Trying to limit your sodium consumption? Even if you never pick up a saltshaker, chances are you still eat more salt than you realize.
Because excess sodium can lead to high blood pressure, stroke, heart failure, weight gain, bloating and other health issues, paying attention to how much you consume matters.
What Does Sodium Do in the Body?
Sodium, which is a key ingredient of table salt, is a mineral that helps muscles and nerves function optimally. It also helps to balance the fluids in the body.
“Too much sodium makes the body retain excess water, which forces the heart and other organs to work harder. That excess water also puts pressure on thin vessel walls. Over time that high pressure can injure vessels, damage the heart, and speed the buildup of sticky plaque that can block blood flow,” explained Somphone “Sam” Beasley, FNP, of Samaritan Health Services.
How Much Sodium Is Enough?
The American Heart Association recommends that adults should have no more than 2,300 mg of sodium per day, with an ideal limit of 1,500 mg per day or a tad more than ½ teaspoon. The average American consumes 3,400 mg, or 1½ teaspoons, per day.
“Even cutting back 1,000 mg of sodium per day can improve blood pressure and heart health, and that starts with being aware of how much you actually consume,” said Beasley.
Hidden Sources of Sodium
Research shows that packaged, prepared and restaurant foods are the most common sources of excess sodium in the average American diet. One slice of cheese pizza, for example, contains 600 mg of sodium and two slices of cooked bacon, 360 mg.
When we cook our own meals, we have the most control over sodium consumption. But certain foods can derail the best intentions, noted Beasley.
“Sodium is hidden in many common foods you’d make at home, even those that don’t seem salty,” said Beasley.
Some examples of high-sodium culprits are:
- Canned foods – beans, vegetables, soup.
- Breads, tortillas.
- Smoked, cured meats.
- Frozen meats and meals.
- Poultry, which is often soaked in brine.
- Baking soda.
- Condiments, such as soy sauce, teriyaki sauce, ketchup.
- Savory snacks like chips and crackers.
Read Nutrition Labels
Most food and beverage products have nutrition labels that list how much sodium is contained in an individual serving of the product.
“Pay attention to how much is considered a serving,” cautioned Beasley. “If there is 310 mg of sodium in ½ cup and you usually eat 1 cup, you’ll need to double how much sodium you are actually eating.”
Additionally, you may see other words on your labels. The US Department of Agriculture has very specific guidelines about labeling food products reduced sodium.
- Salt/Sodium-Free – Contains less than 5 mg of sodium per serving.
- Low Sodium – Contains 140 mg of sodium or less per serving.
- Reduced Sodium – Contains at least 25% less sodium than the regular product.
- No-Salt-Added or Unsalted -- No salt is added during processing. However, these products may not be salt- or sodium-free unless stated on the label.
Cut Sodium Without Sacrificing Taste
Limiting sodium does not mean eliminating flavor. Try these small ways to make a big difference on how much sodium you consume.
- Pump up the flavor. Experiment with adding onions, garlic, fresh or dried herbs, spices, citrus juices and vinegars to enhance flavor so you won’t even miss salt.
- Avoid canned. Choose fresh or frozen vegetables as much as possible. Instead of using a can of beans, make your own pot from dried beans and save money too. If canned beans are your only option, rinse the beans thoroughly in water first, which can eliminate up to 40% of the sodium.
- Choose lower-sodium products. Look for options of your favorite foods in low-sodium or no-salt-added varieties. That way, you control how much salt you add to your recipes.
- Make your own. Get creative and make your own sauces and condiments rather than buying packaged versions.
- Cut back on salty ingredients. Look for places you can experiment with less. Add less cheese to a favorite recipe. When a recipe calls for canned beans, for example, use one can low-sodium and the other your usual can. Avoid frozen rice dishes already seasoned. Instead, choose plain frozen rice and add your own spices.
- Ask for what you want. At restaurants, request to have your food prepared with less salt. Ask for sauces and dressings served on the side so you have more control.
Limiting sodium takes awareness and experimentation. “Once you learn the amount of sodium in the products you typically eat, you may be surprised. But awareness is an important first step,” Beasley said.
“Then, as you experiment with a lower-sodium diet, you may discover food tastes even better without all that salt.”
Now is the perfect time to plan an herb garden, read how to get started and find ideas for adding herbs to your meals.
Somphone “Sam” Beasley, FNP, serves patients at SamCare Express in Corvallis, as well as SamCare Mobile Medicine.