Typically, Americans eat far more sodium than they need. Between processed, canned and snack foods, a dash added during cooking, and a shake or two at the dinner table, salt and sodium have taken on a disproportionate role in most of our diets. The major problem with this imbalance is that it can cause an increase in blood pressure, which raises the risk for several dangerous diseases.
The good news is that salt is an acquired taste, according to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. And just as this taste was learned, it can be unlearned by gradually cutting back. Once you start trying other seasonings instead, you may even find that food without salt tastes better.
The inside story on sodium
The familiar substance we know as table salt is a compound of two minerals: sodium and chloride. Both minerals play vital roles inside the body. They help move nutrients into cells and draw wastes out. They help maintain the balance of fluids in the body, regulate blood pressure, and help the brain communicate with muscles all over the body, including the heart.
In most cases, when a person gets too much sodium the excess is drawn into the kidneys and passed out of the body in urine. But in some people, sodium isn't processed so efficiently. The salt these people eat can lead to a sodium buildup in the body and to increased blood pressure.
Since there's no way to predict whether someone's blood pressure is sensitive to sodium, the safest strategy is for everyone to limit sodium intake. For people who have a family history of high blood pressure or who have high blood pressure themselves, it's probably a good idea to keep an especially close eye on salt consumption.
One shake or two?
The National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute recommends that healthy people eat less than 2,300 milligrams of sodium each day. That's about the amount found in 1 full teaspoon of table salt. Similarly, the American Heart Association (AHA) recommends no more than 2,300 milligrams a day, but suggests an ideal limit of no more than 1,500 milligrams. Talk to your doctor for specific recommendations, particularly if you have high blood pressure or a family history of the disease.
Sodium intake includes salt added during processing, cooking and at the table. And you might be surprised at how quickly it adds up. To start watching and limiting the sodium in your diet, consider the following suggestions from the AHA and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
At the store
Buy fresh or plain frozen vegetables and meats, instead of canned or processed.
Read food labels carefully to identify the sodium content (shown in milligrams per serving). Keep an eye out for terms such as:
- Sodium-free or salt-free, which indicates less than 5 milligrams of sodium per serving.
- Very low sodium, which means 35 milligrams or less per serving.
- Low sodium, which means 140 milligrams or less per serving.
- Reduced sodium, which means at least 25% less sodium than the traditional version of the food.
- Unsalted or no added salt, which means no salt was added during processing.
Look for these terms especially on the labels of foods that tend to be very high in sodium, such as:
- Canned vegetables and vegetable juices.
- Dried soup mixes and bouillon.
- Condiments such as ketchup and soy sauce.
- Snack foods (chips, nuts, pretzels).
- Crackers, cereals and bakery products.
- Canned soups.
- Processed meats.
Carefully read the labels or ask your doctor or pharmacist about prescription and nonprescription medications, which may also contain large amounts of sodium.
In the kitchen
- Plan meals that contain less salt.
- Cook rice, pasta and hot cereals without salt, or use less salt than the package calls for (try 1/8 teaspoon of salt for two servings). Flavored or instant rice, pasta and cereal mixes generally contain added salt.
- Adjust your recipes, gradually cutting down on the amount of salt. If some of the ingredients already contain salt, such as canned soup, canned vegetables or cheese, you often don't need to add more salt.
- Reduce the salt in canned vegetables by draining the liquid and then rinsing them in water before serving.
- Try lemon or lime juice, herbs, or salt-free seasoning blends to add flavor and zest.
At the table
- Leave the saltshaker off the table.
- Taste food before you salt it. Try one shake instead of two. Gradually cut down on the amount of salt you use. Your taste buds will adjust.
- Limit condiments such as sauces, pickles and salad dressings.
At a restaurant
- Choose foods without sauces, or ask for your dressing or sauce on the side.
- Ask to have food prepared without added salt, if possible.
- Use pepper instead of salt.
- Try to balance your meal to keep salt levels moderate. If you have a higher-salt main dish, have a lower-salt side dish.
If you want to try a salt substitute, check with your doctor first. Salt substitutes are good for some people but not for all.