Nearly all Americans eat too much salt (sodium). Most of the salt comes from eating processed foods (75%), or adding salt to food while cooking and using the salt shaker at meals (5% to 10%). On average, the more salt a person eats, the higher his or her blood pressure. Eating less salt is an important way to reduce the risk of high blood pressure, which may in turn reduce the risk of heart disease, stroke, congestive heart failure, and kidney damage. To reduce the amount of sodium in your diet, eat less processed food and use less salt while cooking and at the table.
Sodium: Essential in small amounts
Your body needs some sodium to function properly because it:
- Helps maintain the right balance of fluids in your body
- Helps transmit nerve impulses
- Influences the contraction and relaxation of muscles
Your kidneys naturally balance the amount of sodium stored in your body for optimal health. When your sodium levels are low, your kidneys essentially hold on to the sodium. When sodium levels are high, your kidneys excrete the excess in urine.
But if for some reason your kidneys can't eliminate enough sodium, the sodium starts to accumulate in your blood. Because sodium attracts and holds water, your blood volume increases. Increased blood volume makes your heart work harder to move more blood through your blood vessels, which increases pressure in your arteries. Such diseases as congestive heart failure, cirrhosis and chronic kidney disease can make it hard for your kidneys to keep sodium levels balanced.
Sodium: How much do you need?
The 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend limiting sodium to less than 2,300 mg a day — or 1,500 mg if you're age 51 or older, or if you are black, or if you have high blood pressure, diabetes or chronic kidney disease.
Keep in mind that these are upper limits, and less is usually best, especially if you're sensitive to the effects of sodium. If you aren't sure how much sodium your diet should include, talk to your doctor.
Where the sodium comes from
Here are the main sources of sodium in a typical diet:
- Processed and prepared foods. The vast majority of sodium in the typical American diet comes from foods that are processed and prepared. These foods are typically high in salt, which is a combination of sodium and chloride, and in additives that contain sodium. Processed foods include bread, prepared dinners like pasta, meat and egg dishes, pizza, cold cuts and bacon, cheese, soups, and fast foods.
- Natural sources. Some foods naturally contain sodium. These include all vegetables and dairy products such as milk, meat and shellfish. While they don't have an abundance of sodium, eating these foods does add to your overall sodium intake. For example, 1 cup (237 milliliters) of low-fat milk has about 107 mg of sodium.
- In the kitchen and at the table. Many recipes call for salt, and many people also salt their food at the table. Condiments may also contain sodium. One tablespoon (15 milliliters) of soy sauce, for example, has about 1,000 mg of sodium.
So how can you tell which foods are high in sodium? Read food labels. The Nutrition Facts label found on most packaged and processed foods lists the amount of sodium in each serving. It also lists whether the ingredients include salt or sodium-containing compounds, such as:
- Monosodium glutamate (MSG)
- Baking soda
- Baking powder
- Disodium phosphate
- Sodium alginate
- Sodium nitrate or nitrite
Know your labels
Many food packages include sodium-related terms. Here's what they mean:
- Sodium-free or salt-free. Each serving in this product contains less than 5 mg of sodium.
- Very low sodium. Each serving contains 35 mg of sodium or less.
- Low sodium. Each serving contains 140 mg of sodium or less.
- Reduced or less sodium. The product contains at least 25 percent less sodium than the regular version. You should check the label to see how much sodium is in a serving.
- Lite or light in sodium. The sodium content has been reduced by at least 50 percent from the regular version. You should check the label to see how much sodium is in a serving.
- Unsalted or no salt added. No salt is added during processing of a food that normally contains salt. However, some foods with these labels may still be high in sodium because some of the ingredients may be high in sodium.
But watch out — foods labeled "reduced sodium" or "light in sodium" may still contain a lot of salt. For example, regular canned chicken noodle soup contains about 1,100 mg of sodium per cup, so a product with 25 percent less sodium still has a whopping 820 mg of sodium per cup. The same holds true for "lite" or "light in sodium" varieties.
Try to avoid products with more than 200 mg of sodium per serving. And check the Nutrition Facts label closely for the serving size — and consider how many servings you actually eat.
Sodium: More tips to cut back
Virtually all Americans can benefit from reducing the sodium in their diet. Here are more ways you can cut back on sodium:
- Eat more fresh foods. Most fresh fruits and vegetables are naturally low in sodium. Also, fresh meat is lower in sodium than are luncheon meat, bacon, hot dogs, sausage and ham. Buy fresh and frozen poultry or meat that hasn't been injected with a sodium-containing solution. Look on the label or ask your butcher. Buy plain whole-grain rice and pasta instead of ones that have added seasonings. Make your own soups from scratch.
- Opt for low-sodium products. If you do buy processed foods, choose those that are labeled "low sodium."
- Remove salt from recipes whenever possible. You can leave out the salt in many recipes, including casseroles, stews and other main dishes that you cook. Baked goods are generally an exception since leaving out the salt could affect the quality and taste. Use cookbooks that focus on lowering risks of high blood pressure and heart disease to help guide you to sparing the salt without spoiling taste or quality.
- Limit use of sodium-laden condiments. Soy sauce, salad dressings, sauces, dips, ketchup, mustard and relish all contain sodium.
- Use herbs, spices and other flavorings to enhance foods. Use fresh or dried herbs, spices, zest from citrus fruit, and fruit juices to jazz up your meals. And remember that sea salt has about the same amount of sodium as table salt.
My Favorite Spices
Essential spices for Thai Kitchen
Green Onion Garlic Chilli and Cilantro Spice Blend 0% Sodium