By Phoebe Chi, MD, MPH
Do you enjoy salty snacks? Or find yourself reaching for the salt shaker at the dinner table?
If you do, you are not alone.
In general, people in the U.S. eat much more sodium (salt) than they should. But why is it important to watch the amount of sodium you eat? It is because the more sodium you consume, the higher your blood pressure becomes. Some conditions, such as certain heart and kidney problems, cause the body to hold onto sodium, which causes extra fluid to build up in the body. This extra fluid forces the heart to work harder. Therefore, if you live with chronic conditions, it is especially important to control the amount of sodium you eat.
So how much sodium should you be consuming in a day? While for most people it is recommended to not go over 2,300 milligrams (mg) of sodium, for those with heart conditions, high blood pressure, diabetes, and kidney problems, the daily limit for sodium is even lower– 1,500 mg ideally, but no more than 2,000 mg.
Pop quiz: How many milligrams of sodium are in one small teaspoon of salt?
Answer: 2,300 milligrams!
1 teaspoon of salt
2,300 mg of sodium
Surprised? What this means is that adding any salt to your meals can cause you to go over the recommended limit. So is it even possible to stay within this recommended limit? Yes–it is possible! And today I will discuss exactly how.
– Part I –
Low Sodium Diets: Where to Start?
Sometimes, when we really start to think about all the things we eat that contain sodium, following a low sodium diet may seem like an impossible feat. But it is definitely not! And here are some easy places to start…
➢ Practical Tips for Cutting Down Sodium
◊ Take the salt shaker off the table. Remember–salt is salt regardless of whether it is sea salt, kosher salt, or Himalayan salt…it is still salt and will have the same effects on your body.
◊ Cut back on processed foods. These are notorious for their sodium content.
◊ Choose more fresh foods when possible. These products are naturally lower in sodium.
◊ Adjust your taste buds gradually. At home, experiment with spices, herbs, garlic, and lemon juice instead of salt.
◊ Go for the alternative. Start looking for low-sodium versions of your favorite food products.
◊ Check the labels. Sodium levels of similar foods often vary widely by brand. Try to find foods where each serving size has no more than 200-300 mg of sodium.
◊ Set a rule for yourself. When picking entrees or main food items, allow yourself no more than one food item with more than 600 mg of sodium
– Part II –
Counting Sodium: Reading Food Labels
Once you start following the above tips, you are already at a great start. The next step is to be more aware of the actual amount of sodium in the foods you eat. This is done by looking at the nutritional information label. Reading food labels is the best way to gauge how much salt you are consuming and the only way you can ensure that you are within your daily sodium limit. This is because many foods can have large amounts of ‘hidden’ sodium without actually tasting salty –thus it can ‘trick’ you into ingesting more sodium than you intend to.
Get into the habit of checking the food label whenever you shop, as you plan your meals, and as you cook each day. The label makes it easy to determine the amounts of nutrients you’re getting and to compare one product to another.
A good rule of thumb when shopping:
→ Food items: Select foods that have no more than 300 mg of sodium per serving.
→ Meals: Each meal should have no more than 600 mg of sodium per serving.
– Part III –
Examples of Low and High-Sodium Foods
➢ TIPS: Try to eat more of these low sodium foods:
○ Beans, peas, rice, lentils, or whole wheat pasta (dried and fresh, cooked without salt)
○ Fruits (fresh, frozen, or canned in juice – avoid heavy syrup due to sugar content)
○ Fresh meats, poultry, and fish
○ Vegetables (fresh and plain frozen)
➢ TIPS: Avoid these high sodium foods:
○ Bacon, lunch meats, sausage, chipped beef, hot dogs, canned meats/fish/beans
○ Canned vegetables/soups
○ Fast food and take out like Chinese food and pizza
○ Store bought canned foods, unless the label says “no salt added”
○ Canned soup, unless they are Low Sodium varieties.
○ TV dinners
○ Pickles and olives
○ Barbecue sauce, soy sauce (even “lite” soy sauce), dry salad mixes, garlic salt, taco seasoning, onion salt, ketchup, seasoned salt, pickle relish
– Part IV –
Red Flag Ingredients
One last thing to remember— foods do not need to taste salty to have a lot of sodium!
Beware of the sodium content in foods with these ingredients:
⊗ Sodium chloride or NaCl
⊗ Monosodium glutamate (MSG) – very commonly used in Asian cuisine
⊗ Baking soda and baking powder
⊗ Disodium phosphate (a common food additive)
⊗ Anything that you see with “ sodium” or “ Na” in its name
I encourage you to take a moment to write out your favorite foods and seasonings and to identify the high-sodium ones (you can use this handy Sodium Log). Now, try to identify some lower-sodium alternatives that you would be willing to try instead.
So while following a heart healthy and low sodium diet may seem like a difficult lifestyle change to make, remember– every little step counts…especially when it comes to cutting out sodium. Don’t try to make all the changes at once; pick one that you think is the most doable, and tackle that first. With every healthy diet change you make, know that you are making a difference in your health, and be proud of your accomplishment!
*This post is an excerpt out of Being Empowered for a Healthy Heart: A personal guide to taking control of your health while living with chronic conditions, by Phoebe Chi, MD, MPH.
Want to keep this information handy for future reference?
Below are two printer-friendly handouts with all these tips and more!