You have heard of “gluten-free,” “sugar-free” and “fat-free,” but what about “SOS-free?” An SOS-free diet simply means that no refined salt, oil or sugar has been added to the food (during preparation, cooking or afterwards). “Going SOS-free” continues to catch on as more people strive to reduce or eliminate salt, oil and sugar in their diets for health reasons.
My immersion into SOS-free eating began in 2010 when I started teaching cooking classes at TrueNorth Health Center in Santa Rosa, CA. I had already been eating a plant-based, oil-free diet, but I was still using salt and sugar in my cooking and baking. However, now I wanted to be sure that my recipes followed the TrueNorth guidelines of SOS-free. Creating recipes one way and eating another way was not practical, and I wanted to walk my talk, so I started eating SOS-free every day.
After a month of not consuming any added salt, oil and sugar, my taste buds got used to not having them, and I—my brain and taste buds—no longer missed them. I learned how to flavor my food with fresh and dried herbs and spices instead of salt; how to sauté and roast vegetables without oil, as well as make salad dressings without it; 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 presents a challenge for them, and this is because all three have been processed and are highly concentrated. The result of this processing leaves us wanting more, and eventually we can develop strong cravings for salt, oil and/or sugar. While it’s true that our taste buds are naturally designed to seek out salty, fatty and sweet flavors, when the sources of these flavors have been unnaturally concentrated, and/or they are consumed in excess, the body’s desire for them goes into overdrive. This leads us to seek out more foods that contain salt, oil and sugar, which are most often packaged foods lacking in nutrients, fiber and water—the opposite of what our body needs for good health.
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 hyper-stimulated 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 bliss felt nice in the short-term, it often left me feeling less conscious about what I was putting into my mouth, and less in control of my eating overall.
Some health professionals advise that it’s fine to consume refined salts, oils and sugars in small amounts if that’s what it takes to get you to eat an overall healthier diet, or if it’s only during your transition to eventually eliminating them altogether. This may work for some people, but the challenge with this is that it can be extremely difficult to keep these three things to small amounts since they can become addictive, which is one of the reasons people strive for an “SOS-free” diet.
Today’s food culture of being able to eat whatever we want, whenever we want has made it difficult for people to limit their intakes, which has led to two-thirds of Americans being overweight. Like an alcoholic or smoker who is trying to quit, advising them to just have one drink or one cigarette a day will do little to eliminate the cravings or the overall habit; it will only leave them frustrated, with that taste still in their mouth, wanting more. Giving up salt, oil and/or sugar can feel the same way for many people, a state that TrueNorth Health Center calls “The Pleasure Trap.”
Nutritionally speaking, we do not need to add salt, oil and sugar to our food; we can get all the sodium, fat and sugar we need, and in their best forms, from eating a whole-food, plant-based diet. The body’s actual need for sodium and essential fats are in fact pretty low (less than the amount of sodium in ¼ teaspoon of salt a day and less than 10% of daily calories from fat), so we don’t need to supplement with any added salt and oil.
We do, however, need to consume plenty of carbohydrates every day (70 to 90% of daily calories), which are our primary source of energy. But when it comes to sugar (a carbohydrate) we want to steer clear of simple sugars, such as white table sugar, brown sugar, corn syrup and soda, 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 green and starchy vegetables, whole grains, beans and fruit.
The regular consumption of salt, oil and sugar clearly does not improve health, but let’s break it down even more so you’ll have a clear idea of how to best minimize the amounts of each in your diet.
There are many reasons to avoid oil, but let’s start with the most indisputable one first: Oil is 100% fat and is the most calorie-dense food there is. One tablespoon of oil (about 15g) contains 120 calories (compared to 29 calories of the same amount of sour cream, and 50 calories of Brie cheese). If you are trying to lose weight and be kind to your arteries, removing oil from your diet is an excellent first step.
Additionally, since oil contains no fiber or water (which creates bulk to help fill us up), we have a tendency to over-consume it, and thus, our efforts to lose weight are made that much more difficult. Excess weight promotes inflammation, inhibits immune function, and increases our risk for heart disease, high cholesterol, diabetes, and cancer.
