Healthier Salt Substitutes

As I discuss in my video Shaking the Salt Habit, the two most prominent dietary risks for death and disability in the world are not eating enough fruit and eating too much salt. Eating too little fruit kills nearly five million people every year, and eating too much salt kills four million.

There are three things we can do to lower our salt intake. First, don’t add salt at the table. One third of us add salt to our food before even tasting it! Second, stop adding salt while you’re cooking. At first, the food may taste bland, but within two to four weeks, “as the sensitivity of the salt taste receptors in the mouth become more sensitive to the taste of salt in the usual concentrations”—believe it or not—you may actually prefer the taste of food with less salt. Some of the flavorings you can use in the meanwhile instead of salt include “pepper, onion, garlic, tomato, sweet pepper, basil, parsley, thyme, celery, lime, chilli, nettle, rosemary, smoke flavoring, curry, coriander and lemon.” Even if you did add salt while cooking, though, it’s probably better than eating out, where even at non-fast food restaurants, they tend to pile it on. And, finally, avoid processed foods that have salt added.

In most countries, only about half of sodium intake comes from processed foods, so there’s more personal responsibility. In the United States, however, even if we completely stopped adding salt in the kitchen and dining room, it would only bring down salt intake a small fraction. This has led public health commentators to note how challenging it is for everyone to reduce their salt intake, since so much of our sodium intake is out of our control. But is it? We don’t have to buy all those processed foods. We can choose not to turn over our family’s health to food corporations that may not have our best interests at heart.

If we do buy processed foods, there are two tricks we can use. First, try to only buy foods with fewer milligrams of sodium listed on the label than there are grams in the serving size. So, if it’s a 100-gram serving size, it should have less than 100 mg of sodium. Or, second, shoot for fewer milligrams of sodium than there are calories. For example, if the sodium is listed as 720 and calories are 260, since 720 is greater than 260, the product has too much sodium.

That’s a trick I learned from Jeff Novick, one of my favorite dieticians of all time. The reason it works is that most people get about 2,200 calories a day. So, if everything you ate had more calories than sodium, you’d at least get under 2,300 milligrams of sodium, which is the upper limit for healthy people under age 50. Of course, the healthiest foods have no labels at all. We should try to buy as much fresh food as possible because it is almost impossible to come up with a diet consisting of unprocessed natural foodstuffs that exceeds the strict American Heart Association guidelines for sodium reduction.


Not eating enough fruit as a leading killer? For more, see my video Inhibiting Platelet Aggregation with Berries.

In my latest sodium series, I lay out the evidence and dive into the manufactured controversy to expose salt industry shenanigans. See:

In health,
Michael Greger, M.D.

PS: If you haven’t yet, you can subscribe to my free videos here and watch my live, year-in-review presentations:

Bell Peppers to Help Ward Off Parkinson’s

Parkinson’s disease is a movement disorder striking 1 percent of our older population and is the 14th leading cause of death in the United States. While we don’t really know what causes it, we do know that people with a smoking history only appear to have about half the risk. Of course, “[s]moking is hugely damaging to health; any benefit derived from a reduction in risk of Parkinson’s disease is outweighed by the increased risks of cancer and cardiovascular disease,” as well as lung disease, but this shouldn’t stop us from “evaluating tobacco components for possible neuroprotective effects.”

Nicotine may fit the bill. If nicotine is the agent responsible for the neuroprotective effects, is there any way to get the benefit without the risks? That’s the topic of my video Peppers and Parkinson’s: The Benefits of Smoking Without the Risks?.

After all, where does nicotine come from? The tobacco plant. Any other plants have nicotine? Well, tobacco is a nightshade plant, so it’s in the same family as tomatoes, potatoes, eggplants, and peppers. And guess what? They all contain nicotine as well.

That’s why you can’t tell if someone’s a smoker just by looking for the presence of nicotine in their toenail clippings, because non-smokers grow out some nicotine into their nails, as well. Nicotine is in our daily diet—but how much? The amount we average in our diet is hundreds of times less than we get from a single cigarette. So, though we’ve known for more than 15 years that there’s nicotine in ketchup, it was dismissed as insignificant. We then learned that even just one or two puffs of a cigarette could saturate half of our brain’s nicotine receptors, so it doesn’t take much. Then, we discovered that just exposure to second-hand smoke may lower the risk of Parkinson’s, and there’s not much nicotine in that. In fact, one would only be exposed to about three micrograms of nicotine working in a smoky restaurant, but that’s on the same order as what one might get eating the food at a non-smoking restaurant. So, the contribution of dietary nicotine intake from simply eating some healthy vegetables may be significant.

