Woman eating a salad

Adding salt to your food isn't the only way sodium sneaks into your diet.

If you're like most people, you could be consuming too much sodium. In fact, 90 percent of Americans consume more sodium than we should. Sodium is a mineral that is naturally found in salt, so the more salt you eat the higher your sodium intake. That can be problematic as a high daily salt intake may lead to high blood pressure. Even if your blood pressure is fine, eating too much sodium may have other downsides such as increasing the risk of conditions such as osteoporosis, kidney stones, and stomach cancer.

If you'd like to eat less sodium, here's what you need to know.

It's All About Balance

Sodium can be confusing. On one hand, our bodies need small amounts of it to survive. However, when we consume too much sodium it binds to water, increasing blood volume. Pumping all that additional fluid throughout the body puts a lot of strain on the heart and slowly damages blood vessels by raising blood pressure. Over time, that can increase the risk of a heart attack or stroke.

Beyond the Saltshaker

For most adults, the recommended sodium intake per day shouldn't exceed 2,300 milligrams. However, for anyone with high blood pressure, the ideal range is below 1,500 milligrams or about two-thirds of a teaspoon of salt per day. In reality, most of us eat more than twice that amount. It's easy to assume that the best way to reduce your daily salt intake is to banish the salt shaker. However, you might be surprised to learn that only a small portion of our sodium comes from salt that we add to foods. The bulk of it comes from foods prepared outside of the home, with processed foods and restaurant meals accounting for seventy percent of our daily sodium.

The good news is, it is possible to cut down on sodium—and it's easier than you might expect. If you'd like to eat more low-sodium meals, these tips can help:

  • Opt for fresh or frozen vegetables without added salt or sauces
  • Choose low-sodium canned beans, tomatoes, soups, broths, and condiments
  • Instead of buying sodium-heavy rice and grain mixes, prepare your own grains and season them with flavorful spices such as cumin, paprika, and garlic, onion, curry, and chili powders
  • Even though cheese is rich in calcium, it's packed with sodium. Skip the cheese on your sandwich and think of foods rich in cheese, like pizza, as a special treat
  • Compare nutrition labels when you shop for food as the amount of sodium in packaged foods can vary substantially from brand to brand

Potassium to the Rescue

When it comes to blood pressure, sodium is one part of the equation. Another important, yet often overlooked component is potassium. This mineral lowers blood pressure by helping the body excrete sodium and fluid. It's so effective that one study found that people with the most potassium in their diets were twenty percent less likely to die than people who consumed the least potassium. Additionally, people with the greatest sodium to potassium ratio in their diets had a fifty percent higher risk of death from any cause.

The trouble is, most of us don't come close to getting the 4,700 milligrams of potassium that is the recommended daily dietary intake for most adults. One reason is that potassium is only found mainly in whole foods such as fruit, vegetables, beans, and dairy products, so if you eat a lot of processed and packaged foods it can be hard to get your fill. Another reason is that those foods that do provide potassium usually contain small amounts. For example, you'd have to eat eleven bananas or drink thirteen cups of milk to get your entire days' worth. The trick to getting the potassium you need is to eat lots of potassium-rich foods throughout the day. If that sounds like a tall order, these strategies can help:

  • Sprinkle dried fruit into cereal
  • Add beans to pasta, tacos, and chili
  • Aim for one serving of fresh fruit and vegetables at every meal
  • Toss a small handful of nuts or sunflower seeds into a salad
  • Whip up a fruit smoothie for a quick snack or breakfast
  • Top a baked potato with plain Greek yogurt

When transitioning to a lower-sodium, higher-potassium diet your taste buds may need a little time to adjust, so make changes gradually. Over time, you'll adapt to the naturally delicious flavors of fresh food.

By Karen Ansel, MS, RDN

 

Sources:

CDC, Sodium Fact Sheet

Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, Health Risks and Disease Related to Salt and Sodium

NIH, Eating, Diet & Nutrition for Kidney Stones

American Heart Association, Why Should I Limit Sodium?

Linus Pauling Institute Micronutrient Information Center,Potassium

USDA, Food Composition Database