Since this blog is unique in its absence of salt, oil, and sugar, let’s delve a little more deeply into why these ingredients are not used. “SOS-free” means that no salt, oil, or sugar have been added to the food at any stage of preparation. Going SOS-free continues to grow in popularity as more people strive to reduce or eliminate these items for health reasons.
My own immersion into SOS-free eating began in 2010 when I started teaching cooking classes at TrueNorth Health Center. I had already been eating a plant-based, oil-free diet for about 10 years, but I was still using salt and sugar in my cooking and baking. However, I wanted to be sure that my recipes followed the TrueNorth guidelines, so I started eating SOS-free all the time.
After about a month of not adding salt and sugar to my meals (and long before, oil), my taste buds got used to not having them, and I no longer missed them. I learned how to flavor my food with fresh and dried herbs and spices instead of salt, how to cook and roast vegetables and make salad dressings without oil, and how to substitute oil and sugar in baking. Soon I began to prefer SOS-free food; and when I ate food with added salt, oil, and/or sugar, the amounts tasted excessive.
Many people find that forgoing salt, oil, and sugar can be a challenge. This is because all three products are highly concentrated, the results of excessive refining and processing by food manufacturers. The more salt, oil, and sugar we eat, the more intense our cravings can become (due to their ultra-concentrated states). But take comfort in knowing that our taste preferences have all been acquired, meaning they were developed at some point in our lives and, therefore, can be undeveloped and replaced by new preferences.
While it’s true that our taste buds are naturally designed to seek out saltiness, richness, and sweetness, when the sources of these flavors have been unnaturally concentrated and are consumed in excess, the body’s desire for them goes into overdrive. This leads us to seek out the foods that contain the most salt, oil, and sugar (like bread, cookies, pastries, crackers, potato chips, candy, soda, and condiments).
One of the hardest foods for people to give up is cheese, and why wouldn’t it be, with its sky-high concentrations of fat and salt, sending our brains into a hyperstimulated tizzy of bliss. After I stopped cooking with salt, oil, and sugar, it became easier to discern an enjoyable SOS-free meal from a “tizzy of bliss” meal. While the bliss felt good in the short term, it would always leave me feeling tired and heavy soon after and, in general, less conscious about what I was putting into my mouth.
Some people feel that the consumption of salt, oil, and/or sugar in small amounts, or only during the transition away from the standard American diet (SAD), is fine if that’s what it takes to get them to adopt a plant-based diet. This may work for some people, but for others it can be difficult to keep these three highly concentrated ingredients to small amounts since they can easily become addictive. This frustrating “push-pull” is one of the reasons people choose to shift to an SOS-free diet. Forgoing these three ingredients entirely has worked better for many people than consuming them in moderation. Moderation can be a slippery slope for two reasons: (1) it results in slower and fewer improvements in health and appearance, and (2) it reminds your brain that these intense flavors are still within reach and so it keeps begging you for more, driving you crazy. If you view moderation as eating just a little less than what you’re used to, that won’t get you very far in your efforts to become healthier and lose weight.
Today’s food culture of being able to eat whatever we want, whenever we want has also made it difficult for people to limit their intakes to “just a little.” This has led to 70% of American adults being overweight or obese (about 36% are obese). When alcoholics or smokers try to quit, having just one drink or one cigarette a day does little to eliminate their cravings or the overall habit; it only leaves them frustrated and wanting more. Giving up salt, oil, and sugar can feel the same way for many people, a state that TrueNorth Health Center calls “the pleasure trap.” (Read the excellent book, The Pleasure Trap, for more about this).
Nutritionally speaking, we do not need to add salt, oil, and sugar to our food; we can get everything we need simply from eating a wholesome, plant-based diet. The body’s actual needs for sodium and fat are, in fact, pretty low (less than the amount of sodium in one-quarter teaspoon of salt a day and less than 10% of daily calories from fat).
We do, however, benefit from consuming plenty of carbohydrates (70 to 90% of daily calories), which are our primary source of energy (from complex carbohydrates like potatoes, rice, corn, green and yellow vegetables, and fruits). But when it comes to sugar (a carbohydrate) we want to steer clear of overly concentrated, simple sugars, such as white table sugar (sucrose), corn syrup, maple syrup, honey, and agave, as well as white flour products (which are typically loaded with salt, oil, and sugar). Instead, we want to embrace complex carbohydrates and the naturally occurring sugars found in them. (Although widely misunderstood, these naturally packaged sugars do not adversely affect blood glucose or other health factors, such as type 2 diabetes, when consumed intact.)
