Some Tips to Reduce Your Salt Intake

by Diane, M.P.H, M.S.

  • Choose foods as close to the way they grow in nature as possible, i.e., fresh, unprocessed, and minimally prepared: About 75% of our sodium intake comes from hidden sources in the American diet, including packaged, processed, prepared, and restaurant foods ( Processing often leads to a loss of nutrients and other benefits of whole or semi-intact foods. Processed, cured meats typically have much more sodium than fresh meats. Canned vegetables and beans usually contain more sodium than fresh vegetables and dried beans. Therefore, choose fresh or unprocessed foods as often as possible, so you can reduce your sodium intake, increase your nutrient intake, and promote good health.
  • Canned, boxed, frozen, and prepared foods can be high in sodium: Check the label for sodium amounts and choose foods that have less than 300 milligrams per serving. But pay attention to serving sizes, as they are often unrealistically small. Look for no more than one milligram of sodium per one calorie of food. Be aware that some foods that are high in sodium do not list “salt” in the ingredients. That’s because there are other forms of sodium used in food processing, and these all contribute to the total amount of sodium listed in the Nutrition Facts. Examples of these ingredients include monosodium glutamate, sodium citrate, sodium bicarbonate, and sodium alginate.
  • Drain and rinse canned foods, like beans and fish, to reduce the amount of sodium per serving.
  • Eat more fresh fruits and vegetables: These are naturally low in sodium, and many are excellent sources of potassium. Our bodies need more potassium than sodium, but most Americans’ diets provide just the opposite, which can contribute to high blood pressure. Fill at least half of your plate with fruits and vegetables. If you think you won’t like lower sodium foods, try biting into a crunchy apple or pear, juicy orange, or sweet strawberry!
  • Always read the Nutrition Facts label to see how much sodium is in packaged foods: Salt lurks where you least expect it! Reading labels helps you to find hidden sources of sodium. Note the serving size, and be aware that some products, e.g., seasonings, may use grams instead of milligrams to describe the sodium content to make it seem lower than it really is. Check the ingredients for sources of sodium, and choose foods labeled “low sodium” or “no salt added.”
  • Buy plain, unsalted, frozen vegetables, instead of canned ones, when fresh vegetables are not available: Frozen vegetables are convenient, often as nutritious as fresh vegetables, and generally more nutritious and much lower in sodium than canned versions.
  • Avoid adding salt to your food: Hide the salt shaker in the cabinet. Make it available “upon request only” or when you have guests.
  • Always “wait and taste” before you do salt: When preparing food, add salt late in the cooking process. Foods release their flavors (and salt, in the case of salted ingredients) during the cooking process. Cooks tend to over-salt if “tasting” is undertaken too early.
  • Buy unsalted or low-sodium versions of foods: Convenience foods like broth, canned beans, nuts, tomatoes, and other vegetables often come in low-sodium or salt-free versions. Avoid high-salt canned soups; choose heart-healthy, low-salt soups instead.
  • Use healthy fats and oils, like extra virgin olive oil, canola oil, natural almond or peanut butter, roasted nuts and seeds by themselves or ground up with spices, avocados, as well as red wine vinegar or balsamic vinegar, in place of commercially-produced salad dressings, to enhance the flavor of your food: These all contribute their own flavors and can make up for any flavor loss from using less salt. Commercially-prepared salad dressings usually contain high sodium levels per serving. Unfortunately, the big low-fat and no-fat product push in the 1990’s wasn’t rooted in sound science. Many well-meaning product developers cut both good and bad fats out of formulations, and in order to maintain consumer acceptance of their products, they were forced to increase levels of sugar and sodium. Skip most fat-free salad dressings and other similar products.
  • Prepare foods with fresh or dried herbs and sodium-free spices such as basil, bay leaves, chili peppers, chili powder, cinnamon, cumin, curry, dill, garlic, ginger, mint, oregano, black pepper, rosemary, thyme, lemon or other citrus juice, vinegar, or wine: Mediterranean, Indian, Thai, and North African cuisine often use a variety of healthful herbs, nuts, roots, and spices, to create wonderful flavors with very little or no salt.
  • Reduce your portion size of foods you suspect of being salty or unhealthy: Sometimes the “richer” a meal seems, the more calories and sodium it has. Share a meal when dining out, or order from the children’s menu for smaller portions. You’ll trim your salt intake, as well as your waist.
  • Don’t rely on your taste buds: Just because a food doesn’t taste salty, doesn’t mean it is low in sodium per serving. Just because a food tastes salty, doesn’t mean it contains a lot of sodium. For example, some types of chips that taste salty have less salt than a slice of bread that has the salt baked in. Read the label and note the serving size.
  • Say no to the salt shaker: When dining out, ask that your food be made without salt. Avoid adding salt when you get your dish.
  • Reduce your intake of cheeses, especially processed types.
  • Reduce your intake of cold cuts, cured meats, and other processed, high-sodium foods such as bacon, deli meats, pepperoni, sausage, soy sauce, hot dogs, olives, and pickled foods.
  • Increase your intake of potassium: Potassium can help lower blood pressure, so add more fruits and vegetables, low-fat dairy, and unsalted beans to your diet.
  • Eat everything in moderation: The new guidelines don’t require you to give up your favorite foods. Everyone needs some sodium to maintain fluid balance and transmit nerve impulses in the body. However, watch your portion sizes and focus more on eating a variety of nutritious foods.
  • Look for processed foods that say ‘‘no salt added.’’
  • Limit or eliminate salty snacks such as chips, crackers, pretzels, and flavored or seasoned nuts.
  • Use condiments in moderation: Certain condiments, such as soy sauce, ketchup, and BBQ sauces are very high in sodium. Pickles, capers, cured meats, grated aged cheeses, mustard, catsup, soy sauce, hot sauce, smoked fish, and other condiments and specialty foods all bring added satisfaction to the table. There is no need to give up condiments, which in many cases represent culinary traditions that are centuries old. In some cases, reduced sodium versions of these are now available;
