Sodium: How to tame your salt habit

Find out how much sodium you really need, what high-sodium foods to avoid, and ways to prepare and serve foods without adding sodium.

By Mayo Clinic Staff

If you're like most people in the U.S., you're getting far more sodium than is recommended. And that could lead to serious health problems.

Consider that 1 teaspoon of table salt, which is a combination of sodium and chloride, has 2,325 milligrams (mg) of sodium. That's slightly more than the daily limit of 2,300 mg recommended by health experts.

The average American gets closer to 3,400 mg of sodium a day. See where all that sodium comes from and learn how you can cut back.

What happens to sodium in the body?

The body needs some sodium to function properly. Sodium plays a role in:

  • The balance of fluids in your body
  • The way nerves and muscles work

The kidneys balance the amount of sodium in the body. When sodium is low, the kidneys hold on to it. When sodium is high, the kidneys release some in urine.

If the kidneys can't eliminate enough sodium, it builds up in the blood. Sodium attracts and holds water, so the blood volume increases. The heart must work harder to pump blood, and that increases pressure in the arteries. Over time this can increase the risk of heart disease, stroke and kidney disease.

Some people are more sensitive to the effects of sodium than are others. That means they retain sodium more easily, which leads to fluid retention and increased blood pressure.

How much sodium is too much?

Keep in mind that less is better, especially if you're sensitive to sodium. If you aren't sure how much sodium your diet should include, talk to your doctor or dietitian.

What foods have sodium?

Most of the sodium in the typical American diet comes from processed or prepared foods. These include bread, pizza, cold cuts and bacon, cheese, soups, fast food, and prepared dinners, such as pasta, meat and egg dishes.

Many recipes call for salt, and many people also salt their food at the table. Condiments also may contain sodium. One tablespoon (15 milliliters) of soy sauce, for example, has about 1,000 mg of sodium.

Some foods naturally contain sodium. These include all vegetables and dairy products, meat, and shellfish. While these foods don't have an abundance of sodium, eating them does add to your overall body sodium content. For example, 1 cup (237 milliliters) of low-fat milk has about 100 mg of sodium.

How do I cut back on sodium?

Almost all Americans can benefit from eating less sodium. Here are ways you can cut back:

  • Eat more fresh foods. Most fresh fruits and vegetables are naturally low in sodium. Also, fresh meat is lower in sodium than are lunchmeat, bacon, hot dogs, sausage and ham. Buy fresh or frozen poultry or meat that hasn't been injected with a sodium-containing solution. Look on the label or ask your butcher.
  • Choose low-sodium products. If you buy processed foods, choose ones that are labeled low sodium. Better yet, buy plain, whole-grain rice and pasta instead of products that have added seasonings.
  • Eat at home. Restaurant foods and meals are often high in sodium. One entree may be at or above your daily limit.
  • Remove salt from recipes whenever possible. You can leave out the salt in many recipes, including casseroles, soups, stews and other main dishes that you cook. Look for cookbooks that focus on lowering risks of high blood pressure and heart disease.
  • Replace salt with herbs, spices and other flavorings. Use fresh or dried herbs, spices, and zest and juice from citrus fruit to jazz up your meals.
  • Go easy on the condiments. Soy sauce, salad dressings, sauces, dips, ketchup, mustard and relish all contain sodium.

Check the label

Taste alone may not tell you which foods are high in sodium. For example, you may not think a bagel tastes salty, but a typical 4-inch (10-centimeter) oat bran bagel has about 600 mg of sodium, and even a slice of whole-wheat bread contains about 150 mg of sodium.

So how can you tell which foods are high in sodium? Read food labels. The Nutrition Facts label found on most packaged and processed foods lists the amount of sodium in each serving. It also lists whether the ingredients include salt or sodium-containing compounds, such as:

  • Monosodium glutamate (MSG)
  • Baking soda (also called sodium bicarbonate)
  • Baking powder
  • Disodium phosphate
  • Sodium alginate
  • Sodium citrate
  • Sodium nitrite

Try to avoid products with more than 200 mg of sodium per serving. And be sure you know how many servings are in a package — that information is also on the Nutrition Facts label.

Learn the lingo

The supermarket is full of foods labeled reduced sodium or light in sodium. But don't assume that means they're low in sodium. For example, a can of chicken noodle soup that claims to have 25% less sodium still has a whopping 524 mg in 1 cup. It's only lower in sodium compared with regular chicken noodle soup, which has more than 790 mg of sodium in a cup.

Here's a rundown on common sodium claims and what they really mean:

  • Sodium-free or salt-free. Each serving in this product contains less than 5 mg of sodium.
  • Very low sodium. Each serving contains 35 mg of sodium or less.
  • Low sodium. Each serving contains 140 mg of sodium or less.
  • Reduced or less sodium. The product contains at least 25% less sodium than the regular version.
  • Lite or light in sodium. The sodium content has been reduced by at least 50% from the regular version.
  • Unsalted or no salt added. No salt is added during processing of a food that normally contains salt. However, some foods with these labels may still be high in sodium because some of the ingredients may be high in sodium.

Use salt substitutes wisely

Salt substitute is made by replacing some or all the sodium with potassium, magnesium or another mineral. To achieve that familiar salty taste, you may use too much of the substitute — and get too much sodium.

The potassium in some salt substitutes may be a problem for some people. Too much potassium can be harmful for people with kidney problems or who take medicines that cause potassium retention, such as ones used to treat high blood pressure and congestive heart failure.

Go low and take it slow

Your taste for salt is acquired, so you can learn to enjoy less. Decrease your use of salt gradually and your taste buds will adjust. Consider using salt-free seasonings to help with the transition.

After a few weeks of cutting back on salt, you probably won't miss it, and some foods may even taste too salty. Start by using no more than 1/4 teaspoon of salt daily — at the table and in cooking. Then throw away the saltshaker. As you use less salt, your preference for it diminishes, allowing you to enjoy the taste of the food itself, with heart-healthy benefits.

Sept. 15, 2021 See more In-depth

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