There's no denying it—Americans love salty foods. From nachos and pizza to hot dogs and french fries, the saltshaker has become a staple on dinner tables everywhere, and it's not just for decoration.
So it should be no surprise to learn that most of us consume an excess of sodium on a daily basis. In fact, Americans on average eat 1,000 milligrams (mg) more than the 2,300 mg/day recommended limit in the USDA's Dietary Guidelines. While our bodies need only 1/4 teaspoon of salt per day, the average American eats at least 6 times that (1 1/2 teaspoons) per day. If you are looking to avoid high-sodium foods, some sources may seem obvious, but others may surprise you.
Why Does Watching Your Sodium Intake Matter?
Too much sodium can put you at risk for high blood pressure, stroke and heart disease. This is because sodium plays a key role in our bodies' fluid balance, blood volume and blood pressure. Consuming too much of it can increase blood pressure and fluid retention, which can lead to swelling and other serious health issues.
While 2,300 mg/day of sodium may seem generous, the numbers add up quickly. For instance, take a typical turkey sandwich, a standard lunch for many. A slice of bread contains approximately 150 mg sodium, but for a sandwich you'll need two slices. Then just two ounces of sliced deli turkey can contain about 400 mg of sodium or more. If you add just one slice of American cheese to your sandwich, that's another 250 mg. A pickle on the side and a single-serving bag of potato chips will each contribute approximately 300 mg of sodium. So just that one lunch could contain more than 1,550 mg of sodium, well over half of your 2,300 mg daily limit. That doesn't leave much room for sodium in breakfast, dinner, drinks or snacks.
Read More: 3 Ways to Cut 1,000 mg of Sodium
Yes, some sodium is found naturally in certain foods, but, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), approximately 70 percent of sodium Americans consume is from restaurant meals, prepackaged items and processed foods, making label reading and cooking at home more important than ever.
Here are some major culprits from each of the main food groups.
Recipe to Try: Shredded Chicken Master Recipe
Low-Sodium Proteins to Choose
• Low-sodium lunch meat
• Fresh poultry
• Fresh beef
• Fresh seafood
• Low-sodium canned beans
• Dry beans
• Unsalted nuts
High-Sodium Proteins to Watch Out For
• Deli lunch meats
• "Kosher" or "prebasted" chicken or turkey
• Packaged frozen shrimp
• Bacon or other smoked meat or fish
• Frozen dinners
• Salted nuts
• Canned beans
• Canned or boxed broth/stock
Poultry, meat, fish and legumes are a great source of protein and other vital nutrients, but many of these options are accompanied by loads of salt. Skip the deli meats if possible, or look for low-sodium varieties of lunch meat. Don't be shy at the grocery store—feel free to ask store employees for the lower-sodium options.
If you're shopping for meat, poultry or fish, check the ingredient label—even when it looks plain—to make sure it hasn't been brined in a salt solution. Nuts are a great choice as far as snacks go, but skip the salted or seasoned versions in favor of unsalted. (This also goes for nut butters.)
Nothing beats the convenience of canned beans, but if you have the time, cooking dried beans from scratch enables you to add as much (or little) salt as you like. But if time doesn't allow for that, canned beans are not out of the question. Just be sure to buy low-sodium varieties, then drain and rinse them thoroughly before cooking or eating. If you're cooking soup, try making your own stock or look for low-sodium or no-salt-added varieties in stores.
Read More: Top 10 Sources of Sodium in Food
Recipe to Try: Homemade Plain Greek Yogurt
Low-Sodium Dairy to Choose
• Greek yogurt
• Low-sodium cheese
• Low-sodium cottage cheese
• Ricotta cheese
High-Sodium Dairy to Watch Out For
• Processed cheese
• Cottage cheese
• Cheese sauces or spreads
Some cheeses taste super salty, while others are on the milder side. No matter how mild a cheese may taste, chances are it's still pretty salty, so be sure to check labels (even on low-sodium options). Dairy is a great way to get protein, calcium and vitamin D in your diet, but there are plenty of other dairy options that won't provide an excessive amount of sodium, such as low-fat yogurt and milk.
Recipe to Try: Easy Brown Rice
Low-Sodium Grains to Choose
• Brown rice
• Low-sodium bread
High-Sodium Grains to Watch Out For
• Bread and rolls
• Crackers and chips
• Prepackaged mixes for stuffing, pastas, rice, etc.
Grains are a sneaky source of sodium because, unlike cheese, they're often not overtly salty tasting. Nevertheless, many bread products are packed with sodium.
