Sodi-um? More like sodi-yum. It tends to get a bad rap, but sodium is absolutely essential for the functioning of your body’s systems. You need some sodium to regulate your blood pressure and keep your fluids in balance.
But you might be surprised just how much sodium you’re getting through your diet on the daily. Packaged and prepared foods are loaded with this savory compound.
If getting too much sodium is impacting your health (for example, by increasing your blood pressure), your doctor might prescribe a low sodium diet.
Low sodium diets 101
How much sodium should you have per day?
The American Heart Association recommends adults get 2,300 milligrams of sodium or less per day. Need a visual? That’s the amount of sodium in just 1 teaspoon of added salt.
And even that’s more than you really need. To function properly, your body needs only about 500 milligrams of sodium each day.
Benefits of a low sodium diet
Certain foods (like beets) contain sodium naturally, but most Americans consume wayyyy too much sodium from salty ultra-processed foods.
Which foods should you avoid on a low sodium diet?
Try to avoid high sodium foods, including:
Your body needs the right amount of sodium to do important stuff like regulate your blood pressure and fluid balance.
But it’s possible to get too much of this good thing, especially if you have certain medical conditions. If you have kidney disease, high blood pressure, or heart disease, you may need to follow a low sodium diet.
Just keep in mind that some of these diets significantly decrease the amount of sodium you get, and they’re not right for everyone. They can be pretty hard to follow too.
The average American consumes about 3,600 milligrams of sodium per day, so transitioning to a low sodium diet typically requires significant changes to food choices.
Types of low sodium diets
Here are a few low sodium diets your doctor might recommend:
- 2-gram sodium diet
- 3-gram sodium restricted diet
- 3,000 milligrams of sodium or less per day
- also used to treat high blood pressure and heart failure
- General low sodium diet
- restricts sodium without specific limits
- may be suggested for people who have or are at risk of developing high blood pressure or heart conditions
Most people can benefit from limiting added salt
What if your doctor hasn’t prescribed a low sodium diet? Major health organizations actually suggest that everyone (not just peeps with certain medical conditions) should try to limit their sodium intake.
Where should you start? By slowing down on added salt.
Added salt is the largest contributor of sodium in a typical diet. Studies suggest that getting too much added salt could increase your risk of developing certain conditions, including stomach cancer and heart disease.
So even though you might not have to go on a low sodium diet, limiting foods that are high in added salt can prob still help your health.
If you’ve been prescribed a low sodium diet, you need to carefully regulate your sodium intake. Your healthcare team will work with you to come up with a tailored plan for your needs.
But if you’re just trying to reduce your overall intake of added salt, you can try to cut out or limit the following foods:
- table salt
- salty snack foods (like chips and pretzels)
- high salt deli meats
- frozen dinners
- high salt takeout (like Chinese food, burritos, and pizza)
- canned soups, broths, and dry soup mixes
- boxed pasta and rice dishes (like mac and cheese)
- salty side dishes (like boxed stuffing)
- high salt condiments (like salad dressings and dips)
- cheese sauces and ultra-processed cheeses (like Velveeta)
- savory pastries (like sausage rolls and cheesy biscuits)
- fast food (like burgers and fries)
- salty drinks (like bottled vegetable juices and salty cocktails)
- jerky and meat sticks
- processed meats (like hot dogs and canned meats)
- salty breads (like bagels and salted soft pretzels)
- baked beans and salty canned veggies
FYI: Some folks on strict sodium-restricted diets may also need to limit foods high in natural sodium (like shrimp). But if you’re just watching your overall sodium intake for general health purposes, these are safe to have.
You have tons of options when you’re looking to live that low salt life, including:
- fresh, cooked, or canned veggies with no added salt
- fresh, frozen, dried, canned, or cooked fruit with no added sugar
- protein sources like fish, chicken, and turkey
- whole grains like oats and brown rice
- unsalted nuts, seeds, and nut and seed butters
- dried or canned beans with no added salt
- whole eggs or egg whites
- unsweetened dairy (like yogurt and kefir)
- fresh or dried herbs like parsley and rosemary
- salt alternatives like lemon juice, dried herbs, low salt salsa, and nutritional yeast
Whole, unprocessed foods such as fruits, veggies, and protein sources like eggs and fish naturally contain some sodium, but they don’t contain added salt (the source of most sodium in the modern diet).
If you want to transition to a lower sodium diet, there are several easy ways to reduce your salt intake.
FYI: Keep in mind that these tips are appropriate for peeps wanting to generally lower their sodium intake. If you’re prescribed a sodium-restricted diet, you’ll need to monitor your sodium intake closely with the help of a medical professional.
How to eat less sodium at restaurants
Your go-to meal at your fave restaurant may contain a shocking amount of sodium, even if it’s a dish that’s typically considered “healthy,” like a salad.
The Boneless Buffalo Chicken Salad from Chili’s contains 4,780 milligrams of sodium. That’s more than twice as much as most folks are supposed to get in a whole day.
- Ask for more info. Feel free to ask your server how dishes are cooked. You can also ask not to have salt added to your dish, if possible.
- Order sauces or dressings on the side. Get salty sauces, dressings, or topping served separately from your main dish. That way you can use them more sparingly as you eat.
- Choose simple dishes. Opt for customizable dishes (like grilled fish with custom sides). This can often allow you to select lower-sodium options than mixed dishes like stir-fries, stews, and pastas.
- Visit their website. Some restaurants have nutritional information available to customers on their websites. It may be helpful to peep the menu ahead of time to determine which dishes will fit into a low sodium diet.
Cooking with less sodium
If you’re cooking at home, you’re already making a great choice for your health. Cooking at home is associated with health benefits like decreased disease risk and can significantly reduce your intake of added salt.
- Use fewer highly processed foods. Packaged foods and premade frozen dinners are the main sources of added salt in the typical American diet. Try to cook from scratch when possible.
- Prioritize nutrient-dense foods. Consuming more home-cooked meals full of foods like veggies, fish, and beans can majorly reduce your sodium intake.
- Limit your use of added salt. Be sure to add lots of fresh herbs and spices to your dishes to cut down on salt. And make a habit of tasting your food before adding salt.
- Try some salt alternatives. A squeeze of lemon or a dash of paprika can bring flavor to your food and reduce the need for loads of added salt.
Low sodium snacks
If you’re a salty snack lover, you’re not alone. Most peeps love a good salted pretzel or handful of crunchy roasted and salted almonds. Here’s how to enjoy your snacks without overdoing it on salt.
- Cut back on ultra-salty packaged snacks. These foods are A-OK for most people to enjoy occasionally. But it’s a good idea to limit foods like chips, crackers, dips, jerky, pork rinds, and salted popcorn as much as possible.
- Sub those snacks. Opt for nutritious, less salty snacks like fresh fruit and unsalted nut butter, veggies with homemade hummus, yogurt, or a berry parfait with chia seeds. Snacks like unsalted trail mix, unsweetened yogurt, fresh fruit, and hard-boiled eggs are available at most convenience stores.
- Make some snacks from scratch. When possible, make your snacks yourself. Homemade snacks are a great choice because you can control the amount of salt added to them.
Whether you’re trying to reduce your sodium intake to improve your overall health or you have a medical condition that requires a salt-restricted diet, don’t panic! You can find plenty of low sodium meal and snack options in your local grocery store or make them at home.
Cutting back on salty snack foods and high sodium restaurant meals and using less added salt overall can help you slash your sodium intake. That’s good news for your health, especially if you have certain medical conditions.
Remember: If your doctor has prescribed a specific sodium-restricted diet, it’s important to work with your healthcare team to develop the right diet for you.