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7 Ways to Follow a Low-Sodium Diet

9 in 10 Americans eat too much sodium, primarily from salt

Too much sodium in your diet can lead to health issues like high blood pressure
frantic00 / Getty Images

Despite being an essential nutrient for the body to function properly, too much sodium can be bad for your health. In fact, 9 in 10 Americans are getting too much sodium from their diet, mainly from salt, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

“As we age, our dietary restrictions are tightened as far as what we can eat,” said William Lendway, a dietitian, chef and assistant professor at Johnson & Wales University, a school whose specialized degrees include culinary arts and nutrition. “It's a lot easier to get used to a better diet when you're younger than when you're older and you're dealing with multiple health issues.”

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In addition to age, other factors may influence how sodium affects blood pressure, including weight, ethnicity, gender and some medical conditions like diabetes or chronic kidney disease, according to the American Heart Association (AHA). But dietary changes and a little attention can make a major difference in the amount of sodium you consume.

How does excess sodium affect the body?

Sodium pulls water into our blood vessels, increasing the amount of blood flowing through our veins — which may raise blood pressure. Over time, high blood pressure can stretch our arteries and accumulate plaque, which can block blood flow.

As a result, high blood pressure, also known as the “silent killer,” is a major risk factor for heart disease and stroke, the first- and fifth-leading causes of death in the U.S., according to the CDC.

What is the function of salt in cooking?

Salt is a flavor enhancer and can also be utilized to reduce bitter flavors.

“Adding a little bit of salt really takes that edge of bitterness off,” said Lendway. “A lot of green leafy vegetables tend to be bitter — like brussels sprouts and cabbage. So, it becomes really difficult to eat these things with less sodium because they’re just not that desirable for us.”

However, there are still ways to enjoy food without putting a strain on health.

1. Stick with it 

Dietary guidelines recommend consuming no more than 2,300 mg of sodium a day, which equates to about a teaspoon of salt.

“That may seem like a lot until you see how much is spread through your day,” said Lendway.

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On the bright side, research has shown that our taste or preference for salt can decrease by gradually reducing the amount we consume. 

“It’s frustrating for people, and salt can impact their health so drastically,” said Lendway. “I like to tell people that it gets better. It’s hard, but stick with it.”

2. Avoid processed foods

Foods that are processed include cooked, canned, frozen, or packaged goods that are preserved or prepared in a way that changes their nutritional composition. Over 40 percent of the sodium we eat comes from just 10 types of food, including breads, rolls and pizza, which top the list of the greatest sources of sodium consumed by Americans.

To avoid processed foods, look for alternatives that have less than 5 percent of the daily value of sodium per serving. Think fresh fruits and vegetables or other products that are labeled “no salt added” or “no sodium.” If you choose to buy packaged or prepared foods, choose those labeled “low” or “reduced sodium.” Prepared meals should have no more than 600 mg of sodium per meal, the CDC recommends.

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3. Try other ways to “salt” your food

In addition to low-sodium or "lite" salts, which are blends of salt and potassium chloride, there are other ways to enhance a dish’s flavor  Experiment with using garlic, citrus juice, salt-free seasonings or other spices.

Meanwhile, avoid sauces, mixes and instant products like flavored rice that can be loaded with added sodium. Opt for the most basic or least processed forms of rice, beans and other dry goods and season them yourself.

Top 10 Sources of Sodium

  • Bread and rolls
  • Pizza
  • Sandwiches
  • Cold cuts and cured meats
  • Soups
  • Burritos and tacos
  • Savory snacks like chips, popcorn, pretzels
  • Chicken
  • Cheese
  • Eggs and omelets

Source: CDC

For example, when preparing a tabbouleh salad, Lendway used orange juice instead of lemon juice and added some dried fruit to avoid relying on salt.

“I was absolutely amazed. It did not need any salt at all,” he said. “So, focusing a little more on a sweet-sour or a sweet-tangy sauce, and less on the salt is another strategy. You’re balancing sweet, tangy, sour flavors.”

4. Seek out no- to low-sodium recipes

Utilize the internet and specialty cookbooks to find low-sodium recipes. The AHA has a low-salt cookbook with some free recipes online.

High Low Sodium Comparison
Courtesy cdc.gov

5. Swap your salty staples with healthier options

If you don’t like low-sodium products, try swapping them with a similar product.

“If you’ve ever had low-sodium tomato juice, it's horrible. If you take a product and modify it, just by virtue, that product is going to be second-best. It never tastes as good,” said Lendway. “Why don’t you switch to something like orange juice, which doesn’t normally have sodium?”

6. Ask to hold the salt when eating out

About one-third of our food calories come from outside the home, according to the Food and Drug Administration. Depending on the level of scratch cooking a restaurant offers, you can ask which menu items are already salted and request if items like fries or vegetables can be plated without added salt.

7. Increase potassium in your diet

If you have high blood pressure, eating more potassium can help lower it to a healthy level. Good sources of potassium include bananas, oranges, melons, cooked spinach, broccoli, potatoes and sweet potatoes. Find a full list of potassium-dense foods here.

Aaron Kassraie writes about issues important to military veterans and their families for AARP. He also serves as a general assignment reporter. Kassraie previously covered U.S. foreign policy as a correspondent for the Kuwait News Agency’s Washington bureau and worked in news gathering for USA Today and Al Jazeera English.