sodium-girlJessica Goldman was an active child but never felt quite well. Though her mother had been diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis, no definitive diagnosis was ever made for Jessica. “I just got used to always feeling bad, always being in pain, always feeling like I had the flu,” she recalls.

But life changed dramatically one evening in 2004 when Goldman, who had just returned from a semester abroad in Italy, went out with friends. When she came back home, she was 40 pounds heavier—her body ballooned with water weight. A diagnosis of the autoimmune disease lupus, grand mal seizures, and “the start of where I am today” soon followed, says the 28-year-old San Francisco Bay-area newlywed.

Goldman was so ill that she spent three months in the hospital, near death, as her kidneys shut down completely. She was put on the waiting list for a kidney transplant and sent home to…well…wait. But Goldman wasn’t content to live life as an invalid, no matter how serious her condition. She started taking yoga classes—”I barely lasted 10 minutes at first because I was so weak”—took up dance classes again, and began looking at her diet.

“Anyone with kidney disease and other illnesses such as heart disease or Meniere’s disease [an inner ear disorder] is advised to cut out salt,” says Goldman. The problem is that nobody told her exactly how to do that, so she started experimenting. First she went on a no-sodium diet of steamed broccoli, brown rice, and chicken. “I wanted to give my kidneys as little work to do as possible,” she explains. Slowly, she began adding lemons and herbs to her meals.

Fast forward one year: Goldman was preparing for her kidney transplant (her father was a match) when doctors found that her kidneys had partially regenerated. “That’s all I needed to be convinced my diet was working,” she says. Goldman continued her no-sodium ways and soon she was taken off the transplant list and no longer had to undergo dialysis. Today, she relies only on diet and medication to keep her kidneys functioning (though their functioning level is only 42%, “that’s enough,” says Goldman).

Once her health was on more solid ground, Goldman realized that many medically recommended diets not only don’t give you specifics on how to cook at home but also fail to instruct you how to live in the world “beyond the kitchen.”

“How do you work, travel, go out to eat with your friends, attend a wedding?” asks Goldman. “Instead of being told not to do those things, I wanted to know how to do them,” adding that as a young woman in her 20s in a “foodie” city, she didn’t want to miss out on anything life—or good food—has to offer.

Though she’s still learning, Goldman decided she had gathered enough information on her own to help others in similar circumstances. So in 2009, she started her blog, Sodium Girl (http://sodiumgirl.wordpress.com). She began writing every day, telling people her story and sharing recipes and tips, and she now has 6,000 page views a month.

“I remember the first time people started commenting on my posts and sending me e-mail messages telling me their own stories,” says Goldman. “People really feel so alone, especially younger people, who feel that their life is so restricted. Sodium Girl is a place where people realize they don’t have to give up on life just because they’re taking care of their health.”

Goldman has been working closely with Stanford Hospital & Clinics and is hoping to partner with national organizations such as the American Heart Association and the National Kidney Foundation. “It’s important for patients to hear not just from doctors or nutritionists but also from someone who has to live with this every day,” says Goldman, who has a book in the works to be published in the spring of 2012.

Goldman now posts three times a week on her blog and maintains Twitter and Facebook accounts. In addition to cooking tips and product and restaurant reviews, Goldman shares recipes she developed herself, often by experimenting and adapting items she sees on the menus of her favorite restaurants.
One favorite is a miso-marinated fish that Goldman was not willing to forgo forever. After trial and error, she realized that molasses imparts a flavor similar to that of miso. “That was such a proud moment!” she exclaims.

Many of Goldman’s readers send her recipes, asking if she can come up with a salt-free version. “Just because you can’t eat salt doesn’t mean you can never eat your grandma’s enchiladas ever again,” she promises. “Being on a salt-free diet doesn’t have to hold you back!”

JESSICA GOLDMAN’S TOP 10 TIPS FOR LOW-SODIUM LIVING

1. Buy fresh, whole foods. Canned and packaged foods are very high in sodium.
2. Educate yourself. Learn not only to cook but also how restaurants prepare their food—a chef, for example, may blanch his good-choice spinach in heavily salted water, turning it into a bad-choice dish.
3. Use online nutritional sources to check out the natural sodium content in foods; bacon, for example, is very salty, while roast pork is not.
4. Prepare yourself for dining out. Call the restaurant beforehand whenever possible. Explain why you need a low- or no-sodium diet, and tell them what you can and can’t eat.
5. Always read food labels.
6. Stock your pantry with good oils, vinegars, and spices. “Spend the extra money for the best quality,” says Goldman. “It’s worth it.”
7. Visit farmers’ markets and experiment with leafy greens, fresh herbs, citrus fruits, garlic, and onions. “Salt is just one ingredient,” says Goldman. “There are plenty of ways to add flavor and brightness to your meals.”
8. Take cooking classes. When you learn new techniques, you’ll be more confident in the kitchen.
9. Don’t be afraid to ask for help, whether that means calling a restaurant chef, your next-door pizza parlor, or someone who shares your challenges. “You’re not a nuisance!” says Goldman.
10. Finally, be grateful. “For so long, I felt that my medical needs got in the way of everyone else’s good time,” she says. “But the more grateful I am and the more open to new possibilities, the more  opportunities open up.”