Looking at nightshade consumption, in general, researchers may have found a lower risk compared to other vegetables, but different nightshades have different amounts of nicotine. They found none in eggplant, only a little in potatoes, some in tomatoes, but the most in bell peppers. When that was taken into account, a much stronger picture emerged. The researchers found that more peppers meant more protection. And, as we might expect, the effects of eating nicotine-containing foods were mainly evident in nonsmokers, as the nicotine from smoke would presumably blot out any dietary effect.

This could explain why protective associations have been found for Parkinson’s and the consumption of tomatoes, potatoes, and a tomato- and pepper-rich Mediterranean diet. Might nightshade vegetables also help with treating Parkinson’s? Well, results from trials of nicotine gum and patches have been patchy. Perhaps nicotine only helps prevent it in the first place, or could it be that it isn’t the nicotine at all, but, instead, is some other phytochemical in tobacco and the pepper family?

Researchers conclude that their findings will be need to be reproduced to help establish cause and effect before considering dietary interventions to prevent Parkinson’s disease, but when the dietary intervention is to eat more delicious, healthy dishes like stuffed peppers with tomato sauce, I don’t see the reason we have to wait.


Benefits of smoking? See the tobacco industry gloat in my video Is Something in Tobacco Protective Against Parkinson’s Disease?.

Bell peppers may actually be healthiest raw, as I discuss in Best Cooking Method.

What about tomato products? Choose whole, crushed, or diced tomatoes instead of tomato sauce, purée, or paste. Why? See Inhibiting Platelet Activation with Tomato Seeds for the answer.

You may be interested in my in-depth video series on the Mediterranean Diet:

In health,
Michael Greger, M.D.

PS: If you haven’t yet, you can subscribe to my free videos here and watch my live, year-in-review presentations:

Boosting Brown Fat Through Diet

Until about ten years ago, brown adipose tissue (BAT) was considered to be biologically active only in babies and small children where it generates heat by burning fat. But now, there is no doubt that active brown fat is present in adult humans and is involved in cold-induced increases in whole-body calorie expenditure and, thereby, helps control of not only body temperature but also how fat we are.

In 2013, researchers showed that one could activate brown adipose tissue if you chill out people long enough, specifically, by exposing them to two hours of cold every day for six weeks, which can lead to a significant reduction in body fat. You can see an illustrative graph in my video Boosting Brown Fat Through Diet. Although researchers demonstrated the effective recruitment of human brown fat, it would seem difficult to increase exposure to cold in daily life. Thankfully, our brown fat can also be activated by some food ingredients, such as capsaicin, the compound that makes hot peppers hot.

While physical activity is usually recommended to increase energy expenditure, there are specific food components, such as capsaicin, that are known to burn off calories. For example, one study found that there was a significant rise in energy expenditure within 30 minutes of eating the equivalent of a jalapeño pepper.

Normally when we cut down on calories, our metabolism slows down, undercutting our weight loss attempts; but sprinkling a third of a teaspoon of red chili pepper powder onto our meals counteracts that metabolic slow down and promotes fat burning. Researchers wanted to try giving participants more chili pepper in order to try to match some of the studies done in Asia, but the Caucasian subjects couldn’t take it. But by adding more than a tablespoon of red pepper powder to a high-fat meal, Japanese women burned significantly more fat.

We’ve known for decades that cayenne pepper increases metabolic rate, but we didn’t know how. But studies show that this class of compounds increases energy expenditure in human individuals with brown fat, but not in those without it, indicating that individuals increase expenditure right off the BAT. Additionally, there is a variety of structurally similar flavor molecules in other foods, like black pepper and ginger, that may activate thermogenesis as well, but they haven’t been directly tested.

All these results suggest that the anti-obesity effects of pepper compounds are based on the heat-generating activity of recruited brown fat. Thus, repeated ingestion can mimic the chronic effects of cold exposure without having to freeze ourselves.

Consumption of spicy foods may help us lose weight, but what about the sensory burn and pain on our tongues and sometimes in our stomachs as well as further on down? Are our only two options for boosting brown fat to freeze our legs or burn our butts?

Arginine-rich foods may also stimulate brown adipose tissue growth and development through a variety of mechanisms, which is achieved by consuming more soy foods, seeds, nuts, and beans.


For more on brown adipose tissue, see Brown Fat: Losing Weight Through Thermogenesis.

What about arginine? Check out Fat Burning Via Arginine. And, did you know arginine may also play a role in the effects nuts may have on penile blood flow? I discuss this in Pistachio Nuts for Erectile Dysfunction.

For more on spicy foods, see my videos Cayenne Pepper for Irritable Bowel Syndrome and Chronic Indigestion to learn how digestive disorders may be helped and Hot Sauce in the Nose for Cluster Headaches? for information on how the hot pepper compound can be a lifesaver for people suffering from “suicide” headaches.

In health,

Michael Greger, M.D.

PS: If you haven’t yet, you can subscribe to my free videos here and watch my live, year-in-review presentations: