How to Reduce Your Salt Intake – 20 Ways
The government is asking food companies and restaurateurs to reduce sodium levels. The goal: to prevent health problems such as high blood pressure, heart disease and strokes associated with regular consumption of too much salt. However, you don’t have to wait for these small, gradual adjustments to make healthy changes in your own diet.
Public health goals
On October 13, the Food and Drug Administration released voluntary sodium reduction targets for commercially processed, packaged and prepared foods. Encompassing 163 food categories, the FDA guidelines provide short-term sodium reduction goals for food manufacturers, restaurant chains, and food service operators.
“Although many consumers want to reduce their sodium intake, about 70% of the sodium we consume comes from packaged, processed foods and restaurants, which makes it difficult to limit sodium,” according to the FDA statement.
Over the next 2.5 years, the goal is to reduce the average sodium intake of US consumers from about 3,400 milligrams to 3,000 mg per day, or about a teaspoon less. This sodium cap still exceeds the daily intake of 2300 mg recommended by the Dietary Guidelines for Americans for people 14 years of age and older.
“We’ve always known that a lot of sodium comes from packaged, processed and prepared foods,” says Sharon Palmer, Los Angeles-based registered dietitian and author of books on plant-based nutrition and Plant-Powered Dietitian. Blog. “So the FDA seems to be focusing on this because it’s so impactful.”
What you can do
Nutrition experts suggest steps you can take right now when buying, preparing, and ordering food to reduce the amount of salt you eat without missing out on it.
Smart grocery store with salt
So many choices, so many foods high in sodium. The grocery store is the starting point for managing the amount of salt you and your family eat:
- Read the back label. “I encourage people to be really on top of the labels,” says Vahista Ussery, registered dietitian-nutritionist, chef and founder of To Taste, a culinary nutrition education and consulting company. Rather than picking the first item, look at the back labels of the products to compare the nutritional values, not the hype. “Manufacturers can put really misleading jargon on the front of the package,” Ussery explains, noting that the words “halo” like “organic” don’t necessarily mean that an item is low in sodium.
- Find must-have products. It can be tedious to check the label of each product when shopping, notes Palmer. Instead, experiment a bit with products you use frequently, like pasta sauce, tomato soup, or snacks to find the low-salt version you like. Choosing favorites, she says, “You don’t have to do a lot of homework every time.
- Take daily values into account. The Nutrition Facts panel actually gives two digits for nutrients like sodium. The first is the amount of sodium in milligrams per serving (180 mg, for example). The second number is “% Daily Value” (7%, for example). This allows you to calculate how much of a bite a single item would take out of your daily sodium limit. “A general rule of thumb is this: If something is 20% or more of the daily value, it’s a product that’s high enough” in sodium or some other nutrient, Palmer explains.
- Give low salt items a chance. Food manufacturers are wary of labeling products “low in salt” because consumers often think “tasteless,” says Palmer. “Don’t just assume it won’t taste good,” she advises.
- Beware of certain sources of sodium. Frozen meals, store-bought breads, and processed or deli meats can contain significant levels of sodium, Palmer warns.
- Avoid the obvious salt. Pretzels or visibly salty items like sea salt chips give you all the information you need without even checking the label.
- Place whole foods in your basket. Start in the produce aisle and stock up on fruits and vegetables, which are naturally low in sodium and contain healthy potassium.
Cut the salt at home
Your own kitchen and pantry are great places to practice salt management:
- Cook. “The more people learn to cook and cook from scratch, it really gives you control over how much salt you put in your food,” Ussery explains.
- Season without salt. With a well-stocked spice rack, the foods you prepare should never go bland. “Learning to rely on spices and herbs, and how to use acidic ingredients like lemon and lime juice and balsamic vinegar, can all help you season and flavor your food before you (switch to) salt.” Ussery explains. Spices like turmeric may provide additional health benefits.
- Sprinkle instead of spoon. Adding a pinch of salt instead of the whole teaspoon that a recipe calls for is a simple tip for reducing salt. Some chefs sprinkle salt at the end of cooking a main course to get a bigger kick and a higher salty feel rather than mixing with the food, Palmer says.
- Build up the flavors gradually. Another strategy is to create flavor with small amounts of salt and pepper at each step of the cooking process. “I find that if you season all the way through cooking with salt, you end up using less than if you wait until the very end,” Ussery explains.
- Think acidic. If you cook a dish and find it tastes flat, don’t immediately grab the salt shaker, suggests Ussery. “Often what is really missing is the acidic element,” she says. “So a squeeze of lemon juice or a hint of vinegar helps brighten up those flavors, very similar to what salt does.”
- Snack mindful. Make popcorn from scratch with the grains, for a healthy, whole-grain snack. Ussery also recommends fruits and vegetables for snacks, and you can get creative. “Combine nut butter with fruit,” she suggests. Nuts and seeds make great snacks on their own, she says – just watch the sodium content. “There is the whole range: you can find them from unsalted to quite heavily salted.” If you must have chips, take a smaller portion but also snack on celery, she suggests. This way you mix a vegetable and still get that crunch.
- Focus on potassium. Unlike salt, increasing the potassium in your diet actually lowers your risk of high blood pressure, heart disease, and stroke. “We really have to focus on how much potassium we are consuming because sodium and potassium work together in our bodies,” Ussery explains. Fruits and vegetables are rich in potassium.
- Look for diets that are low in salt. Following certain diets or diets will help you control sodium levels. The DASH diet, which stands for Diet Approaches to Stop High Blood Pressure, is a great choice for emphasizing healthy, low-salt foods. The Mediterranean diet has also been shown to be moderate in sodium, notes Palmer. “It’s based on whole, minimally processed foods,” she says. “And plant-based diets can be low in sodium.”
Watch the salt while eating in a restaurant
Whether you eat out or order takeout, restaurant meals may contain hidden sodium. Here’s what to do:
- Check restaurant websites in advance. While large restaurant chains now display calorie counts directly on the menu, you’ll have to dig a little deeper to find nutrients like sodium or saturated fat. Small local restaurants are not required to disclose this information, however, Ussery notes. So you may need to be proactive in other ways.
- Keep an eye on the portions. “I would be very careful about portion sizes in a restaurant,” Ussery says, both in general and in terms of limiting specific nutrients like sodium.
- Talk to your server. An experienced waiter may be able to steer you away from the more salty foods on the menu.
- Ask for the dressing and sauces on the side. Serve the dressing on the side instead of tossing it into a salad is now common among so many calorie-conscious diners. It also helps you control salt intake. Or, you can ask for balsamic vinegar and oil to mix up a simple salad dressing yourself, says Ussery. Sauces in restaurants can also be high in sodium, so you can also ask for the sauce on the side.
- Order less pizza. Pizza is like the perfect storm for sodium. “Pizza is a huge offender,” says Palmer. “Because the salt is in the crust, it’s in the sauce, it’s in the toppings. It can be extremely high. And people eat a lot of pizza in America. If you eat it once or twice a week, that whole meal can be really high in sodium. ”
For Ussery, a take home message is, “Just try going into the kitchen to cook more.” It puts you in charge of everything, including sodium, calories, and saturated fat, she says. “It really is a great way to take control of your health.”
Palmer says you can train your taste buds to have less salt. “If people could just realize: there is so much flavor in food without salt, if you eat a colorful diet and use spices, herbs and citrus,” she says. “So you can use nature’s seasonings that are good for you to help cut down on salt and learn to really love food for what it is – without the salt masking it.”