By American Heart Association
You might be getting more sodium than you need, even if you never pick up the salt shaker.
That’s because more than 70 percent of the sodium we eat comes from packaged and restaurant foods. That can make it hard to control how much sodium you eat, because it’s added to your food before you buy it.
I know that too much sodium hurts my health. What can I do to cut back?
At the store/while shopping for food:
- Choose packaged and prepared foods carefully. Compare labels and choose the product with the lowest amount of sodium (per serving) you can find in your store. You might be surprised that different brands of the same food can have different sodium levels.
- Pick fresh and frozen poultry that hasn’t been injected with a sodium solution. Check the fine print on the packaging for terms like “broth,” “saline” or “sodium solution.” Sodium levels in unseasoned fresh meats are around 100 milligrams (mg) or less per 4-ounce serving.
- Select condiments with care. For example, soy sauce, bottled salad dressings, dips, ketchup, jarred salsas, capers, mustard, pickles, olives and relish can be sky-high in sodium. Look for a reduced- or lower-sodium version.
- Opt for canned vegetables labeled “no salt added” and frozen vegetables without salty sauces. When they’re added to a casserole, soup or other mixed dish, there are so many other ingredients involved that you won’t miss the salt.
- Look for products with the American Heart Association’s Heart-Check mark to find foods that can be part of an overall healthy dietary pattern.
While the Heart-Check mark doesn’t necessarily mean that a product is “low-sodium,” it does mean that the food meets AHA’s sodium criteria to earn the Heart-Check mark.
You can eat foods with varying amounts of sodium and still achieve a balanced and heart-healthy diet. To learn more about the Heart-Check Food Certification Program, visit www.heartcheck.org.
When preparing food:
- Use onions, garlic, herbs, spices, citrus juices and vinegars in place of some or all of the salt to add flavor. Our recipes and tips can help!
- Drain and rinse canned beans (like chickpeas, kidney beans, etc.) and vegetables. You’ll cut the sodium by up to 40 percent.
- Combine lower-sodium versions of food with regular versions. If you don’t like the taste of lower-sodium foods right now, try combining them in equal parts with a regular version of the same food. You’ll get less salt and probably won’t notice much difference in taste. This works especially well for broths, soups and tomato-based pasta sauces.
- Cook pasta, rice and hot cereal without salt. You’re likely going to add other flavorful ingredients, so you won’t miss the salt.
- Cook by grilling, braising, roasting, searing and sautéing to bring out natural flavors. This will reduce the need to add salt.
- Incorporate foods with potassium like sweet potatoes, potatoes, greens, tomatoes and lower-sodium tomato sauce, white beans, kidney beans, nonfat yogurt, oranges, bananas and cantaloupe. Potassium helps counter the effects of sodium and may help lower your blood pressure.
- Tell them how you like it. Ask for your dish to be made without extra salt.
- Taste your food before adding salt. If you think it needs a boost of flavor, add freshly ground black pepper or a squeeze of fresh lemon or lime and test it again before adding salt. Lemon and pepper are especially good on fish, chicken and vegetables.
- Watch out for these food words: pickled, brined, barbecued, cured, smoked, broth, au jus, soy sauce, miso or teriyaki sauce. These tend to be high in sodium. Foods that are steamed, baked, grilled, poached or roasted may have less sodium.
- Control portion sizes. When you cut calories, you usually cut the sodium too. Ask if smaller portions are available, share the meal with a friend or ask for a to-go box when you order and place half the meal in the box to eat later.
Ask about the sodium content of the menu items. Chain restaurants with 20 or more locations must provide nutrition information, including sodium content, to customers upon request.
Is my food going to taste bland with less salt?
With less salt, you can taste your food’s natural flavor, especially when you use cooking techniques and flavorful ingredients (see tips above) to enhance it.
Over time, your taste buds can adjust to liking less salt. Studies show that when people follow a lower-sodium diet, they start to prefer it, and that the foods they used to enjoy taste too salty. Try it and see for yourself!
What about salt substitutes?
There are many salt substitutes, and a few of them replace some or all of the sodium with potassium. Most people can use them, but certain medical conditions (like kidney disease) and medications have implications on your potassium intake. Talk with your healthcare professional about whether a salt substitute is right for you.
Written by American Heart Association editorial staff and reviewed by science and medicine advisers.