Beginner’s Guide to Low-Sodium Eating

Trinh Le, MPH, RD
by Trinh Le, MPH, RD
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Beginner’s Guide to Low-Sodium Eating

If you’re trying to ditch salt from your diet, you’ll find you’re not alone. It’s very common advice given by doctors for the 30% of Americans and the 40% of the global community suffering from high blood pressure. Even though it’s a common diagnosis, high blood pressure is a huge risk factor for heart issues down the line.

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One way that you can address high blood pressure is to review the amount of salt in your diet. Salt is a key player in cooking because it enhances flavors, masks off flavors, and helps preserve foods beyond their standard shelf life (think smoked, cured and pickled foods). But, when it comes to heart health, salt (or sodium-chloride) receives much of the blame because it’s high in sodium.

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Sodium is a major electrolyte; it’s role is to regulate fluid balance, and help with muscle contraction and nerve signaling. Because it affects fluid balance, sodium also affects your blood pressure. High-sodium diets are linked to higher blood pressure.

Simply speaking, this is because water likes to follow 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 in your vessels can damage the vessel wall, initiating a chain of events that could lead to cardiovascular problems (think stroke, heart failure, kidney issues). The key words here are “chain of events” because blood pressure is one factor (though an important one) in many that affect your overall heart health.

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Current dietary recommendations limit sodium to 2,300 milligrams per day for both men and women—but the average American is used to eating upwards of 3400 milligrams per day. For those at risk for heart disease, which includes people over 50 year,s old and anyone with high blood pressure, diabetes or chronic kidney disease, the sodium limit is 1,500 milligrams per day.

Keep a look out for new recommendations since the dietary guidelines will be changing soon. Eating about 2,300 milligrams of sodium per day is helpful at slashing your risk for heart disease, but eating any less than 1,500 milligrams yields no benefit.

Additionally, 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: mindfully trim sodium from your diet.

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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 salt to go overboard on your 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 a first goal to slash 1,000 milligrams per day. Why? Because 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 tongue time to readjust. Then, slash until you’re at your goal (We suggest 2,300 mg per day if you’re a healthy adult).

2. Steer clear of processed foods and buy fresh when possible. About 75% of the sodium you get from your diet 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:

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3. Practice low-sodium cooking. Cooking your own meals is one of the best ways to control the amount of sodium in your food. When preparing your own foods, follow some of these tricks 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, lemon zest, and so forth are just some of the inspiring ways to add flavor without upping sodium.
  • Use citrus juice and vinegars in place of salt in sauces and marinades.
  • When baking, add less baking soda or baking powder since these rising agents contain a fair amount of sodium.
Food (per 1 Teaspoon) Calories Sodium (mg) %DV*
Salt 0 2,300 100%
Baking Powder 0 350-500 15-20%
Baking Soda 0 1,250 55%

* % daily value is based on 2,300 milligrams sodium per day.

Switch your sodium radar to the ON position when you’re shopping for these foods at the supermarket:

CHEESES CURED & SMOKED MEATS
Food (serving size) Calories Sodium (mg) %DV Food (serving size) Calories Sodium (mg) %DV
Cottage cheese (½ cup) 92 348 15% Deli meat, Turkey (3 oz) 95 1,022 44%
Parmesan (1 oz) 111 390 17% Ham (3 oz) 60 590 26%
Bleu Cheese (1 oz) 100 325 14% Corned Beef (3 oz) 213 763 33%
American (1 oz) 94 364 16% Smoked Salmon (3 oz) 99 371 16%
Romano (1 oz) 110 406 18% Bacon (3 oz) 350 556 24%
PICKLED SIDES SALTY SNACKS
Food (serving size) Calories Sodium (mg) %DV Food (serving size) Calories Sodium (mg) %DV
Pickles (4 chips) 27 137 6% Pretzels (1 oz) 110 450 20%
Sauerkraut (1/4 cup) 7 235 10% Microwaved popcorn (1/2 popped bag) 242 332 14%
Relish (1 tablespoon) 20 122 5% Saltines Crackers (1 oz) 119 267 12%
CONDIMENTS BROTHS
Food (serving size) Calories Sodium (mg) %DV Food (serving size) Calories Sodium (mg) %DV
Ketchup (2 tablespoons) 34 308 13% Chicken broth (1 cup) 15 924 40%
Steak Sauce (2 tablespoons) 32 560 24% Vegetable broth (1 cup) 12 940 41%
BBQ Sauce (2 tablespoons) 58 349 15% Beef broth (1 cup) 17 893 39%
Italian dressing (2 tablespoons) 71 292 13%
Soy sauce (2 tablespoons) 17 1758 76%

Source: USDA Nutrient Database

4. Know your sodium labels. Understanding the label lingo that goes into buying canned or packaged goods will help you trim sodium from your diet. Here’s a couple of terms for you to watch out for when you’re at the supermarket:

  • 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.