  • Switch ingrediants: Use plain non-fat or low-fat Greek yogurt in place of commercially-prepared sour cream or mayonnaise. Try making your own mayonnaise by whipping together cooked eggs, lemon juice, a little dry mustard, or garlic, for extra flavor. Salsa is another condiment that can be made easily without salt, from garden fresh ingredients, and can be made ahead.
  • “Fresh” and “natural” meats and poultry may be injected with salt solutions as part of their processing, and manufacturers are not required to list the sodium content on the label. The best way to find out whether your favorite brand has been treated with a salt solution is to ask the grocer or butcher, or to call the toll-free consumer hotline on the product’s label.
  • Note that some foods that are high in sodium may not taste especially salty, such as breakfast cereals, baked goods like muffins, energy drinks, sodas, and sports drinks.Baked goods are often remarkably high in sodium – baking soda is a salt!
  • Use soy sauce sparingly: One teaspoon contains about 0.36g of sodium (equivalent to 0.9g salt). Reduced sodium soy sauces are available in many markets.
  • Switch sides: Certain condiments, such as soy sauce, ketchup, and BBQ sauces are very high in sodium. Try making your own mayo for a picnic potato salad. It is quite easy and quick if you do it while the eggs are cooking. Add a little dry mustard or garlic for extra zip! Salsa is another condiment that can be made easily from garden fresh ingredients and can be made ahead.
  • Buy fresh or frozen vegetables, or those canned without salt
  • When making soup, dilute reduced sodium chicken broth with water or wine instead of using it full strength, and add vegetables and herbs for extra flavor.
  • Choose nutritious, high fiber breakfast cereals that are low in sodium or have no salt.
  • Shop the perimeter of the supermarket: Fresh foods like fruits, vegetables, fish, lean meats, and dairy are naturally lower in sodium. A diet that focuses on these foods has been clinically proven to lower high blood pressure more than just sodium restriction alone (25).
  • Since sodium levels vary widely for the same or similar grocery items, compare brands of processed food, including breads, cured meats, cheeses, snack foods, and other foods, choosing those with the lowest levels of sodium that still taste good: There is much variation from brand to brand. Some food manufacturers have already reduced sodium levels in their products, and others never added as much sodium in the first place.
  • Substitute whole grains for bread: Bread is one of the largest contributors of sodium to our diets, because we eat so much of it. Even whole grain bread, while a healthier choice than white, can contain considerable sodium. While some sodium in bread is for taste, much of it is used to help the bread-making process and preserve the final results. You can avoid extra salt when you prepare whole grains by themselves with water or low-sodium chicken or vegetable broth. Enjoy a Mediterranean-inspired whole grain salad with chopped vegetables, nuts, legumes, herbs and spices, a small amount of cheese, and extra virgin olive oil, vinegar, or citrus (e.g.,lemon) juice. Many of the same flavors you love in a sandwich can therefore be offered in a delicious new form with much less sodium. For any meal, cook steel cut oats, farro, quinoa, wheatberries, or other intact whole grains with fresh or dried fruit, and skip the toast and the extra sodium.
  • Salt is an acquired taste: Your family can learn to enjoy foods with less salt. One key to success: Make the changes gradually and consistently over a period of time, rather than trying to cut back by a large amount all at once (unless of course you find that an immediate 25 percent reduction in sodium doesn’t undermine your enjoyment of a particular food). Try this trick: Combine a reduced sodium version of a favorite product (e.g., vegetable soup) with a regular version in proportions that gradually favor the reduced sodium version. As time goes on, you won’t miss the salt.
  • Parents should set a good example and provide fresh or frozen fruits and vegetables, raisins, plain nuts and seeds, low-fat dairy products like kefir and yogurt, and other heart-healthy, nutritious, low sodium foods and snacks to their children, rather than less nutritious, salty, snack foods.
  • If you cannot eliminate salt from a recipe, gradually reduce it in your favorite recipes: For many foods and preparations, the average person cannot detect moderate to substantial differences in sodium levels, including reductions of up to as much as 25 percent.
  • Avoid “double salting” your foods when cooking, and look for ways to pair salted flavors with unsalted or under-salted foods, especially fresh produce: If you are adding a little cheese to your salad, you don’t need much or any salt in your dressing. If you are adding a ham bone to a soup pot, lighten up on the sodium for the rest of the soup. In a sandwich, try adding sliced cucumber instead of pickles. A pot of brown rice or whole grain pasta doesn’t need to be salted if you are serving it with other adequately seasoned items or sauces. A seasoned crust or condiment may reduce the need for salting the rest of a dish.
  • Use simple cooking techniques which enable you to avoid or reduce the use of salt, like broiling, poaching, roasting, searing, sauteing, steaming: Searing and sautéing foods in a pan builds flavor. Roasting brings out the natural sweetness of many vegetables and the savoriness of fish and chicken. Steaming and microwaving tend to dilute flavors; perk up steamed dishes with a finishing drizzle of flavorful oil and some citrus juice or lemon.
  • Save your “sodium budget” to enhance the flavors of produce, whole grains, nuts and legumes, and other healthy ingredients versus “overspending” it on salty snacks, heavily processed food, high-sodium fast foods, and other foods that we should be consuming in smaller amounts.
  • Buy organic produce when it is season: Shop for raw ingredients with maximum natural flavor, thereby avoiding the need to add as much (if any) sodium. Seek produce from farmers’ markets and your local supermarket when it is season and grown locally.
  • Be careful with salt substitutes: Many are made with potassium instead of sodium and can aggravate kidney problems. If you are taking a potassium sparing diuretic, an excess of potassium can build and harm the heart. Stick to tried and true, salt free flavoring blends.
  • Know which ingredients and individual foods are high in sodium, and eat them sparingly: Salt is ubiquitous in the American diet, but the “top 10 list of popular food sources of sodium in the U.S. diet” is a good place to focus. Choose carefully when buying foods in these categories or eat less of these items: pizza, white bread and rolls, processed cheese, deli meats, bacon, hot dogs, sausage, spaghetti with sauce, ketchup, cooked pasta or rice, flour tortillas, wraps, and snack foods (5, 18).

