What’s the deal with sodium? How too much salt can be dangerous and what to do about it.

By Lizzie Streit, MS, RDN, LD  

With so much emphasis on health and nutrition in the media, you have probably heard about America’s over-consumption of sodium and how it might be affecting your health.   

Sodium is a main component of salt and a nutrient that receives a ton of attention. Its primary role in the body is maintaining fluid balance and assisting with proper muscle and nerve function. While sodium is a necessary and important nutrient, most people get too much of it. 

The Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend a maximum daily intake of 2300 mg of sodium, or the equivalent of just one teaspoon of salt! Unfortunately, most people consume more than this amount. In fact, the average sodium intake for Americans is over 3400 mg a day. Some people even consume double the recommended amount (1).  

The most common sources of excess sodium in the American diet are restaurant and store-bought foods. Adding salt to foods at the table also contributes to the high consumption of sodium in this country. 

Foods that are high in sodium include processed foods that are loaded with salt, such as canned soups, frozen meals, condiments, canned vegetables and beans, packaged noodles, and deli meats. Companies add salt to these foods to act as a preservative and extend the shelf life of their products. 

Some foods also contain naturally occurring sodium, as opposed to sodium from added salt. These include meat, seafood, eggs, dairy, celery and some other vegetables.  

Excessive sodium intake can increase blood pressure and is linked to a higher risk of stroke and heart disease. High blood pressure, or hypertension, is extremely common in the United States. Some predictions suggest that over 60% of American adults will have this condition by 2025 (234).  

In light of these startling statistics, some public health experts, including the American Heart Association, suggest consuming less than 2300 mg of sodium per day. They recommend a daily sodium intake of 1500 mg for most adults, especially those with high blood pressure (1). 

Benefits of Eating Less Sodium 

Since excessive sodium intake may contribute to a number of health issues, reducing consumption of the main source of sodium in the typical American diet—salt—can be beneficial. In particular, limiting salt may play an important role in preventing and managing high blood pressure and related conditions, such as stroke, heart attack, and organ damage.  

 Research has shown that decreasing sodium intake can significantly decrease blood pressure (35). By reducing blood pressure, a lower sodium intake may prevent other issues that stem from hypertension. One study found that if the population as a whole consumed one half of a teaspoon less salt a day, there would be up to 66,000 fewer strokes and 99,000 fewer heart attacks (6). 

The benefits of reducing salt intake are impressive, but in a society that relies on convenience foods and on-the-go meals, decreasing sodium consumption is easier said than done.  

Canned soups, packaged noodles, frozen meals, condiments, and deli meats are staples of the average American diet. Even if consumers are aware of the excessive amount of sodium that these foods contain, the convenience they provide is often too good to pass up.   

Fortunately, there are ways that you can decrease sodium intake without sacrificing convenience or time.  

Ways to Decrease Sodium Intake  

 1 – Get started with Healthy for Life Meals!  

If you are receiving Healthy for Life Meals or thinking about getting started, you may have noticed that our meals are sodium-restricted.  

The average amount of sodium per day in our 1200 calorie plan is less than the American Heart Association’s most stringent recommendation of 1500 mg daily. The 1500 calorie vegetarian plan contains an average daily amount of 1800 mg of sodium, and the 2000 calorie traditional plan has 2300 mg of sodium per day on average, both falling within the American Heart Association’s suggestion. 

Getting started with Healthy for Life Meals is an excellent way to reduce your sodium intake. You can still enjoy the convenience of eating prepared meals without relying on packaged meals or restaurant foods that are usually loaded with salt.  

 2 – Choose fresh or frozen fruits and vegetables over canned.  

Decreasing the amount of canned foods that you eat is another way to reduce your sodium intake. Fresh or frozen fruits and vegetables do not contain the salt that is added to canned versions as a preservative.  

If you don’t have access to fresh or frozen produce, consider rinsing your canned veggies or beans. The American Heart Association estimates that this can reduce the sodium content by up to 40% percent! 

 3 – Read nutrition labels and look for foods labeled with “low sodium” or “no added salt.”  

Using food labels to identify foods that are high or low in sodium is helpful for controlling sodium intake.  

Look for foods that are labeled with “no added salt” or “low sodium,” which means they have 140 mg or less per serving. You may also see the designation “reduced sodium” on products, but keep in mind that just because a food has a reduced amount of sodium does not mean it is truly low in sodium. 

In addition to looking at the exact amount of sodium in a food, you can check out the percent daily value of each nutrient. If the sodium in a serving is 20% or more of the daily value, then you can assume that food is relatively high in sodium. A food with a sodium content of 5% or less of the daily value is considered a lower sodium food. 

If you are someone who is eating three meals a day and trying to reduce your sodium intake, aim for approximately 500 to 600 mg of sodium per meal. Use food labels to estimate the amount of sodium in your meals and focus on foods that are naturally low in sodium, such as fresh or frozen produce and unprocessed meats.  

When purchasing foods that usually contain salt, such as nuts or popcorn, look for versions with “no added salt.” For deli meats or other meat products, talk to the butcher or grocery store attendant about lower sodium options. You can also look for brands that do not add seasonings or inject a salt solution into their meats by reading the ingredients list and food label. A four-ounce portion of meat that has not been treated with salt typically has 100 mg or less of sodium.  

 4 – Use herbs and spices instead of salt when cooking and preparing foods.  

Instead of reaching for the salt shaker to season your food, consider cooking with more fresh or dried herbs and spices. For example, if you are used to adding salt to your taco meat, try mixing together cumin, chili powder, and garlic powder instead.  

Vinegars, citrus juices, onions, and garlic are tasty options for preparing meat, fish, and vegetable dishes. You can also try salt substitutes such as Mrs. DASH or Nu-Salt to add additional seasonings to your food without extra sodium.  

 5 – Be careful with condiments.  

Condiments are one of the biggest sources of sodium in the typical American diet. Companies tend to add salt to almost every type of condiment, including ketchup, barbecue sauce, salsas, hot sauce, salad dressings, pickles, soy sauce, olives, and mustards.  

Be sure to read the labels of these foods when you are shopping so that you can pick lower sodium options.  

The Bottom Line  

Getting too much sodium, especially in the form of added salt in processed and canned foods, can be dangerous for your health. But unfortunately, most Americans consume far more than the recommend daily amount of 1500 to 2300 mg for most adults. 

Excessive sodium intake is linked to high blood pressure and a higher risk of heart disease, heart attack, and stroke. Reducing salt consumption may help decrease high blood pressure and can help you stay healthy. 

To begin decreasing the amount of salt you eat, try following some of the simple tips in this article. Or get started with delicious, sodium-controlled meals from Healthy for Life Meals today!  

Note from Healthy for Life MealsWe combine low sodium with convenience! Our meals are sodium-controlled and prepared with a focus on fresh, whole foods. Enjoy delicious meals without worrying about your salt intake or spending hours planning and preparing meals on your own. Order today.

Stef Keegan