5. 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 needed. If you accidentally blow your sodium limit for the day, don’t worry, you’re not doomed! Look back at your diary to figure out which foods were highest in sodium, and use tomorrow as an opportunity to troubleshoot. Remember that your blood pressure is a number that depends on more than just your sodium intake.

Do you follow a low-sodium diet? If so, share your tips and tricks in the comments below.

About the Author

Trinh Le, MPH, RD
Trinh Le, MPH, RD
Trinh is a registered dietitian by day, blogger at Fearless Food RD by night. She loves helping folks develop a better relationship with food, which includes lots of cooking, eating and learning about nutrition. When she’s not snapping mouthwatering shots of (mostly) healthy food, you can find Trinh HIIT-ing it at her local gym. For more, connect with her on FacebookInstagram and Pinterest.

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13 responses to “Beginner’s Guide to Low-Sodium Eating”

  1. Avatar wmpottsjr says:

    I follow a low sodium diet. I consume about 500 mg or less a day and consume about 4500 mg of potassium a day. I do this to reverse heart disease. I am very sensitive to sodium in my diet. I have congestive heart failure among other heart problems. My doctors monitor me and they have me measuring my urine output. When I eat excessive amounts of sodium, my urine output stops, my legs start to swell and my weight increases. I have lost 111 lbs since I started controlling my sodium. I know my weight loss is not all because of sodium. Of course it is important to eat lots of fruits, vegetables and whole grains. I pretty much follow the DASH diet for heart disease.

    I often have to make my own foods, but I am a retired food professional so that is easy for me. I applaud what you are doing with this blog. The average American consumes 3000 mg of sodium per day and the level is much higher overseas. I have created a lot of low sodium recipes if anyone is interested.

    The one correction I would like to make is that with Chili Powder. Chili powder is absolutely loaded with salt. If you want to use it, I suggest that you either make your own sodium free chili powder or buy sodium free formulations. I can provide a recipe for that or provide a source for good sodium free chili powder and other no salt added foods.

    I would like to caution you about meats and fish. A lot of the meat that you find for sale in the market is injected with salt solutions. That boosts their bottom line. You will see statements that contain the words “Enhanced or Retained.” Retained moisture is not a problem for us because that is just water, but when it says “Enhanced” that means it has been injected with salt. Some producers use the term “Self Basting” which is the same thing. Check your nutrition panel or ask the butcher if the meat is enhanced. Meat generally has about 70 mg sodium per serving. If it is much than that, some source of sodium has been added to it.

    A typical source of hidden sodium is sodium tripolyphosphate or STPP for short. It is approved for meat, poultry and fish. It is used most often in seafood. You will find it in shrimp, scallops, oysters, fillets and even whole fish, just about any make and manor of seafood. They claim it helps the fish to remain fresh. Yeah right! STPP makes fish (and meats) absorb water. When you cook a scallop for example in a skillet the water comes back out of the scallop and you find that it is impossible to brown,but the STPP remains in the scallop or fish. The nutrition label will show a very high sodium level because of it. Some manufacturers will declare it, but I don’t think that is legally mandated. Check the nutrition facts panel. That must be correct. You can also ask the fishmonger. He should know. Ask him if his fish is either dry or wet. Dry fish is needed in the restaurant business because when your restaurant cooks a beautiful fish fillet that is “wet”, it shrinks to a tiny piece of fish. Do not buy “wet” fish.

    • Avatar melissa says:

      Thank you for this. I have recently been diagnosed with congestive heart failure at a young age (29). This was very scary for me. I always attributed my swollen feet and legs to standing for long hours, I never thought it could be something like this. My doctors have also placed me on a loso diet of no more than 2000 mg. This has been very difficult but I have been able to find things that I can eat that I can enjoy. You said you lost 111 lbs since starting your dieting, how long ago was that? I’ve been following a loso diet and have cut out pretty much all the food I used to eat for 5 weeks now, but I haven’t lost much weight. I feel smaller, that may be the diuretic I am on. I hope to get to consuming only a 500mg per day!

