Reducing the Sodium in Your Diet
Step 1—Hide the saltshaker
One of the first steps to reducing the sodium in your diet is to stop salting your food. Put the saltshaker in the cupboard and leave it there. This will immediately reduce the amount of sodium in your diet. Most foods in their natural state contain some level of sodium. With time, your tastes will likely adapt to a lower sodium intake.
Step 2—Watch what you put on your food
Many of the seasonings and condiments that we use on food are high in sodium. The chart below divides some common foods into low- and high-sodium additions to foods. When selecting, try to use the condiments from the low-sodium areas and avoid those from the high-sodium areas. You can make your own sodium-free salad dressing that will taste as good or better than what you buy at the store. Also, remember to stick to the serving size. Very few people actually eat just two tablespoons of salsa or use only two tablespoons of dressing on their salad.
Here is a list of low- and high-sodium foods:
Fruits and vegetables
Spices and herbs
Step 3—Watch how you prepare your food
Food preparation, even if you're starting with low-sodium foods, can add a lot of sodium to your diet. The biggest offender, of course, is salt. One teaspoon of salt supplies 2300 mg of sodium. Omit the salt when cooking, cut the amount of salt in half, or use "lite salt" that has a reduced amount of sodium. Avoid commercial seasonings, such as garlic salt and Cajun spice. If you make your own bread, use yeast instead of baking powder or baking soda for leavening. Don't use monosodium glutamate (MSG) as a flavor enhancer because it contains sodium.
Step 4—Read food labels
You can find out exactly how much sodium is in a serving of processed food by reading the Nutrition Facts label. For a general sense of sodium content, you can also look for wording like "reduced sodium" or "low sodium" on the product. The FDA requires manufacturers that include such wording to adhere to these criteria:
The product has at least 25 percent less sodium than the regular product
Light in sodium
The product has at least 50 percent less sodium than the regular product
5 mg of sodium or less in each serving
Very low sodium
35 mg of sodium or less in each serving
140 mg of sodium or less in each serving
Step 5—Choosing the foods you eat
You can reduce the amount of salt in your diet by making simple changes. Here are some things to keep in mind:
Fruits and vegetables. Fresh fruits and vegetables are virtually free of sodium. (No foods are completely free of sodium, but there is very little in fruits and vegetables.) Pick your favorites and fill up on them. Avoid canned or prepared fruits and vegetables, however, because salt and other sodium-containing food additives are usually part of these foods. Don't add sauces, condiments, glazes, or toppings to vegetables, or if you do, choose low-sodium products (see chart). Vinegar, lemon juice, and some spices all impart a salty taste without adding sodium. You can also use a salt substitute.
Meats. Meat contains a small amount of sodium; what increases the sodium content is adding sauces (barbecue, steak, or Worcestershire) and glazes. Instead, season meat with garlic, cayenne, or paprika. Some fish goes well with lemon. Chicken can be marinated in vinegar and red pepper before barbecuing. Avoid bacon, sausage, salami, bologna, pepperoni, corned beef, smoked meats, potted meats, canned meats, and other processed meats as these are high in sodium.
Cereals. Most cereals and other grain products are naturally low in sodium—at least until they are processed. Check the Nutrition Facts label to find out the sodium content; some cereals have more than others.
Bread. Store-bought bread is fairly high in sodium, ranging from about 90 mg to more than 500 mg per slice, depending on the type. Stick to a couple of slices per day, or check your grocery for low-salt or reduced-sodium varieties.
Pasta and rice. Cook pasta and rice without salt. Other spices can be added to the boiling water to impart flavor. Generally, the sauces added to pasta and rice contain enough (or more) salt to satisfy most people's taste.
Milk. Help yourself to at least three eight-ounce servings per day, as long as it's fat-free or low-fat. Milk is reasonably low in sodium and supplies your daily need for calcium, vitamin D, and vitamin A. It's also a good source of protein.
Cheese. Think of cheese as concentrated milk: Most of the water is removed, and the solids, including sodium, become concentrated. Avoid processed cheeses, such as Velveeta, because they are exceptionally high in sodium. Stick with mozzarella, cottage cheese, and a limited amount of cheddar cheese. Choose low-fat varieties, when possible.
Nuts and snacks. Buy unsalted nuts and low-sodium snacks. Nuts sold in the shell (walnuts, pecans, Brazil nuts, hazel nuts) typically come without salt. Peanuts and pistachios are exceptions; buy them unsalted. Limit your consumption of other snack foods; those that you do eat should be low in sodium. Healthier snack choices are fresh fruits and vegetables.
As you cut back on salt, don't get discouraged. It took years to become accustomed to really salty foods. It will take several months to get used to food that isn't as salty. Once you lose your taste for salt, many of the foods you used to crave (particularly fast-foods) will no longer seem as appetizing. They'll probably taste too salty.