We Americans love our table salt (also known as “sodium chloride,” which is 40% sodium and 60% chloride), but mostly we get our salt from all the packaged foods we eat: canned foods (tomato sauce, vegetables, soups), condiments (soy sauce, ketchup, broths), breads, meats, dairy products (cheese, milk, yogurt), snack foods (cookies, chips, crackers, cereals), and fast foods. Restaurant food is also very high in salt (the more salt, oil, and sugar the restaurant adds, the more we come back). Even some medications contain salt.
While most people can tolerate a little bit of salt with no ill effects, we are not a nation of people who like consuming “just a little bit”—we are a nation of excess; and when our salt intake reaches levels that are excessive, our health can be negatively impacted.
According to a 2016 report by the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention), 89% of adults and over 90% of children exceeded recommendations for sodium intake between 2009 and 2012. And among adults who are hypertensive (having high blood pressure), 86% exceeded the upper limit of dietary sodium per day. The report also notes that excess sodium intake increases people’s “potential risk of stroke and coronary heart disease mortality.”
So how much sodium is too much? The USDA Dietary Guidelines recommend a tolerable upper limit of 2,300 mg (about 1 teaspoon of salt) or less per day. No more than 1,500 mg sodium (a little over a half teaspoon) has been recommended for older people (over 51), African Americans, and people with high blood pressure, diabetes, or chronic kidney disease. A recommended safe minimum of sodium is set at 500 mg per day.
If you consume a salt-free diet, you needn’t worry that you’re not getting enough sodium because even without adding salt to your food, you will still get plenty of it (sodium occurs naturally in plants). As long as you consume a variety of plant foods and adequate daily calories, you will get all the minerals necessary for good health.
You may say, “But I like salt, and it enhances the flavor of my food. Plus, sea salt is natural.” These are three reasons we cling to our salt habit. Of course, we like it; it’s the whole “tizzy bliss” thing again, and we’ve been using it all of our lives, so it’s comforting. As a flavoring, too much salt can actually mask the flavors of our food; remove the salt and you will begin to appreciate the food itself more. (It’s also been suggested that adding salt to our food causes us to overeat fatty foods.)
Many people believe sea salt to be particularly nutritious; but while it may be prettier than common table salt and contain a few more minerals, it’s still hazardously high in sodium, and we can still easily overconsume it.
The human body does need some sodium to function correctly. Our kidneys regulate the amount stored and released so that just the right balance is maintained. But if the kidneys become exhausted and cannot excrete sodium (due to heart or kidney disease, diabetes, overall poor health, or excess consumption), it begins to build up in the system, which results in the retention of water, causing higher blood volume and thereby putting more pressure on our heart and arteries. Common health concerns associated with too much salt in the bloodstream include high blood pressure, stroke, and an increased risk for heart disease, osteoporosis, and stomach cancer.
In my own effort to consume much less sodium, I have made the following shifts: (1) I eat out less often, (2) when I do eat out, I choose restaurants where I know I can order dishes that contain no salt or very little, (3) I strive to buy packaged foods that do not contain salt or have just very low amounts, and (4) I do not add salt (or other high-sodium condiments) on top of my food or during preparation. I don’t even keep salt in the kitchen anymore. And this goes for anything I am trying to avoid: if I don’t want it in my body, it doesn’t end up in my kitchen.
There are many reasons to avoid adding oil to food, but let’s start with the most indisputable one first: oil is 100% fat, which makes it the most calorie-dense food there is. One tablespoon of oil contains about 120 calories (15 grams by weight), which is significant when compared to the same weight of other high-calorie foods, like sour cream (about 27 calories) and Brie cheese (about 50 calories). If you are trying to lose weight and be kind to your blood vessels, removing oil from your diet is an essential first step.
Additionally, since oil contains no fiber or water (which helps us to feel full), we have a tendency to overconsume it, and thus our efforts to lose weight are made that much more difficult. Excess weight has been shown to promote inflammation, inhibit immune function, and increase the risk for heart disease, high cholesterol, diabetes, and cancer.
As oil enters our bloodstream, our blood vessels come in contact with it and over time become damaged. Our circulation slows (raising blood pressure); and as oil builds up in our arteries, it forms potentially dangerous plaques that can lead to heart disease, the number-one killer in the U.S. Damaged blood vessels also put men at risk for impotence.