To keep sodium in check, look for lower-sodium versions of breads and cereals, and watch portion sizes. Cook rice and pasta from scratch instead of using mixes, and avoid using salt when boiling. Better yet, opt for nutrient-dense whole grains like quinoa or farro instead.
Look for unsalted snacks like salt-free pretzels, or cook your own snacks by popping your own popcorn or making your own oven-roasted potato chips. When eating out, avoid dishes that involve breading, and skip the breadbasket entirely.
Fruits and Vegetables
Recipe to Try: Red Grapefruit Salad with Avocado & Pistachios
Low-Sodium Produce to Choose
• Fresh fruit
• Fresh vegetables
• Frozen vegetables (with no salt added)
High-Sodium Produce to Watch Out For
• Canned fruit, vegetables, juices, sauce, soups
• Pickled vegetables
• Prepackaged vegetable mixes (preseasoned or with sauces)
• Prepackaged vegetable dips (salsa, spinach-artichoke, etc.)
It's important to get all your fruit and vegetable servings every day (see 8 easy ways to hit your produce quota), but not all fruits and veggies are created equal. Choose fresh produce when possible, and if buying frozen (also a healthy option), make sure you're purchasing plain fruit or vegetables with no sauces or seasoning added. If you're buying canned or jarred fruits, vegetables, sauces or juices, look for low-sodium options, and be sure to drain and rinse them to get rid of as much salt as possible. Dried fruit is also good low-sodium fruit option, just be wary of added sugars. Produce is also rich in the mineral potassium, which helps cancel out the negative effects of too much salt.
Low-Sodium Flavor-Boosters to Use
• Lemon juice or zest
• Lime juice or zest
• Fresh or dried herbs
Condiments to Watch Out For
• BBQ sauce
• Fish sauce
• Soy sauce
• Steak sauce
• Stir-fry sauce
• Worcestershire sauce
• Salad dressings
• Seasoning mixes (taco seasoning, garlic salt, celery salt)
• Salted butter
Though condiments can take a dish to the next level, more often it seems we mindlessly use them out of habit—and often in excess. Instead of turning to these sodium-laden condiments when cooking at home, try adding spices, herbs, vinegar and citrus zest or juice to boost your meals.
Get creative and experiment. Try making your own dressings and sauces: they're simple, fresh-tasting and keep you in control of the sodium. If you're eating out, ask how dishes are prepared and don't be afraid to request that no salt be added to your dish and that dressing or sauces be kept on the side.
Get More: Low-Sodium Lunch Recipes
Tips for Eating Less Salt
These lists might seem daunting (yes, salt seems to be in everything), but more low-sodium products are appearing on shelves these days as sodium consumption becomes a widespread concern. Keep in mind that, while these products are an improvement from their full-sodium counterparts, they're often still processed and may contain other additives. Whenever possible, the healthiest option is to cook from scratch using fresh, whole, unprocessed ingredients, and to use the saltshaker sparingly.
Here are a few more tips to help reduce sodium intake:
• Aim for salt amounts in main entrees to not exceed 500 mg of sodium.
• Even if your food doesn't taste recognizably salty, that does not necessarily mean it's low in sodium. The only way to be sure is by checking labels.
• There are many different terms you may see on labels with different meanings: "Sodium-free" or "salt-free" means the food contains under 5 mg per serving. "Unsalted" or "no-salt-added" means that no salt has been added (but doesn't mean it has 0 mg sodium). "Very low in sodium" provides 35 mg of sodium or less per serving. "Low in sodium" or "contains a small amount of sodium" means the item contains 140 mg or less per serving. "Reduced-sodium" or "less-sodium" means the food provides at least 25 perent less sodium than a traditional product.
• Some foods labeled "heart-healthy" or "low-fat" may actually be high in sodium, so check the nutrition facts label.
• Make gradual changes to decrease your intake of sodium over time. If your taste buds are used to super-salty foods, it may take a few weeks for your palate to grow accustomed to less salt. But remember—less salt doesn't have to mean less flavor.
• When it comes to beverages, choose water over soda. Though they're more sweet than salty, sodas still contain sodium that can add up fast.
• Note that certain over-the-counter medications, like many antacids, contain sodium.
• Eat at home more and cook your meals from scratch. Not only will it be better on your budget, but it also will help you avoid salty processed foods, and help you be in control of your sodium intake.
• Remove the saltshaker from the dining table to avoid temptation during mealtime.
Watch: How to Make Cuban Pineapple & Avocado Salad