) in patients with heart failure and show that the gradual adaptation approach is beneficial in reducing dietary sodium intake,” explains Dr. Chung. “One of the main barriers to following a low-salt diet is that people don’t like the taste, but few studies have addressed this issue.”
Dr. Chung’s study, unlike others, focuses on reducing dietary sodium intake very slowly to allow taste perception to change and ultimately learn to like foods made with less salt. She says that while the benefits of lowering sodium intake on blood pressure are clear, most people have a hard time maintaining it over time. (We can relate.) According to Dr. Chung, the key to getting over the hump and really making your low-sodium diet stick is slow, progressive adaptation.
To study the effects of the taste adaptation intervention, participants received 16 weeks of education and follow-up with a study nurse, who tailored the program to each patient’s weekly needs and goals. During this time, people recorded the amount of sodium from salt added at the table, salt used during cooking, food eaten, and restaurant food consumption using an electronic device that helped detect sodium content.
“One of the first steps was for patients to become aware of how much salt they were consuming. Using the electronic device, they could taste the salt content of restaurant meals and ask the chef to reduce or eliminate salt at their next visit.” They also used it at home to reduce the salt content in their own kitchen. Some people automatically added salt at the table before tasting food, so we asked participants to count the number of ‘shakes’ and set goals to reduce it. Most of the participants took the salt shaker off the table in three weeks,” says Dr. Chung.
At baseline and at 16 weeks, participants provided a 24-hour urine sample to assess sodium intake and recorded their blood pressure. By increasing awareness of the sodium content consumed during the study and making adjustments to their diets, the participants were able to see the direct correlation between salt intake and its effects on the body. “In the intervention group, sodium intake was reduced by 1,158 mg per day, which was a 30% reduction from baseline,” says Dr. Chung.
Overall, enjoyment of a low-salt diet increased in the intervention group, from 4.8 to 6.5 on a 10-point scale, according to Dr. Chung. “The gradual adaptation approach to a low-sodium diet has a significant effect in reducing dietary sodium intake in hypertensive patients and has the potential to lower systolic blood pressure,” she says. This goes to show that it’s absolutely possible to slowly train your taste buds to enjoy low-salt foods, and it’s likely to produce better results if done gradually, rather than cut out all at once.
How does a registered dietitian recommend adjusting to less salty foods?
According to Amy Shapiro, MS, RD, CDN, registered dietitian and founder of Real Nutrition, training your taste buds to enjoy foods with less salt comes down to a few key steps. “To train your taste buds to reduce sodium, it’s important, like any lifestyle change, to do it slowly if you want it to stick,” says Shapiro, who echoes the findings described in the study perfectly.
1. Always read the fine print. A good first step in reducing your sodium intake is to make sure you read food labels. “There is hidden sodium in many ‘healthy’ foods, such as bread (even whole wheat), pizza, soup, tacos, deli meats, sandwiches, bagels, and packaged snack foods,” says Shapiro.
2. Avoid excess salt in food. “Food is often prepared with salt, and many people add more salt at the table before they even taste it! Taste your food first, see if you need more salt, and don’t just act out of habit,” she suggests.
3. Stop adding salt to every meal. Shapiro also recommends choosing a few meals a day (like breakfast and dinner) where you don’t eat salt, and then choose a meal where you do (like lunch). She explains that this helps to form healthier habits and reduces the amount of salt that she uses constantly throughout the day.
4. Use “salty” substitutes. Another great tip Shapiro offers is to swap out the salt for foods that taste “salty” or have tons of flavor like citrus, herbs, and spices to help brighten your palate without the sodium.
5. Be patient. Finally, and most importantly, Shapiro says you need to give yourself time. “This process takes time. Consistency requires retraining; it won’t happen overnight. Be patient with yourself and know that over time this will help retrain your taste buds,” Shapiro emphasizes. “I had to learn to reduce sodium in my diet, and now don’t miss out.”
Consider this your ticket to Sodium 101: