It may surprise you to know that your body needs a small amount of salt to work properly. But too much salt—also known as sodium chloride, is bad for your health. Excess sodium can increase your blood pressure and your risk for heart disease and stroke.
The 2015–2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend that Americans consume less than 2,300 milligrams (mg) of sodium per day as part of a healthy eating pattern. On average, American adults eat more than 3,400 milligrams (mg) of sodium each day, which is significantly higher than the recommended limit.
Most of the sodium we consume is in the form of salt, and the vast majority of sodium we consume is in processed and restaurant foods. Reducing your sodium intake can help manage blood pressure, reduce your risk of heart disease and stroke and even help decrease fluid retention and puffiness.
Ditching the salt shaker is an obvious and significant first step, after all, table salt is approximately 40 percent sodium. However, Atlanta based, registered dietitian nutritionist Marisa Moore, owner MarisaMoore.com says the salt shaker is the least of your worries. “71 percent of sodium in the diet comes from packaged and restaurant foods,” says Moore. Only about five percent of sodium comes from salt added during cooking or at the table. In fact, most Americans already get more daily sodium than recommended before they ever pick up a salt shaker.
According to Tammy and Lyssie Lakatos, authors of The Secret to Skinny: How Salt Makes You Fat, processed meat, frozen pizza and Chinese food are the worst offenders when it comes to making your blood pressure go up. And that’s not all. “Salt makes you hungrier, thirstier and it increases cravings. Plus, it seems that [salt] may cause your fat cells to hold more fat,” says the Lakatos, also known as the Nutrition Twins. “Reducing sodium is as good for your waistline as it is for your blood pressure.”
So let’s take a closer look at some of the worst sodium offenders:
Processed meats:Any meat preserved by smoking, curing, salting or with the addition of chemical preservatives fit into this category, including ham, bacon, sausage, hot dogs and luncheon meats. “In a three-ounce serving of most of these meats it’s easy to swallow 1,200 mg of sodium,” says The Nutrition Twins. And if you have high blood pressure you’ve already almost met your daily quota for sodium, which should be less than 1,500 milligrams per day.
Advice:Steer clear of these meats or at least opt for reduced-sodium varieties.
Frozen Pizza:“This combination of salty foods spells trouble for blood pressure. The dough, tomato sauce, cheese and then processed meats added on top can cause an individual serving of frozen pizza to clock in at close to 2400 mg sodium,” says The Nutrition Twins.
Advice:Make your own with low-fat cheese, lean meat and extra veggies.
Chinese Food:The sauce in Chinese dishes is loaded with sodium. “Something as innocent-sounding as Beef with Broccoli can have 3,752 mg sodium,” says The Nutrition Twins, and “that’s thanks to things used in the cooking like soy sauce and Teriyaki sauce that have about 1,000 mg of sodium in just a tablespoon.”
Nutrition Twin advice:Order your sauce on the side and use it sparingly.
Ready-to-eat boxed meals and side dishes:Along with the convenience comes a hefty dose of sodium. A 5-ounce frozen turkey and gravy dinner can have 787 milligrams of sodium. Half of a 16.5-ounce chicken pot pie can pack 800 milligrams of sodium.
Advice:Look for brands with less sodium.
Sugar-sweetened beverages:“We tend to associate excess sugar with higher blood sugar and diabetes,” says Moore. “However, excess sugar intake has been linked to high blood pressure levels as well.”
Moore’s advice:Keep added sugars at a minimum. You can do this by avoiding sugary beverages like soft drinks, iced tea, and fruit punch.
Canned and pickled vegetables and vegetable juice:While a great substitute when fresh is not available, canned and pickled vegetables are typically laden with preservatives or sauces and seasonings that add extra sodium. A cup of canned cream-style corn may contain 730 milligrams of sodium.
Advice:Read the nutrition facts panel. Look for descriptions such as “no salt added” and “reduced sodium.”
Bouillon, canned and instant soup:On average, a cup of canned chicken noodle soup contains as much as 760 milligrams of sodium. Eat the entire can — which makes two-and-a-half servings – and you’ll get 1,800 milligrams of sodium.
Advice:Look for brands with reduced-sodium or no salt added. For instant soup or oriental noodles, reduce the sodium by using half of the seasoning packet.
Canned Tomato Products and tomato juice:Canned tomato sauce and tomato juice are loaded with sodium. One cup of tomato juice contains 680 milligrams of sodium. One serving of spaghetti with meat sauce has over 1,300 milligrams of sodium.
Advice:Look for low or reduced sodium options.
It’s also important to note that the sodium content of processed food can vary by brand. For example, 3 oz chicken nuggets, frozen, breaded can have between 200 mg and 570 mg sodium; a cheeseburger from a fast food restaurant can have between 710 mg and 1,690 mg sodium. Be sure to compare brands and opt for the lower sodium item.
Click hereto learn more about high blood pressure and ways you can reduce sodium in your diet.
An award-winning registered dietitian, certified diabetes educator, and former spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, is the author of the Diabetes Guide to Enjoying Foods of the World; The African American Guide to Living Well With Diabetes.