Fiber, Salt & Water: Why These Now Guide My Eating Life 

salt wheat and water

Disclaimer: I am not a medical professional, so if you’re having a problem, you should consult one. The below relates to my own experiences and offers perspectives of a food writer with over 13 years in the business. You’ll also find citations from and links to reputable sources, including health organization data and nutritional guidelines. 

I’ve lived most of my life to excess. My husband has joked, “Moderation is for monks” throughout our marriage — but it’s as much truth as it is humor. When we are into something, we’re in it obsessively all the way — and that includes our work. Food writing, which I’ve done for the past 13 years, has been a wonderful fit for my mentality and sense of adventure. I’m never bored. There’s always something new to learn, whether it be about a new restaurant or bar, someone new to meet in the industry, or a food or drink I’ve never tried before. 

I’m fortunate to not have food allergies and sufficiently adventurous to try most unfamiliar foods — a quality that I think is extremely important in a food writer. (Refuse to eat something, and you could be insulting someone’s culture or, worse, their mama.) 

For most of my life, I’ve also been one of the world’s biggest saltaholics. As a child, I’d pick up the salt shaker at a restaurant, sprinkle a bit in my palm and lick it off. If it was in one of those single-serve paper packets, I’d tear the end off and shake it directly into my mouth. At some point, I stopped those behaviors, but as an adult, discovering and trying the many types of salt — sea, volcanic, Himalayan, red and even local from Texas salt domes — was a thrill.

Of course, my salty palate influences the foods I love. Some of my favorites include fried chicken, prosciutto, olives, hard cheeses, bacon, pizza, cheeseburgers, macaroni and cheese, cheese enchiladas — are you seeing a pattern? All of these are typically high in sodium and fat, and low on fiber. That brings me to why I am about to be a different kind of food writer. 

On January 25, I officially became a “chronic kidney stone sufferer”. It was my second. The first was about a decade ago and 3 millimeters. It hurt, but that debacle was over by the next day. 

This second one did not come to mess around. It was 9 millimeters. It took three emergency room visits, two surgeries, two stents (a long rubber tube inserted to keep your ureter open — it’s not comfortable) and three weeks of recovery time to get past it. The medical professionals are telling me that unless I’d like to repeat the experience, I need to cut daily sodium to 2,300 milligrams and increase my water intake to 64 ounces. To top it off, the CT scan used to locate and measure the kidney stone also revealed that I have diverticulosis. (You can read up on it yourself. I’m not going to inflict the details on you here.) To manage that condition, a high-fiber diet is required. Oh yeah: I also need to drop the food-writer weight that I’ve packed on over the past decade (a process that really accelerated over the pandemic when I was sitting at home being depressed and filling the void with a few extra martinis). 

To help prevent another super-sized kidney stone, I also have to join the water cult. Yes, I have to seriously start drinking 64 ounces of water a day, and apparently coffee doesn’t count. I’m with George Carlin: “When did we get so thirsty in America”? Oh, right: it’s probably thanks to all the sodium. 

None of this means that I’m going to stop bringing you news about all types of eateries. I’ll still cover news about restaurants, and I’m going to do my best to find something I can eat at them. (This is all not to mention there will be cheat days. Life is too short to eschew cacio e pepe forever, just because it’s all fat and simple carbs.) If I’m judging a food competition, I’m going to use the same criteria as always (or as specified by the judging forms). It does, however, mean that I am going to be looking at menus through a different lens. 

I often think of when Nancy Nichols of D Magazine stepped down as the lead dining critic after 18 years, the last three of which were fraught with digestive issues and medical consultations. She quit to take care of herself and make the necessary lifestyle changes. I don’t think I’m going to follow that same path, for a number of reasons. One: I’m too stubborn and stupid to give up on what I do. Two: I am not the only person who needs to change how I eat. This isn’t just my problem: it’s a national problem. 

