Is sodium in diet sodas getting a bad reputation?

To me, seltzer water is synonymous with Three Stooges gags. Who knew that the carbonated fizzy water is also the best sodium-free alternative to diet sodas?

That nutritional nugget came to light in a conversation with Jamie McDermott, a registered dietitian with Memorial's Diabetes and Nutrition Center, whom I called after a doctor's visit last week.

A routine office call for an inner-ear infection yielded a second, surprise diagnosis: My blood pressure was high - not stroke level but high enough for concern. The nurse waited and took it again; still high.

Actually, I've been so stressed this summer I'm surprised that little spinning dial wasn't beating itself senseless.

The doctor took it a third time; still no change.

He asked me if I was under any stress. I ticked off a list of five events that began with my dad's death three months ago and ended with last week's thunderstorms backing up my septic tank. (The repairman informed me that to fix it properly would require taking out two big shade trees, digging up the backyard and replacing the field lines, which he could do for "only $4,200.")

Stress? Yeah, a tad.

So the doc gave me a reprieve: I have three weeks to bring my blood pressure down or we'll talk about medication.

Now I'm stressed over that.

The nurse's parting words were: "Walk more, Susan, and no sodium." Later that night, my Jenny Craig counselor's advice was: Cut out those diet sodas.

I've never had a heavy hand with the salt shaker, but I do pop the top on a diet soda each day for lunch.

I asked Jamie her opinion on the sodium in diet soda. Was it really that harmful?

She didn't pan diet sodas, but she said next to water, she preferred one of the healthier, low-cal beverage options she gave me.

"The highest-sodium diet soda is ginger ale. It has 85 milligrams per 12-ounce can. A Diet Coke or Diet 7-Up averages 35 to 40 milligrams per can," she said.

By comparison, she said, one turkey hot dog has 470 milligrams of sodium.

"Think about what processed meats you eat on a daily basis. I wouldn't worry so much about sodium in sodas as opposed to sodium in so many of the processed foods we're eating. I'd rather have people focus on ways to eat more whole foods and decrease sodium through that means," she said.

Her verdict: Drinking diet sodas in moderation - "One, no more than two cans a day" - wasn't a harmful amount of sodium.

She did caution that the caffeine in diet sodas may prevent sleep, even when the soda is consumed early in the day.

She also revealed that studies have shown that the intensely sweet taste in diet sodas can "prime the tastebuds to want more sweets."

"There have been studies that show when all we taste is 'sweet,' it makes you want more of that taste. Even if the diet drink does not have calories, if it's consumed in excess, it may have a negative influence on your food choices later in the day."

Then she offered these alternatives for low-sodium, low-cal ways to quench your thirst when you're tired of plain, old water:

* Seltzer water: "Seltzer water is wonderful because it comes in a variety of flavors and does not contain any sodium."

* Herbal ice tea: "It's a really natural beverage, it's got a great taste and has no additives."

* Flavored waters: "I go the natural route and make flavored waters. Take a big pitcher of water, cut up fruit and let it sit in the water a couple of hours to flavor it. Pineapples and strawberries work well. It gives you a fruit-flavored water without a lot of sugar."

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