My three favorite meals growing up were fried chicken from KFC, Szechuan beef from the local Chinese restaurant, and microwavable macaroni and cheese. Or in sum: anything that didn’t require cooking and included a lot of salt.
In 2004, just days after my twenty-first birthday, I was diagnosed with a severe case of Lupus, an autoimmune disease that aggressively attacked my brain and my kidneys. Lupus affects 1.5 million Americans, and 90 percent of those diagnosed are women—and now I was one of them.
I went from hoping for the best dorm room to fighting for my life. I became renal insufficient and eventually faced kidney failure. After months of chemotherapy, dialysis, and amazing medical care, I stabilized; I had survived. My kidneys, however, did not. It looked like I would spend a lifetime with dialysis and kidney transplants.
From the beginning of my diagnosis, I was determined to do what I could to give myself the best chance of staying strong—and that meant taking on a strict no-salt, low-sodium diet to help lower my blood pressure and reduce fluid retention. Growing up in the Bay Area, tasty restaurants were as easy to find as a Starbucks, so as a stubborn twenty-something living in a food-centric city, I was equally resolute to taste and experience everything life had to offer me.
Accomplishing that second goal took more effort than a trip to the dietitian’s office (although that’s a great place to start). While I had the right attitude, I lacked the right information. Low-sodium advice was slim and clinical. And many cookbooks used canned and prepared ingredients that were still too high in sodium for my needs. So while these experts and guides educated me on where sodium hid and what to avoid (soup, soup, and more soup), nothing offered lessons on how to eat spontaneously with friends, at someone’s wedding, or while exploring the world at large. I needed real advice that could transform a seemingly restricted diet into an enjoyable, limitless life.
Goodbye, Broiled Chicken
I knew that living a full, low-sodium life had to be possible, though—I wasn’t willing to settle for less. And I decided to rewrite the low-sodium rules, giving low-sodium food extra dashes of color, heaps of creativity, and a much-needed makeover.
I filled my fridge with fresh food and I bought an immersion blender and a rice cooker—utensils that would make cooking easy and fun. I devoured every salt-free cookbook I could find and then devoured cooking shows, cooking classes, and everything by Ina Garten, Alice Waters, Julia Child, and Mark Bittman. I travelled (metaphorically) all over the world to experiment with spices like coriander, cumin, and fennel seed. I grabbed funny looking vegetables at the store like celery root, bok choy, and daikon. And I taught myself new techniques: roasting, smoking, and zesting. One by one, I replaced the long list of “No, you cannot” with enthusiastic “Oh hell, yes you can!” And after almost a decade of low-sodium living, I discovered how to eat at home, eat out, eat with friends, and even eat abroad with ease and flavor.
While I lost the salt, I gained more than I could have imagined. With a healthy dose of creativity and chutzpah, the life I now live looks and tastes a lot brighter than the bland and boring misperceptions of before. Through great medicine, the support of family and friends, and my low-sodium diet, I became stronger and healthier. My kidneys partially regenerated, and I no longer depend on dialysis. By regulating my diet, I depend on fewer medications. And today, I stay healthy with medication and good food, having been kicked off of dialysis and the kidney transplant for almost ten years.
I cook with love and respect and joy. I eat more adventurously than before my restrictions. When dining at restaurants or with friends, I never feel like I’m missing out or as if I’m treated as a second-class culinary citizen. Instead, I feel like a salt-free VIP, my meals often prepared by the head chef and ending up more beautiful than my companions’ orders. I've found total freedom in my salt-free life.
Hello, Good Food
Almost eight years after my initial hospital stay, I work as a full-time food writer. My blog Sodium Girl is where I document my experiences and encourage others with their own health issues—and, of course, share my favorite healthy recipes! My dietary restrictions have transformed into a real passion for food, and I hope to be able to pass along my favorite finds to others facing similar challenges.
People have the opportunity to improve their health with food, which seems like a total no-brainer. Low-sodium diets (and other special diets) continue to be depicted not as good food but as a prescription. To inspire people then, the way we talk about special diets—in look, feel, and taste—must change. It has to transform from something medical to something culinary.
My biggest takeaway from all this: It's possible to eat real, healthy, gorgeous, mouth-watering food that are good for your body, for your table, and most definitely for sharing with your friends. And isn't that ultimately what we all want?
Disclaimer: Jessica Goldman Foung is not a dietitian nor a nutritionist, just a motivational eater. So remember, every body is different. Always consult with your professional health providers to find the right diet for your needs.