9 Easy Ways to Cut Sodium in Your Diet
The Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DGAs) recommend that adults get no more than 2,300 milligrams of sodium per day, the equivalent of one teaspoon of salt. This is a long-standing recommendation, but the average American consumes nearly one-and-a-half times that much, according to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). While it's probably not a big deal to eat more than the recommended amount of sodium every once in a while, doing so regularly can be bad for your health.
"Without a doubt, the number one reason to eat less sodium is to prevent or treat high blood pressure, which in turn can lead to a heart attack, stroke, or kidney failure," says Sarah Pflugradt, M.S., RD, a dietitian and nutrition educator. Experts across the board agree. The American Heart Association explains that because sodium pulls water into your blood vessels, it can increase the volume of your blood, thus increasing your blood pressure (because there's more blood flowing through the same sized blood vessels). This eventually puts excess strain on your heart, because it needs to work harder to pump all of that blood throughout your body. The AHA also admits that sodium affects different people differently based on factors like age, weight, gender, race/ethnicity, and medical history, so some people may be able to "get away with" eating more sodium without seeing the same consequences as others, at least for the time being. Still, the DGAs recommend the 2,300 milligram limit for everyone, and some experts recommend closer to 1,500 milligrams per day.
The tricky thing about cutting back on sodium is that it's found in nearly everything we eat, from vegetables to crackers. Plus, sodium helps bring out the flavor of food, so it can be tough to eat less when you're not used to it. However, some foods are far higher sodium than others, and there are ways to make your food taste good without adding a ton of salt. Here are some easy ways to cut back on sodium, according to registered dietitians.
Related: Healthy Low-Sodium Meal Plans
1. Eat less ultra-processed food.
"If you want to eat less sodium, the first thing you should do is to decrease your intake of ultra-processed foods," Pflugradt says. This includes things like hot dogs, frozen meals and salty chips or crackers. "Eating several [servings of ultra-processed food] a day could definitely put you over the daily recommended amount of sodium," she adds. Sodium is used as a preservative, which means it helps extend the shelf-life of foods like these. It also adds flavor, as we mentioned earlier, so manufacturers add it to pretty much all processed foods.
2. Choose lower-sodium versions of processed foods.
If you can't cut back on ultra-processed foods, Pflugradt recommends looking for packages with "low-sodium" or "very low-sodium" labels. A "low-sodium" label means that the food contains 140 milligrams of sodium or less per 100 grams, whereas a "very low-sodium" label means that the food contains 35 milligrams or less of sodium per 100 grams. Both are great choices when it comes to lowering your sodium intake. If your local grocery store doesn't have much low-sodium stuff, check out the Healthy Heart Market, an online store featuring tons of low-sodium products.
3. Take the salt shaker off the table.
A quick way to cut back on sodium in your diet is to make salt less available during mealtime. Pflugradt recommends taking your salt shaker off the table, or getting rid of it completely. "If you don't salt it, then you won't be adding extra sodium to your diet," she says. Keep in mind, many packaged, processed, and prepared foods already have sodium (even if they don't taste salty!), so taking away the shaker will only do so much. Still, if you're someone who's heavy-handed with salt, it'll make a difference.
4. Cook with salt-free seasonings.
Cutting back on sodium can be a tough thing to get used to, since salt is a staple in most cooking and adds flavor to food. To make sure you don't end up with totally bland food, stock up on salt-free seasonings like Mrs. Dash. There are several different herb and spice blends, from Lemon Pepper to Tomato Basil Garlic, so keeping several on-hand means you'll be able to add different flavors to different meals. Eating less salt, doesn't have to mean less flavor.
5. Eat more fruits and vegetables.
Fruits and vegetables are low in sodium, and eating more of them likely means you'll eat fewer high-sodium, processed foods. But, there's another reason to increase the amount of produce you eat when you're trying to control your sodium. "Most fruits and vegetables are sources of potassium," Pflugradt says. "Potassium helps to lessen the effects of sodium on your body," and eating enough of it is important to maintaining healthy blood pressure. Apricots, oranges, bananas, potatoes, avocados, and spinach are especially good sources of potassium.
6. Buy fresh or frozen vegetables.
Canned vegetables are typically high in sodium, which helps preserve them. Tejal Pathak, M.S. RD, recommends choosing fresh or frozen instead. Frozen vegetables are especially convenient, since they keep for months in the freezer—as opposed to fresh vegetables, which last a few days or a week—but are frozen at peak freshness and usually without any added salt. Some frozen foods will have salt added, especially anything in a sauce, so double check your labels to be sure you're buying no-salt-added vegetables.
7. Drain and rinse canned foods.
Sometimes, canned foods are unavoidable. If you buy canned beans, vegetables, or another staple, Pathak recommends draining and rinsing them before eating or cooking with them. Even low-sodium canned foods have some sodium, so draining and rinsing them can get rid of most of that.
8. Add flavor with lime juice and herbs.
Salt-free spice blends are great, but sometimes you need a little more than that. Pathak recommends using lemon juice, lime juice, or fresh tamarind paste (made from a sour tropical fruit) to add a little bit of acid to a dish, which freshens things up. If you don't want any sour flavor, fresh herbs, like parsley or cilantro, add that same freshness without the acid.
9. Find lower-sodium options when eating out
Unfortunately, most fast food and restaurant food is pretty high in sodium. Like we've mentioned, salt is what makes food taste good, so most chefs and fast food joints tend to add a lot of it. If you eat at chain restaurants often, you can find the nutrition information for their menus online and figure out which items are lowest in sodium. If you often eat out at independent restaurants, ask the kitchen if they can add less (or no) salt to your dishes.
The bottom line
Cutting sodium from your diet can be tough, especially if you rely on processed or convenience foods. Seeking out low-sodium foods and menu items can be helpful, as can cooking with salt-free seasonings and getting rid of your salt shaker. And of course, eating more fruits and vegetables can reduce the amount of high-sodium food that you eat, and might counteract some of the blood pressure-raising effects of sodium.