      • Avatar wmpottsjr says:

        Hi Melissa,
        I have had CHF for about 2 years but didn’t know it. My weight just kept going up and up until I was 342 lbs and I couldn’t walk without being sweaty and out of breath to the point of having to find somewhere to sit every 50 feet or so. Then on Sept 8, 2014, I went into the hospital for it. They increased my lasix to 160 mg a day and taught me to control my fluid intake. I can’t drink the amount of fluids that I used to. I measure my urine output at home every day. If I eat excessive sodium (>1700mg), I don’t urinate what I drink. I found that the the low-sodium high-potassium foods that I need to eat were fruits and vegetables. I eat fruits in the morning, vegetables at lunch and a protein meal for dinner. I do not control fat other than I don’t eat bad fats. I eat several avacado’s a week which are loaded with good fat and I have nuts for a snack on alternate days. They have good fat too. Since Since sept 8 until now I have lost 113lbs. My eating has recently changed because I am exercising again. I eat more protein than I used to. Put your feet up, but don’t just sit in a chair. My legs are normal and the lasix is only 80 mg a day now. The fluid starts to come back as soon as I eat processed food and it takes several days for the sodium to exit my body. You will likely have to cook a lot more than you did before. If you want foods that you cant have , you can always make it yourself with “no salt added ingredients” and without salt. I like to use NoSalt. It is a salt substitute that is potassium chloride instead of sodium chloride. One quarter teaspoon is equal to 650 mg potassium. So make use of that. As a diet I recommend the DASH diet. It is designed for us.

        • Avatar Kitkat says:

          Thank you so much for both your comments. I was so wounding if I would be able to control this salt limit. It’s my left leg and foot that swells if I consume to much sodium and processed food. Could you please share of your recipes? Also wonderful job on the weight loss and healthier life style sharing! I’m so encouraged to continue on, need to lose 25 pounds by the next cardiologist visit. Thanks again!!

          • Avatar Sue Dagnan Moreland says:

            I just had a heart stent put in ,
            The Dr. said I have afib, and congestive heart failure.. It’s scary, and they put me on low salt diet. I just started it, except for when I was in the hospital. I’m older than any of you probably are. I need to lose some weight. Any advice? Good luck to all of you. Sue.

    • Avatar Chris Hancock says:

      My daughter has kidney desease and is also on 500-800mg salt per day. I found your comments very helpful. As a lay person I find it hard to make her tasty meals or any sort of variety. If you could send some recipes it would be much appreciated.

    • Avatar Alice Tipton says:

      can you please share your recipes. my father just had a heart attack and he is on a low sodium low carb diet. you can email me please at sugamuffin4@gmail.com

    • Avatar Jack MI says:

      I would love to see your recipes also. My partner has a heart issue and is now on a low sodium diet. Thanks so much!

    • Avatar Joy says:

      Can you please share your recipes with me? I would greatly appreciate it!

    • Avatar Kimberley Scott-Carpenter says:

      I would love to find out your chili powder recipe! I have had a mitral valve repair and now have fluid on my lungs. I need to start a low sodium diet , but I am also on a Lasix, and that will decrease my potassium. Do you take a potassium supplement?

  2. Avatar Michael Heier says:

    The article is well-intended, but I want to point out that Sodium in and of itself is only part of the equation. Potassium is the other counterpart, and wasn’t mentioned once in the article.

    BOTH sodium and potassium are necessary electrolytes and both perform many of the same functions (electrical conduction, muscular contraction, etc.), except that they typically work in opposing ways. If you increase your potassium intake, your sodium excretion will increase; if you increase your sodium intake, your potassium excretion will increase.

    Sodium typically draws water from the cells into the bloodstream, while potassium typically draws water from the bloodstream into the cells. This means that high blood pressure (too much water in the bloodstream) can be reduced by upping your intake of potassium relative to your sodium intake, so that the water in your bloodstream gets drawn into the cells.

    The important factor here is not the intake level of sodium; it’s the intake RATIO of sodium to potassium. The lower the ratio, the lower the risk of high blood pressure. Reducing sodium intake is one way to lower the ratio, yes, but increasing potassium intake will also serve to lower the ratio (as well as promote sodium excretion from the body). I have seen study results where participants were able to lower their blood pressure, while simultaneously increasing their sodium intake to 3-4 grams a day, because they also increased their potassium intake and thus lowered their overall ratio of sodium to potassium.

    The daily recommended potassium intake is roughly double the recommended sodium intake. It’s not clear, though, whether this is because governments believe sodium to be dangerous for heart health, or whether that is indeed the optimum ratio. Fruits and vegetables are good sources of potassium, so many people might not be reaching the recommended potassium intake if they don’t include those sources in their diet in sufficient quantity.

    Going down to 1500mg a day of sodium has been shown to be potentially harmful, so it seems to me that increasing potassium while keeping sodium intake the same might be a more suitable dietary change…

  3. Avatar Michael Heier says:

    Agreed. As long as our bodies have *enough* sodium AND potassium, the body does a good job of effectively maintaining the correct balance (in healthy people with healthy kidneys). The danger really comes from NOT having enough of one or the other, or both.

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