If you’re trying to adopt a lower-sodium diet, you’re not alone. High blood pressure, a risk factor for heart issues, is the reason doctors and dietitians pick on salt. Reducing salt can be a challenge because it enhances flavors and helps preserve foods — smoked, cured and pickled foods all depend on salt.
Salt, or sodium, to be precise, is a major electrolyte our bodies require. It regulates fluid balance and helps with muscle contraction and nerve signaling. Because it affects fluid balance, sodium also affects blood pressure. High-sodium diets are linked to higher blood pressure.
Simply speaking, this is because water follows sodium. The higher the sodium in your blood, the more water is retained in your blood — this leads to increased pressure in your vessels as blood is pumped out by the heart. Over time, increased blood pressure can damage the vessel wall, initiating a chain of events that could lead to cardiovascular problems such as stroke, heart failure and kidney issues. The key words here are “chain of events” because blood pressure is one of many factors affecting your overall heart health.
Current dietary recommendations limit sodium to 2,300 milligrams per day for men and women, which is about 1 teaspoon. But the average American is used to eating upwards of 3,400 milligrams per day. Those at risk for heart disease — which includes people over 50 years old and anyone with high blood pressure, diabetes or chronic kidney disease — are advised to limit their intake to 1,500 milligrams per day.
Some people are less “sodium sensitive” than others. Those without sensitivity can eat more sodium, and it won’t raise their blood pressure as much. It’s a genetic thing, and it’s hard to know where you stand without first getting tested, so the best thing to do is the most conservative thing: Trim sodium from your diet.
Sodium is found almost everywhere in the diet, so if you’re keeping an eye on your sodium counter, you probably know you don’t need to eat added salt to go overboard on sodium levels. To help you stay within your sodium goals, here are some tips:
1. SLASH YOUR SODIUM SLOWLY
Figure out what your typical sodium intake is and make it your first goal to slash 1,000 milligrams per day. It’s better to reduce intake gradually rather than cold turkey. If you’re used to eating at a saltiness level of 4,000 milligrams per day, you won’t enjoy your food when you start eating a 2,300 milligram sodium diet. You need to give your taste buds time to readjust. Then, slash until you’re at your goal (We suggest 2,300 milligrams per day for healthy adults).
2. TRACK YOUR SODIUM IN MYFITNESSPAL
Check the “reports” tab in the MyFitnessPal app to see if you stayed within your sodium goals for the day. The app sets your sodium limit at 2,300 milligrams per day, but you can lower this goal manually. If you accidentally blow your sodium limit for the day, look back at your diary to figure out which foods were highest in sodium, and use the next day as an opportunity to troubleshoot.
3. STEER CLEAR OF PROCESSED FOODS
Buy fresh food as much as possible. About 75% of the sodium in our diets comes from processed food. The rule of thumb is that the more processed a food is, the more sodium it contains because there’s more opportunity to introduce sodium.
Here are two examples of how an unprocessed peach and a tomato accumulate sodium as they become more processed:
4. PRACTICE LOW-SODIUM COOKING
Cooking your own meals is one of the best ways to control the amount of sodium in your food. Use these tips to keep your meal as low in sodium as possible:
- Rinse all canned beans and vegetables under cold water before cooking with them.
- Hold the salt, and season with herbs and spices instead. Rosemary, oregano, basil, cayenne pepper, paprika, ginger, garlic, black pepper, chili powder and lemon zest are just some seasonings that add flavor without upping sodium.
- Use citrus juice and vinegars in place of salt in sauces and marinades.
5. KNOW YOUR SODIUM LABELS
Understanding the label lingo that goes into buying canned or packaged goods helps you trim sodium from your diet. Here are a few terms to watch out for when you’re at the market:
- Sodium Free: Less than 5 milligrams of sodium per serving.
- Low Sodium: 140 milligrams or less of sodium per serving.
- Very Low Sodium: 35 milligrams or less of sodium per serving.
- Lightly Salted: 50% less sodium was added to this food, compared to the same serving size of the original food.
Pay extra attention to sodium levels when shopping for these foods: