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The Low-Down on Sodium

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If you're like most Americans, you're getting too much sodium in your diet -- according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 3,400 mg on average. Depending on your age and other factors, this number is at least 1,100 mg more than the recommended daily amount! You may already know that too much sodium can be detrimental to your health. After all, there is a lot of media buzz about sodium in foods, and you'll find no shortage of low-sodium products claims in your supermarket aisles. However, you may not be exactly clear on why too much sodium isn't great, where it's found, and how you can reduce sodium without compromising on flavor.

What is sodium?

"Sodium" and "salt" are used interchangeably, but they are not the same thing. Sodium is an element that your body needs in small amounts for some essential functions like fluid balance, nerve transmission, and muscle contraction. Sodium chloride is just one type of salt, and it's the stuff that's found in your salt shaker. It's also prevalent in processed foods as a preservative or to add flavor.

Why limit sodium?

Sodium has the potential to raise blood pressure, which is a major risk factor for heart disease. Dietary Guidelines for Americans suggests the general population stick to less than 2,300 mg of sodium per day. Believe it or not, just one teaspoon of salt provides that day's worth. You're looking at a recommendation of 1,500 mg if you're over 51 years old, African-American, or if you have high blood pressure, chronic kidney disease, or diabetes. If you fall into this category, you're typically considered more "salt sensitive," meaning that your blood pressure is more greatly affected by the sodium you eat. By the way, this includes about 70 percent of Americans. However, everyone can benefit from reducing sodium because a positive side effect of doing so is increasing the amount of fresh, whole foods you get in your diet.

Top salt culprits.

It may be surprising that a CDC study found that the number one source of sodium in our diet is from breads and rolls, perhaps a function of the amount we eat. One large bagel will cost you about 625 mg of sodium. So if you think only cutting the salt shaker from the table and salt from recipes will get you under the guideline, think again. Sodium is also prevalent in processed foods, such as the following:

  • Many condiments, like soy sauce, BBQ sauce, and gravy, to name a few
  • Deli meats, smoked fish and cheeses
  • Canned entrees and soups, including bouillon, broth and consommé
  • Salted snack foods, such as pretzels and nuts
  • Pickled vegetables, like juicy kosher pickles!

Keep in mind that sea salt, like pink Himalayan salt and other fancy salts on the market, contain the same amount of sodium. Fans of these salts say they end up using less because it's more granular. I say it's still added sodium you probably don't need.

Reduce salt, not taste.

Salt is actually an acquired taste, and once you start reducing it in your diet, your taste buds will adjust accordingly. Here are some basic tips:

Look on the fresh side. Choose fresh fruits and vegetables, legumes, and unprocessed whole grains. Foods that are rich in potassium, like bananas, oranges, potatoes and tomatoes, can help reduce the impact of sodium in your diet as well.

Shop smart. Look for those low-sodium or no-salt-added products, but make sure to read the food label too. Choose packaged foods with less than 200 mg per serving. If you must have a frozen meal every now and again, look for one with less than 500 mg per serving (yes, those low-sodium entrees exist!).

Dine out right. Ask for sauces on the side, limit condiments, skip soups, and, when in doubt, ask your server how a dish is prepared.

Add salt-free flavor. Use herbs and spices to add flavor to food; some of my favorites are cayenne pepper, garlic, lemon juice, ginger and cinnamon. Or you can make your own condiments to drastically lower the sodium count.

Use salt substitutes wisely. Some contain potassium and too much can be harmful if you have kidney disease or are taking medication for heart disease.

*Always check with your doctor before using a salt substitute and before following other recommendations on the amount of sodium you should eat.

Think a low sodium meal plan is impossible?

Put to the test, I created a 700-mg sodium plan, less than half the amount recommended per day for a salt-sensitive person.

Breakfast: 1 cup oatmeal, 1 cup blueberries, 1 oz. almonds = 11.2 mg sodium

Lunch: Tossed salad with veggies and 3 oz. grilled chicken, small whole wheat pita, 1 tbsp olive oil, 1 tbsp. balsamic vinegar = 275 mg

Snack: 4 tbsp hummus, 10 baby carrots = 223 mg

Dinner: 4 oz. grilled salmon, 1 cup sautéed spinach with olive oil, ¾ cup brown rice = 190 mg

Can you stick to it? Let me know in the comments section other ways you reduce the sodium in your diet.

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