Even oils that are often regarded as “healthy,” such as olive and flax, are not health-promoting since the oil is largely lacking the nutrients that were originally present in the whole food (the olive or flaxseed). So basically, oil is all con (100% fat, concentrated calories) and no pro (nutrients, fiber, water).
“But it tastes good!” Well, not really. We don’t drink a cup of oil for a very good reason: it doesn’t taste good on its own. In fact, oil has come to be the glue that keeps salt stuck to 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. We respond to its creamy texture and fat, not its flavor. We consume oil because we have become so used to doing so. Many of us have developed an oil habit, just like watching too much YouTube or drinking too much coffee. It’s a habit we have embraced over time—and it’s a comforting one—so it’s not easy to give up.
It may be hard to imagine going without oil when cooking vegetables, making salad dressings, and baking, but it is entirely possible, and not as hard as you think. Once you decide you are going to ditch the oil from your everyday diet and stop putting it into your body, the fear of giving it up starts to fade, and soon you will 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 bloodstream runs more efficiently than ever.
Many people get their sodium in the form of table salt (also known as “sodium chloride,” which is 40% sodium and 60% chloride) by shaking it onto our food from the salt shaker. But mostly we get it from all the processed foods we eat: canned foods (tomato sauce, vegetables, soups), condiments (soy sauce, ketchup, broth), breads, meats, dairy products (deli meats, cheese, milk, yogurt), snack foods (cookies, chips, crackers, cereals), and fast foods. Restaurant food is also notoriously high in salt (the more salt, oil and sugar the restaurant adds, the more we come back). Even some medications contain salt.
So how much sodium is too much? The FDA recommends a tolerable upper limit of 2,300mg (about 1 teaspoon of salt) or less per day. No more than 1,500mg 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 500mg per day.
If you consume an SOS-free diet, you needn’t worry if you’re getting enough sodium because even if you didn’t add any salt to your food, you would still get plenty of sodium (and all the other minerals necessary for good health) as long as you consume a variety of whole plant foods along with adequate daily calories.
“But I like it, and it enhances the flavor of my food, and plus sea salt is natural!” These are three reasons we cling to our salt. Of course we like it, it’s the whole “tizzy bliss” thing again, and we’ve been using it forever, so it’s comforting, just like the oil. 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 much more. Sea salt may be prettier and have scant more nutrients, but it’s still high in sodium, and we can still over-consume it very easily.
Toward keeping your salt intake low, a good rule of thumb when buying packaged foods is to review the nutrition label on the back, and make sure the sodium milligrams per serving is equal to or less than the total calories per serving. For example, if a serving of pasta sauce contains 50 calories, you would want the sodium amount listed to be 50mg or less. Unfortunately, many processed foods contain five to ten times this much, or more. If you are not already a label-reader, I encourage you to become one; it can be shocking at times, but also empowering. Limiting the amount of packaged foods you buy will also help keep your salt intake low.
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 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, thereby putting more pressure on our arteries. Too much salt can also compromise the elasticity of the arteries over time. 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.
Salt seems to be the hardest thing to avoid when eating out since it is added during cooking to most all restaurant food. Even if you don’t shake any salt onto your food at the table, you still may be getting a lot in the form of table salt, miso, soy sauce, tamari, baking soda, baking powder, and/or spice blends that contain salt. Once our food is delivered to the table, we may add even more salt in the form of condiments (mustard, ketchup, hot sauce and salsa).
In my effort to consume less salt, 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, and (3) I do not use table salt and other high-sodium products in my home cooking (this goes for anything I am trying to avoid eating: if I don’t want it in my body, it doesn’t end up in my kitchen).
Sugar exists naturally in all whole foods to some degree, and from these whole foods refined sugars are made. Food manufacturers then generously add them to the foods and beverages we buy at the grocery store. However, not unlike salt, Americans are getting way too much refined sugar, about 130 pounds a year as of 2013.
