Even if you never pick up the salt shaker, you might be getting more sodium than you need. That’s because more than 70% of the sodium we eat comes from prepared, packaged and restaurant foods. These foods can make it hard to control how much sodium you eat.
Most people should cut back on sodium to improve their health.
When shopping for food:
- Choose packaged and prepared foods carefully. Compare labels and choose the product with the lowest amount of sodium per serving you can find. Different brands of the same food can have lower or higher sodium levels.
- Pick fresh and frozen poultry that hasn’t been injected with a sodium solution. Check the fine print on the packaging for terms like “broth,” “saline” or “sodium solution.” Sodium levels in unseasoned fresh meats are around 100 milligrams or less per 4-ounce serving. Compare this with the same serving of prepared rotisserie chicken pre-seasoned with sodium, which can have 400 mg of sodium a serving!
- Select condiments with care. For example, soy sauce, bottled salad dressings, dips, ketchup, jarred salsas, capers, mustard, pickles, olives and relish can be loaded with sodium. Look for reduced-sodium or lower-sodium versions.
- Buy canned vegetables labeled “no salt added” and frozen vegetables without salty sauces. When canned and frozen veggies are added to casseroles, soups or other mixed dishes you won’t miss the salt.
- Look for foods labeled with the American Heart Association’s Heart-Check mark. The Heart-Check mark designates foods that can be part of an overall healthy dietary pattern. While it doesn’t necessarily mean a product is “low sodium,” it does mean that the food meets the AHA’s sodium criteria to earn the Heart-Check mark.
You can eat foods with varying amounts of sodium and still achieve a balanced and heart-healthy diet. Learn more about the Heart-Check Food Certification Program.
When preparing food:
- Use flavorful ingredients. Onions, garlic, herbs, spices, citrus juices and vinegars can add flavor in place of some, or all, of the salt. Our recipes and tips can help!
- Drain and rinse canned beans and vegetables. This can help cut the sodium by up to 40%.
- Combine lower-sodium versions of food with regular versions. If you don’t like the taste of lower-sodium foods right now, try combining them in equal parts with a regular version of the same food. You’ll get less salt and probably won’t notice much difference in taste. This works especially well for broths, soups and tomato-based pasta sauces.
- Cook pasta, rice and hot cereal without salt. You’ll probably add other flavorful ingredients, so you won’t miss the salt.
- Grill, braise, roast, sear or sauté. These cooking methods can bring out natural flavors and reduce the need to add salt.
- Enjoy high-potassium foods regularly. These include sweet potatoes, potatoes, greens, tomatoes and lower-sodium tomato sauce, white beans, kidney beans, nonfat yogurt, oranges, bananas and cantaloupe. Potassium helps counter the effects of sodium and may help lower your blood pressure.
- Tell them how you like it. Ask for your dish to be made without extra salt and for sauces, dressings and gravies to be served on the side to use sparingly.
- Taste your food before adding salt. If you think it needs a boost of flavor, add freshly ground black pepper or a squeeze of fresh lemon or lime and taste it again before adding salt. Lemon and pepper are especially good on fish, chicken and vegetables.
- Watch out for these food words: pickled, brined, barbecued, cured, smoked, broth, au jus, soy sauce, miso or teriyaki sauce. These tend to be high in sodium. Foods that are steamed, baked, grilled, poached or roasted may have less sodium.
- Control portion sizes. When you cut calories, you usually cut the sodium, too. Ask if smaller portions are available, share the meal with a friend or ask for a to-go box when you order and place half the meal in the box to eat later.
Ask about the sodium content of menu items. Chain restaurants with 20 or more locations must provide nutrition information, including sodium content, to customers upon request.
Does less salt mean bland taste?
When you use less salt, you can taste the food’s natural flavor, especially when you use cooking techniques and flavorful ingredients (see tips above) to enhance it.
Over time, your taste buds can adjust to less salt. Studies show that when people follow a lower-sodium diet, they start to prefer it, and that the foods they once enjoyed taste too salty. Try it and see for yourself!
What about salt substitutes?
There are several salt substitutes on the market that replace some or all of the sodium with potassium. Potassium salt tastes similar to sodium chloride, except when heated it can have a bitter aftertaste. Most people can try potassium salt, but certain medical conditions (like kidney disease) and medications can have implications on your body’s potassium level. Talk with your health care professional about whether a salt substitute is right for you.