Also, because the fat in oil has been extracted from its original food source, it is now unprotected, making it more prone to becoming rancid through oxidation (prolonged exposure to oxygen), inhibiting freshness and degrading food. Oil that has been oxidized also contains free radicals, which can damage the body and contribute to cancers.
The bottom line is that the oils we consume most, including coconut, flax, and fish, do not promote health—even olive oil is best left off our plates since all oils have been stripped of fiber and most of the nutrients that originally existed in the intact food (the olive, the corn, the seed). Any remaining nutritive value in oil will always be outweighed by its negative aspects. So basically, oil is all con (100% fat, concentrated calories) and no pro (nutrients, fiber, water).
“But it tastes good!” Not really. We don’t drink a cup of oil for a very good reason: it doesn’t taste very good on its own. In fact, oil has come to be the glue that keeps salt stuck to our food; but if we’re not using salt, this is yet another reason to ditch the oil. Oil is always added to or combined with other foods since we respond to its creamy texture (fat), not its flavor. We mainly consume oil because it has become a habit that we’ve developed over time, and it’s a comforting one, so it’s not easy to give up.
We do need to consume a small percentage of fat as part of a healthy diet, but the body responds better to the naturally occurring fats found in plant foods—as Mother Nature packaged them—not as highly refined and concentrated oils. Wild animals do not need to consume oil to be healthy and neither do human animals. We just think we do based on cultural tradition and because oils have been marketed to us relentlessly (as most manufactured food products have) since there is so much money to be made from them.
It may be hard to imagine going without oil when cooking vegetables, making salad dressings, and baking, but it is not as hard as you think. Once you decide you are going to ditch the oil from your everyday diet, the fear of giving it up starts to fade as you learn simple techniques for preparing food without it.
And remember, your taste buds will adapt after a while, usually within a few weeks, and you will get used to not having oil at all. This is where you must have faith and patience. A transformation will be taking place that you may not even notice, as your body becomes cleaner and your blood begins to flow more efficiently without all the oil clogging the pipes.
Sugar exists naturally in all plant foods to some degree, and from these plants refined sugars are made. Food manufacturers then sell this refined substance as pure sugar or add it to the packaged foods and beverages we buy at the grocery store. However, not unlike salt, Americans are getting too much sugar. According to the USDA, total per-capita sugar consumption in the U.S. (2011–2012, for males and females age two and older) reached 96 pounds a year (that’s about a quarter pound per day).
Refined sugar is an empty-calorie food, meaning it has little to no nutrients. And much like the concentrated nature of salt and oil, refined sugar is very easy to overconsume, often leading to weight gain, a factor for disease. We find the highest amounts of sugar in packaged foods, such as sugar-sweetened beverages (sodas, sports drinks, juice drinks), snack foods (cookies, candy), condiments (jams, sauces, dressings), breakfast cereals, and canned foods.
The sugars in bananas and apples, on the other hand, are packaged exactly as nature intended, along with all of their accompanying nutrients, fiber, and water. This ensures that the sugars will gradually absorb into the bloodstream so that we will not be immediately hungry for more and we won’t overeat. Whenever the sugars from foods are extracted and refined—as in table sugar from beets, or corn syrup from corn—the opposite effect can occur. The human body does not require any added sugar for health; therefore we could get by without consuming it at all. But don’t confuse this with not being able to have anything sweet.
If you’re in the mood for something sweet, look to fruit to satisfy your craving. If this sounds terribly boring, fear not: your taste buds will adapt, and soon you will delight in a piece of fruit instead of a cookie for a snack, or cut-up fruit over your morning oatmeal instead of white or brown sugar. In my opinion, sugar is the easiest of the three (salt, oil, sugar) to substitute and not notice a difference in flavor, particularly in desserts and baked goods.
Instead of refined sugars, I often use apples, applesauce, peaches, strawberries, bananas, dates, and/or raisins in my desserts. A fruit cobbler sweetened with a few dates is just as tasty as one made with refined sugar. However, it’s important to understand that certain fruits can have very high concentrations of natural sugars (“sugar density”). One pound of dates contains 298 grams of sugar, and one pound of raisins contains 265 grams of sugar, quite a bit more than one pound of apples (47 grams of sugar) or one pound of bananas (55 grams of sugar). For this reason, I eat lower-sugar-density foods more often than I do higher-sugar-density foods. For example, I eat fresh fruit every day, but I eat dates and prepared desserts just once in a while, mainly on special occasions.
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