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7 Sneaky Sources of Sodium (and What to Eat Instead)

High levels of salt may be hiding in food that seems healthy


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​It’s easy to think we’re making healthy choices when we reach for "low-fat" or "high-protein" foods. But here’s a surprise: High levels of sodium may be lurking in some of our favorite low-calorie staples.​ 

​“A lot of times, people think that most of their salt intake is coming from the salt we use at home. But it actually comes from a lot of those packaged foods that we eat,” says Dolores Woods, a registered dietitian with the University of Texas Health Science Center in Houston. ​ 

​As we munch through the day, even the smallest bites can accumulate into a hefty intake of sodium that adds up faster than we might realize.​ ​

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Why is too much sodium bad?

​​Consuming too much salt or sodium can increase our blood pressure and lead to more severe chronic illnesses such as cardiovascular and kidney disease, Woods says. ​ ​Sodium draws water into our veins, which increases blood flow and raises blood pressure. Over time, high blood pressure can cause the arteries to stretch and accumulate plaque, which can pose the risk of a blockage. ​ ​

How much sodium should older adults consume?

​On average, Americans consume a whopping 3,400 mg of sodium each day, far over the federal recommendation of a maximum of 2,300 mg (about one teaspoon of table salt). Those with hypertension should consume between 1,000 and 1,200 mg of sodium a day, Woods says. ​ ​

Which low-calorie foods are high in sodium?

1. Condiments

​​From mayonnaise to salad dressing, condiments tend to be packed with high levels of sodium. Ketchup, barbecue sauce and soy sauce are some of the worst offenders.​ ​

“The serving size is so small, so it really adds up because most people aren’t actually using measuring cups or tablespoons to measure those out,” Woods says. ​ 

​​A tablespoon of ketchup can contribute to 8 percent of your daily sodium intake, while the same amount of soy sauce reaches a staggering 38 percent. Using just 2 tablespoons of your typical barbecue sauce can take up 13 percent of your daily recommended value of sodium.​ 

What to eat instead: Woods recommends using spices such as smoked paprika and other flavor enhancers to add taste without increasing sodium intake. Alternatively, you can opt for low-sodium condiment options and practice moderation when using them, especially when no other alternatives are available.​ ​

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2. Processed cheese

​Despite being low in calories and high in protein, half a cup of cottage cheese contains a surprising 350 mg of sodium, which amounts to 16 percent of the recommended daily maximum sodium intake. Other examples of processed cheese include American cheese, cheese spreads, canned and spray cheese.​ ​

What to eat instead: Milk, yogurt, cream cheese and mozzarella are better ways to satisfy your dairy cravings without excessive salt intake.​ ​

3. Cereal

​Before reaching for cereal, you might want to reconsider. While some brands advertise cholesterol-lowering benefits and a low calorie count of only 140 per cup, be aware that it also contributes to 9 percent of the daily recommended value of sodium.​ ​

What to eat instead: Try plain oatmeal, which has zero sodium, but be aware that anything you add to it may contain salt. ​ ​

4. Vegetable juice

​While it may provide you with a serving of vegetables, vegetable juice is not as healthy as it seems. Just 8 ounces is loaded with approximately 28 percent of the recommended daily sodium intake.​ ​

What to eat instead: Opt for low-sodium vegetable juice, which typically accounts for about 6 percent of the recommended daily value. And you can’t go wrong with eating fresh fruits and vegetables instead.​ ​

5. Canned goods

​​Canned vegetables are great because they’re cheap and have a long shelf life, but the trade-off comes in the form of an unnecessary amount of sodium you’ll consume. For instance, just half a cup of canned green beans will account for 13 percent of the recommended daily sodium intake.

What to eat instead: For those who prefer canned food, choose low-sodium or salt-free varieties. Additionally, rinsing your canned veggies or beans removes about 20 percent of the sodium that would otherwise be eaten, Woods says.​ ​

Frozen vegetables also have a long shelf life and typically don’t have added salt, Woods says. Just make sure they aren’t packaged with a sauce or cheese.​ ​

6. Frozen meals

​Frozen meals can vary significantly in terms of calories and fat content. However, one common factor among frozen entrees is their high sodium content. For instance, a frozen entree with only 320 calories and 4 grams of fat may contain a whopping 790 mg of sodium, 34 percent of the daily value.​ ​

What to eat instead: Consider prepping your own food to have better control over the amount of salt in your meals.​ ​

7. Pickles

​Believe it or not, about three-fourths of a pickle spear packs 260 mg of sodium (11 percent of the daily value) while only having 5 calories.​ ​

What to eat instead: Consider making a cucumber salad that maintains a satisfying sour flavor and offers a refreshing taste. Combine cucumbers with garlic, vinegar, fresh herbs, a hint of light sugar, and other vegetables of your choosing to create a delicious alternative.

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