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Ever heard of SOS? For years, this term has been used to mean ‘help’; it was derived from a Morse code used by ships when they were in trouble.

Nowadays, SOS has a whole other meaning; it refers to added Salt/Sodium, Oil/Fats and Sugar/Sweeteners in your diet.

And an SOS-free diet simply means that no salt, oil or sugar has been added during food preparation, cooking or afterwards.

Why Is an SOS-Free Diet Desirable?

There are two great reasons why we should all strive for an SOS-free (or at least a low SOS) diet.

  1. One of the most compelling reasons to avoid SOS is that, in excess, it is bad for your health; the SOS triumvirate is considered a contributor factor in a variety of ailments—from cancer to cardiovascular disease to obesity. Too much salt is linked to high blood pressure, stroke, osteoporosis, stomach cancer and heart disease. Too much sugar (over 130 pounds a year for the average American in 2013!) leads to obesity and obesity-related diseases. And oil presents similar health risks.
  2. The second reason to limit SOS is that salt, oil and sugar have a distinct addictive quality. Simply put, it’s often hard to control eating ‘just one more’ of those salty potato chips and yummy chocolate chip cookies. The more we eat, the more we want. Eating salt, oil and sugar almost always leads to unhealthy excess.

How Much SOS Do We Really Need?

From a pure nutritional standpoint, we do not need to add salt, oil and sugar to our food. We get all we need of all three (and in their best purest forms) simply by eating a whole-food, plant-based diet. Our bodies need less than 1/4 teaspoon of sodium a day and less than 10% of daily calories from fat. And while we need plenty of carbohydrates (they should constitute 70-80% of our daily calories), we can get those effortlessly by eating whole foods such as green and starchy vegetables, whole grains, beans and fruits versus eating stripped carbohydrates like table sugar or refined flours.

The SOS—the Hidden Foe

One of the toughest parts about eating an SOS-free diet is that many of us eat an excess of salt, sugar and oil without realizing it. This is particularly true when eating out and with packaged foods that can contain alarmingly high ‘hidden’ quantities of SOS.

Nowhere is this truer than in the case of salt. To ensure your salt intake remains low therefore, it is essential to carefully read the nutrition labels on the back of package foods. One safe rule of thumb is to make sure the sodium content in milligrams is equal to or less than the total calories (per serving). For example, if a serving of pasta sauce is 50 calories, the sodium amount should be 50mg or less.

Sugar and oil are also villains which lurk in a variety of packaged foods: sauces, dressings, crackers, breakfast cereals and canned foods.

Is It Hard to Be SOS-Free?

For many, eating a diet that has no added sugar, oil or salt seems almost unimaginable. However, once you shift your cooking habits through new methods or substitutions, you will see how simple it can be. You will learn how to exchange salt with spices   and fresh or dried herbs. To sauté potatoes without added fat or to cook without oil, it is all possible. After a few weeks, your taste buds will acclimate to no added salt, oil or sugar in the diet. You will begin to miss it less and less.

A Simple Prescription for SOS-Free Living

While it may be difficult to be 100% SOS-free all the time, you will go a long way by doing all of the following:

  1. Buy quality whole foods that taste great already; learning to love whole natural foods in their own right is probably the best way to live a long-term SOS-free life.
  2. Avoid adding salt, oil and sugar to your food, especially when cooking at home.
  3. Check the ingredient list on the back of packages; you’ll be surprised about some of the evils hidden inside!
  4. Substitute. Substitute. Substitute. (i.e. applesauce for sugar, vegetable broth for oil, fresh herbs and spices for salt.)
  5. Collect great SOS-free recipes that make the whole process easier.

SOS is a dangerous cocktail which leads to excess and increased health risks. Simply by endorsing a whole food plant-based diet and making a few adjustments, you can be well on your way to saying goodbye to added salt, oil and sugar and hello to more vibrant health.

Rosane Oliveira, DVM, PhD

President & CEO, Plant-Based Life Foundation | Dr. Rosane Oliveira combines a lifelong passion for nutrition with 25 years of genetics research to create programs that help people develop healthy habits on their journey towards a more plant-based lifestyle. She is a Visiting Clinical Professor in Public Health Sciences and was the founding director of the first Integrative Medicine program at the UC Davis School of Medicine. She completed her postgraduate studies in Brazil and did her postdoctoral training in immunogenetics and functional genomics at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.