Sodium plays an important role in the body, but most Americans consume more sodium than they should. Sodium, in excess, can raise the risk for high blood pressure, and high blood pressure, in turn, is a risk factor for cardiovascular disease and stroke. In people who already have high blood pressure, too much sodium can make it harder to keep blood pressure under control.
People who are in good health should limit their daily intake to no more than 2.3 grams of sodium, the amount in about 1 teaspoon of table salt, according to the American Heart Association (AHA). Most Americans consume 6 to 18 grams, or 3 teaspoons, a day.
Salt is about 40 percent sodium by weight. Sodium is a mineral found naturally in food. Most of the sodium that people consume, however, is added to food, either when prepared commercially or when cooked at home, the AHA says.
The following strategies can help you cut your sodium consumption down to size.
Besides putting the saltshaker on the shelf, you should limit or avoid these sodium-containing substances:
Monosodium glutamate (MSG). This is a seasoning found both at home and in restaurant and commercially packaged foods.
Baking soda (sodium bicarbonate). This is a leavening used in some breads and cakes. It is also found in products to ease indigestion.
Baking powder. This is a leavening used in quick breads, cakes and cookies.
Other sodium compounds to watch out for: disodium phosphate, found in some cereals and cheese; sodium alginate, found in chocolate milk and ice cream; sodium benzoate, found in relishes, sauces and salad dressings; sodium hydroxide, found in processed foods; sodium nitrite, found in cured meats and sausage; sodium propionate, found in cheese, bread and cake; and sodium sulfite, found in dried fruits.
Look at labels
Reading labels can help you learn how much sodium is in your grocery items. Use the Percent Daily Value to compare the amount of sodium among brands. Choose foods that have lower values, particularly if you have high blood pressure or pre-hypertension.
Here's how the U.S. Department of Agriculture defines sodium content:
Salt- or sodium-free: Less than 5 mg sodium per serving
Very low sodium: 35 mg or less sodium per serving
Low sodium: 140 mg or less per serving
Light in sodium: 50 percent less sodium compared with the traditional food
Less sodium or reduced sodium: 25 percent less sodium compared with the traditional food
Don't forget the labels on over-the-counter medications. Sodium is found in some OTC products. According to the AHA, sodium must be mentioned on antacid labels if the amount is 5 mg or more per dose.
When you eat out
Many restaurant meals are high in sodium, with some dishes containing more sodium than you should have in a day.
One way to reduce the sodium in a restaurant meal is to ask for nutrition information. Most chain restaurants have nutrition brochures available so you can choose lower-sodium dishes. You can also ask that salt, soy sauce and monosodium glutamate not be added to your food.
Lighten up at home
Home-cooked meals are the one place you can control the amount of salt in your food. Here are ideas on how to cut sodium at home:
Use low-sodium recipes. You also can modify traditional recipes by reducing the added salt by half or more, or using low-sodium ingredients instead of regular ones.
Take the saltshaker off the table
Use fresh or frozen foods instead of canned foods, which can be high in sodium. If you use canned products, choose low-sodium ones. Most fresh fruits and vegetables are naturally low in sodium.
Eat fewer processed foods that are high in sodium, such as bologna, sausage, pepperoni, pickles, salami, regular canned and instant soups, cheese and crackers.
Limit the amount of prepackaged and processed foods you consume. Boxed rice and pasta dishes are much higher in sodium than rice or macaroni and cheese prepared from scratch.
Use “lite-salt” or salt substitutes that contain a large amount of potassium and very little sodium. They may be used freely by most people, except those who have kidney disease or those who are taking certain medications. Check with your doctor before choosing a salt substitute.
But what if you like salty foods? You can use spices (e.g., basil, oregano) and herbs (e.g., onion, garlic, cilantro, red or green chili peppers) to enhance the taste of your food.
“It’s quite possible to retrain your taste buds,” says Susan Moores, R.D., a nutrition consultant in St. Paul, Minn., and a spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association.
"The less salt you eat, the less you’ll want, and in time you’ll find food has more flavor when it’s not over-powered by a lot of salt.”