When dining out:

• Check restaurant websites for a nutrition fact sheet or sodium information, before you head out, or ask for this information at the restaurant, to help you make the best possible low-sodium choices: Sodium levels can vary widely from one dish to another and from one restaurant to another. Some chain restaurant and fast-food meals may contain 5,000–6,000 milligrams of sodium per serving and sandwiches and fast-food entrées about 2,000–2,500 milligrams of sodium per serving—as much as or more than a day’s recommended sodium intake!

• Select a restaurant where food is made to order, and keep your order simple.

• After reading the menu, speak with your server to learn how food is prepared and what unsalted or low-salt options are offered. Request that no salt or sodium-containing seasonings be added to your food.

• Add a dash of low-sodium seasoning you brought from home.

• Save high-salt foods for very limited special occasions.

• Choose simple foods without butter (often salted or seasoned butter is offered), cheese, or sauce; broiled, poached, or roast chicken, lean meats, fish, fresh or steamed vegetables, plain baked potato, salads (ask for oil and vinegar, instead of rich dressing), fresh fruit for dessert.

• Avoid using the salt shaker.

• Request that fish, poultry, and vegetable entrees be prepared with herbs and lemon or lime juice, instead of salt and seasoned butter.

• Ask that your food be prepared with a minimum of sauce or salad dressing, rather than the regular amount. Otherwise, ask that they not be added to your food, but rather be “on the side,” so that you can control the amount used.

• If your meal must be prepared with sauce or toppings, or you have little control over the meal preparation, simply scrape any  sauce to the side of the plate, and enjoy the vegetables, lettuce, and tomatoes. Skip the cheese and go easy on condiments.

• Eat a heart-healthy, high-potassium, low-sodium diet during the rest of the day.

Foodservice and food manufacturing, together with consumers and home cooks, all need to promote sodium reduction. As more consumers demand low-sodium, heart-healthy meal alternatives, chain restaurants and other foodservice providers will be obligated to reduce sodium use in their products.

Bon Appetit!


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{ 1 comment }

Deborah Wenzel January 11, 2012 at 3:46 pm

To reduce sodium in snack nuts, I dampen a piece of paper towel, place it in an individual-sized serving bag of the nuts, and shake the bag. Excess salt clings to the towel. The nuts are so much better without the excess salt. I suppose this would also help with chips and other snack items, if they’re to be eaten right away.

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