Eat less salt

bell peppers

Carole Bartolotto, MA, RD

You may know that too much sodium can be dangerous for people with high blood pressure. But did you know that almost everyone should watch their salt intake?

The average American consumes between 3,500 to 5,000 mg of sodium per day. Eighty percent of that sodium comes from restaurants, fast food, and processed foods — not the salt shaker.

How much sodium is safe?

Most people should have no more than 2,400 mg of sodium per day.

Why cut back on sodium?

A study in the British Medical Journal found that sodium actually increases the risk of heart attack and stroke in everyone — even those without high blood pressure.* The study also found that by cutting out just 1,000 mg of sodium a day (½ teaspoon of salt) you can decrease your risk of heart attack or stroke by 25 percent.

If you have high blood pressure, reducing sodium has been shown to lower blood pressure after only a few weeks. When combined with diet and exercise, eating less salt can also reduce the amount of medication you need to take to get your blood pressure under control.

How much sodium are you really eating?

While processed foods and restaurant foods are the largest source of salt, all foods contain some sodium.

Think about your typical day's meals. If you ate these mostly unprocessed foods, you'd only be consuming about 1,000 mg of sodium per day.

Sprinkle on just 1/4 tsp of salt and you'll add 500 mg of sodium to your day. That's a total of about 1,500 mg of sodium in 1 day.

FoodServing Sodium
Milk2 cups215 mg

Chicken

6 oz120 mg
Fresh vegetables2½ cups100 mg
Fruit3 pieces6 mg
Whole grain bread3 slices450 mg
Whole wheat pasta2½ cups20 mg
Trans-fat-free margarine3 tsp95 mg

Cooking at home more often is a great start. But processed foods that may already be in your kitchen can push you over the recommended sodium limits.

  • 1 tablespoon of soy sauce has 1,000 mg of sodium
  • 1 package of Chicken Top Ramen has 1,365 mg of sodium
  • 1 ounce of American cheese has 400 mg of sodium

Eat in a restaurant for one meal per day and you'll quickly go over the recommended sodium limits. Consider these popular restaurant foods:

FoodSodium
PF Chang’s Pad Thai combo5,100 mg
Panda Express 2 entrée meal with orange chicken2,200 mg
McDonald’s artisan grilled chicken sandwhich960 mg
El Pollo Loco pollo bowl1,750 mg
In-N-Out double-double burger1,440 mg

Salt swaps

Cut back on sodium with these swaps:

  • Cook at home.
  • Eat fewer processed, packaged, and canned foods.
  • Eat more fresh foods prepared without salt.
  • Eat out less often. Aim for one day a week.
  • Use lemon juice, herbs, wine, or spices instead of salt.

Your taste buds will get used to the lower amount of sodium in just 3 to 4 weeks.

Remember that even a small decrease in sodium can have a big effect on your risk of a heart attack or stroke.

*Cook, Nancy R, “Long term effects of dietary sodium reduction…” BMJ 2007; 334 (7599): 885-888.

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