We know too much sodium in your diet raises the risks of high blood pressure, stroke and heart disease, but simply asking folks to put down the salt shaker isn’t an effective health-promoting strategy.

salt shakerSo, what works? One intervention is to encourage healthy, but tasty replacements for salt, said Bonnie Faitak, assistant director of the Healthy Foods System team at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences, who spoke at a Wednesday morning APHA Annual Meeting session on strategies to reduce sodium consumption.

For example, people can use homemade spice blends instead of store-bought ones (which are often high in sodium) or make the relatively simple switch from common canned tomatoes to low-sodium variants. Surprisingly, Faitak said she’s been able to encourage buy-in from students, too, by revamping popular meals like mac and cheese so that instead of high-sodium cheese powder, the dish gets its color from butternut squash.

Partnerships with local schools has been particularly successful, Faitak told session attendees.

“In our K-12 schools, while they have (U.S. Department of Agriculture) regulations, those change regularly — things are always in flux,” she said. “They’re always trying to figure out what goals they should be working towards.”

In California, Michelle Wood and Brenda Robles from the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health are finding ways for businesses to fit low-sodium foods and beverages into their budgets. The team had already been working with cafes and hospitals, but a grant from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention let them expand their sodium reduction efforts to college campuses, which they said was a huge undertaking.

“It’s really exciting for us because we know that we have broad reach and that we’re really making an impact at a college that serves 30,000 students,” Wood said.

The team finds creative ways to cut sodium from some of the worst offenders — like salad dressings, sandwiches and grab-and-go items — without removing them entirely and cutting off money-makers for schools. They’ve found success offering more plant-based entrees and bulking up salad bars.

“It’s the first time our department has actually recognized the importance of partnering and engaging with industry,” Wood told attendees. “We’re creating multi-sector collaboration between our industry partners and integrating our public health goals.”

Christiane-Rayna Lopez researches ways to reduce sodium for seniors as part of her work at the County of San Diego Health and Human Services Agency. She and her colleagues found success by encouraging people to measure daily intake of sodium, as opposed to reducing sodium per meal or per item. Through strategies like targeting sides — biscuits and breads, for example, are often a hidden source of sodium — they found avenues for reducing seniors’ sodium-intake without completely eliminating the salty dishes — like fried chicken — that we all love.

Photo by Andrew Johnson, courtesy iStockphoto