You probably won’t taste the difference, and it’s likely better for your health.
From extra-large cartons of French fries to brimming bags of movie popcorn, Americans love the taste of salt—probably too much. On average, adults in the United States consume more than 3,400 milligrams (mg) of sodium daily, mostly from processed and prepared foods. The American Heart Association recommends we limit ourselves to 2,300mg of sodium per day, though we should ideally max out at 1,500mg.
Many of us misjudge the amount of salt we eat, partly because we don’t always recognize where it’s coming from. “The taste of food is very individualized,” says Oleg Chebotarev, MD, FACC, a cardiologist with Hamilton Cardiology Associates and director of the coronary care unit at St. Francis Medical Center in Trenton, New Jersey. “Patients often come and say they don’t add any salt to their food, and yet their sodium intake is high.”
Too much sodium can contribute to multiple long-term medical issues, including high blood pressure and heart disease. Here’s what you need to know about these potential health problems—plus how to spot significant sources of dietary salt and tips to reduce your intake.
How excess salt can affect your health Sodium plays multiple roles in the human body, helping us balance our fluids, move our muscles and much more. To perform these functions, humans need to take in around 500mg of sodium daily, which works out to about 1/4 teaspoon of salt. Since American diets contain so much salt, health problems related to sodium deficiencies are rarely an issue. Problems related to excess salt, on the other hand, are commonplace.
Most significantly, too much salt is a chief risk factor for high blood pressure. About half of US adults are thought to have hypertension, explains Dr. Chebotarev, “and salt is definitely one of the biggest contributors.” High blood pressure, in turn, can cause cardiovascular disease (CVD) and lead to events like heart attacks and strokes. Research has suggested that lowering sodium intake to 2,300mg daily could prevent millions of cases of hypertension annually and may result in a significant drop in deaths related to CVD.
In addition to the cardiovascular effects, increased sodium may contribute to osteoporosis, since it can deplete calcium levels in the body. It’s a risk factor for chronic kidney disease, as well, and is associated with higher odds of stomach cancer.
It should be noted: The health risks of excess sodium aren’t the same for everyone. Some people may be more vulnerable to the effects of salt, including African Americans, adults 50 years and older and those who already have high or elevated blood pressure. It’s recommended that members of these groups limit their sodium consumption to 1,500mg daily. Always consult your healthcare provider about the amount of sodium that’s right for you.
Significant sources of salt Often used to preserve and flavor food, salt is found everywhere in the American diet—even in foods that might not seem salty, like bread and cereal. About 10 percent of our intake comes from the salt found naturally in food, while up to 10 percent more comes from salt we add at home, including table salt and salt we use in recipes. Almost all of the rest comes from processed foods and restaurant-prepared dishes. In fact, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), more than 40 percent of our daily sodium intake comes from these 10 food categories:
While bread may not have as high a salt content as some other foods, it’s a top source of sodium since we eat so much of it.
Condiments, dips and sauces are often full of sodium, too. Think soy sauce, teriyaki sauce, olives, ketchup and mustard, all of which may have higher salt content than many of us suspect. One tablespoon of ketchup, for example, has 167mg of sodium, while a tablespoon of regular soy sauce may have as much as 1006mg.
“Different kinds of salad dressings may have a very high salt content, as well,” adds Chebotarev. “If you wanted to put together a salad, I would recommend simply using virgin olive oil and vinegar.”
Scaling back on salt Many studies have found that reducing salt intake can help lower blood pressure. With a few smart strategies, you can do this without denying yourself foods you love. In fact, research suggests it’s possible to drop your salt consumption by about 30 percent without noticing a difference in flavor. As time goes on, you may get used to using less salt—and you might even develop a taste for less-salty foods.
It all starts at the supermarket. When you shop for groceries, stock up on fresh and minimally processed foods like fruit, vegetables, whole grains, beans and lentils, which naturally contain less sodium. Canned fruits (without added sugar) and frozen fruits and vegetables—without sauce—are generally good choices, as well. Consider prioritizing foods rich in potassium, since they help balance the effects of overdoing sodium. These include sweet potatoes, spinach, yogurt and bananas, as well as white, black and kidney beans.
In the meat and seafood sections, opt for fresh beef, pork, poultry and fish instead of more processed meats like bacon, hot dogs and cold cuts. “Pretty much every product in the deli department has a significant amount of sodium,” says Chebotarev. Be aware that fresh chicken is often injected with a salt solution; scan labels for words like “saline” or “broth.”
Consider dialing back on processed food purchases, too. In terms of overall sodium reduction, it’s likely the best single step you can take. For the processed foods you do buy, take care to read labels. Check the Nutrition Facts for total sodium content and read product packaging for terms like “low sodium” or “reduced sodium.” A low-sodium food has 140mg or less per serving, while a reduced-sodium item contains 25 percent less than a normal, equivalent product. The American Heart Association’s (AHA) Heart-Check is another good sign; it means the product meets AHA standards for sodium content. Compare brands for best results.
Preparing and eating foods with less salt When you’re cooking at home, try these sodium reduction tactics:
Going out to eat? “Ask the chef to prepare your food with less salt,” suggests Chebotarev. “If that’s impossible, ask about the amount of sodium in the dish before ordering.”
Many chain restaurants post the sodium content of their dishes online, so you can check ahead of time and plan accordingly. Also, be wary of dishes that are brined, cured, smoked or pickled or that go heavy on gravy, soy or teriyaki sauce. At parties, snack less on crackers, chips and pretzels—and more on fruit and unsalted nuts.
In addition to watching salt intake, you can help keep a handle on your blood pressure by adopting a healthy lifestyle. Getting adequate physical activity, controlling stress and limiting alcohol go a long way towards good heart health—and good wellbeing overall.
Finally, says Chebotarev, “if you have any questions, refer to your primary care physician or cardiologist.” They can suggest strategies for lowering your salt intake or refer you to a registered dietitian to provide more specialized guidance.