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 over-consume, often leading to weight-gain, which is a factor for disease. We find the highest amounts of sugar in processed and packaged foods, such as sugar-sweetened beverages (sodas, sports and 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 Mother Nature intended, along with all of their accompanying nutrients, fiber and water. This assures that the sugars will gradually absorb into the bloodstream, meaning that we will not be immediately hungry for more and that we likely won’t overeat. Whenever the sugars from whole foods are extracted and refined—such as table sugar from beets, or corn syrup from corn—the opposite effects can occur. In addition, watch out for highly refined synthetic sweeteners (such as Aspartame and Saccharin), which still have unknown side effects and are best to be avoided if a health-promoting diet is your goal.
Unlike essential fats and sodium, the human body does not require any sugar for health; therefore, we could get away with not consuming any at all. But do not confuse this with not being able to have anything sweet. If you’re in the mood for something sweet, look toward 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. The last box of granulated sugar I bought years ago is still sitting in my cupboard, and I don’t miss it a bit. In my opinion sugar is the easiest of the three (salt, oil and sugar) to substitute and not notice a difference in flavor (particularly in blended desserts and baked goods).
Instead of refined sugars I will often use apples, applesauce, peaches, strawberries, bananas, dates and/or raisins in my desserts. Fruit cobbler sweetened with banana and a few dates is just as tasty as one made with refined sugar. However, it’s important to know that some whole-food sweeteners have much higher concentrations of sugar (“sugar density”) per pound: dates (301g sugar) and raisins (268g) are quite a bit more sugar-dense than apples (47g) and bananas (55g). For this reason, I eat lower-sugar-density foods more often than I do higher-sugar-density foods. For example, I eat fresh fruit most every day but fruit cobbler just once in a while.
Sugar comes in many forms and goes by many names, such as: agave, maple syrup, corn syrup solids, evaporated cane juice, maltose, molasses, raw sugar, barley malt, and the list goes on. Knowing what constitutes sugar will be helpful to you in reading packaged food labels. Checking the ingredient list on the back of the package is particularly important for people who are trying to regain their health since “a little of this and a little of that” can really add up quickly.
While “sugar-free” labeling has been around for some time, you may have noticed more “salt-free” labels nowadays (especially on canned beans and vegetables). Some manufacturers have even gone to no longer adding oil to certain products (some pasta sauces, non-dairy milks, frozen foods), which is a notable shift. They are getting the message that many consumers don’t want packaged foods weighed down by excessive SOS. They don’t usually make their products healthier unless they feel pressure from their customers, so let them know if your favorite product is not making you happy in some way. The internet has made it easy to contact companies so you can voice your opinions and requests, and affect positive change.
The most important thing you can do toward consuming less salt, oil and sugar is to learn how to prepare foods that will still satisfy your taste buds in their absence. We can achieve this by (1) not adding salt, oil and sugar to our food, (2) buying quality whole foods that taste great on their own without SOS (and if they don’t at first, they will in time), (3) choosing packaged foods that contain little to no salt, oil and sugar (always read the ingredient and nutrition label on the back first so that you know what you’re eating), (4) learning to season your food with fresh and dried herbs and spices, and (5) getting a handful of SOS-free recipes under your belt that you enjoy and can rotate weekly.
There is probably not one person who is perfectly SOS-free all the time, but this need not be the goal. Instead, strive to do your best to reduce or eliminate added salt, oil and sugar from your diet whenever you can by removing them from your kitchen, buying fewer packaged and prepared foods, and having the patience to learn to love whole, natural foods in their own right, not weighed down by excessive salt, oil and sugar.
For a more in-depth discussion about SOS-free eating, watch Dr. Michael Klaper’s DVD, “Salt, Sugar and Oil: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.”
For a solid understanding of how to read food labels and shop smarter, watch Jeff Novick’s Fast Food 3: Shopping School.
For an enlightening book on how our eating habits have evolved over time and why it can be so hard to avoid eating certain foods, read “The Pleasure Trap: Mastering the Hidden Force that Undermines Health and Happiness.”