The American Heart Association recommends no more than a scant 1,500 milligrams of sodium per day and says that 90% of Americans consume too much sodium. The organization also says that 70% of excess sodium comes from processed foods — and, most consequentially to what I do, restaurants. 

broccoli
Can we start talking about broccoli like it’s a sexy beast that provides 2.4 grams of fiber per cup, not to mention 8% of the daily RDA of potassium and 4% of calcium? Until this kind of food starts sounding more fun than virtuous, I don’t think overall American health will change. Photo by Matthew Henry via Burst.

According to the Food & Drug Administration, Americans are eating on average 3,400 milligrams of sodium a day, and that’s 1,100 more than the maximum of 2,300 recommended. (The first day I started tracking my sodium, I ate like I normally do and ended up around 4,500 — almost twice what’s recommended.) Contributing to kidney stone development is only one of the mildest things that excess sodium does. The consequences can be much worse. A kidney stone can hurt you, but some of the other problems will kill you. Excess sodium intake increases the risk for stroke, heart failure and stomach cancer. Other no-fun issues include kidney disease, osteoporosis and high blood pressure. 

Then there’s the fiber problem. The Dietary Guidelines for Americans, a document produced jointly by the USDA and Health & Human Services, hardly any of us are getting what we need. “More than 90 percent of women and 97 percent of men do not meet recommended intakes for dietary fiber. This aligns with intake patterns where fruits, vegetables, and whole grains are underconsumed by more than 85 percent of adults,” states the guide. The recommended amount of daily fiber varies by sex and age, and ranges from 22 to 28 grams for women and 28 to 34 for men aged 19 and up. So, what are most of us actually getting? About 15 grams on average, which puts most people at higher risk for cardiovascular disease, obesity and an overall shortened lifespan. That’s in addition to the more commonly known (and joked about) issues with digestion and excretion. 

Perhaps the biggest blockade to combating our collective diet-driven health crises is that these are often considered old-age problems. We seem to get away with anything as kids and young adults, but like having an extravagant meal, there’s a check due at the end. Often, by the time you start suffering the consequences of your lifestyle choices, the horse has already left the gate. You might be able to roll them back with better choices — or you might not. 

There are other dietary problems that we shouldn’t have to suffer from. The aforementioned Dietary Guidelines for Americans also states, “Calcium, potassium, dietary fiber, and vitamin D are considered dietary components of public health concern for the general U.S. population because low intakes are associated with health concerns.” However, I’m not going to focus on all of that right now. My husband jokes about an old boss who said in a meeting, “We have to focus on everything.” We literally cannot focus on everything. I’m a big believer in the effectiveness of simplicity. I suspect many of us get overwhelmed and don’t take a step forward because there are people who throw way too much at us when it comes to nutrition — and much of it is complete bullshit that has no basis in science whatsoever. I have no patience for it — none — so woo practitioners, be advised now that there’s no need to contact me. 

steak and salt
Raw, fresh ingredients usually need a little salt to bring the flavors to life. Most sodium is found in processed foods. Photo by Maddie Hamilton via Burst.

For now, I’m concerned about managing what too much (sodium) or a lack of (fiber and water) has caused me problems. I suspect that if I nail those three things, the rest of it — calories and other nutrients — will fall into place. So far, I’ve got a 10-pound weight loss to show for it (13 pounds to go to get back to my pre-pandemic weight), and I’m optimistic that I’m onto something. 

I’m not going to suddenly turn into a health-food writer, nor am I a registered nutritionist or dietician. However, do expect that my work going forward will be peppered with stories of personal discoveries, tips, conversations with food professionals, recommended resources and more. No one ever told me I was eating too much sodium or not getting enough fiber. I had to find out painfully and inconveniently on my own. Considering the statistics I’ve cited, you’re likely in the same position I’m in, so I hope that I can save you some time, pain, cost and inconvenience.

Sure, it’s easier to eat right at home, but instead of telling you to become a culinary hermit, I’d rather help you navigate menus so that you can continue visiting, enjoying and supporting restaurants. I certainly have no intention of stopping. I’m just going to be armed with new wisdom and a different way of selecting dishes when I go. 

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