Reduce your sodium intake one step at a time for better health

salt consumption


In this article:

  • Even without adding salt to their food, most Americans consume too much sodium. The result can be high blood pressure and increased risk for stroke and kidney disease.

  • New guidance from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration aims to reduce the sodium content of packaged, processed and restaurant foods over the next two and a half years.

  • Small, incremental changes can help decrease the sodium in your meals.

Even if you never pick up a saltshaker, chances are you’re eating too much salt. Which means you may be consuming too much sodium. And that can have serious implications for your health.

“Salt and sodium are not the same. Salt is a chemical compound made up of sodium and chloride. The sodium part is the part we’re most worried about,” says Haris Ahmad, D.O., a family medicine physician with Swedish Primary Care.

Salt is the source of most of the sodium you consume. Your body needs some sodium to function correctly. It contains essential minerals that help balance fluids, increase muscle function and improve nerve signals.

“Too much salt, however, can lead to significant health issues since more salt equals more sodium. And over time, eating too much sodium can have a big impact on your overall health,” says Dr. Ahmad. “Sodium impacts blood pressure pretty significantly and then the high blood pressure impacts basically everything else, including heart health, stroke risk and kidney disease.”

Americans eat a lot of salt, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Although the Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend consuming less than 2,300 mg of sodium a day, most people actually consume an average of 3,400 mg daily, with most of it coming from packaged, processed, store-bought or restaurant foods. 

New FDA guidelines

With so much food coming from outside our home kitchens, it can be hard to limit sodium consumption without major lifestyle modifications. Newly released guidelines from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) could help make it easier.

According to the FDA, more than 70% of the sodium Americans consume is added during commercial food preparation and manufacturing. The new guidelines are designed to reduce that amount without causing major palate shock.

The FDA’s recommendation attempts to lower daily sodium consumption by 12% over the next two and a half years by encouraging food manufacturers, food service companies and restaurants to gradually decrease the amount of sodium in a wide range of processed, prepared and packaged foods. Slow, steady changes will allow time for taste preferences to change and adapt more easily to the differences in taste and texture caused by a lower sodium content.

“People are getting busier. They’re eating more processed and store-bought foods — eating out more and eating at home less. These all tend to be higher in salt,” says Dr. Ahmad. “One thing that hasn’t changed is the recommendation to keep a limit on the salt that you’re eating. If you do that, you'll be good.”

Though compliance with the new guidelines is voluntary, FDA officials stressed the changes’ long-term and lasting health benefits.

“As a nation, we are facing a growing epidemic of preventable, diet-related conditions like cardiovascular disease, diabetes and obesity, and the agency’s work in this area has become even more urgent,” said Acting Commissioner of Food and Drugs Janet Woodcock, M.D., in a statement. “For these reasons, we’re taking a critical step to further address preventable diet-related chronic diseases and advance health equity that we hope will become one of the most significant public health nutrition interventions in a generation.”

Hidden salt

Knowing how much sodium your food contains is the first step in getting your consumption under control. If you eat like the average American, nearly half the sodium you consume comes from just 10 kinds of food, according to the CDC. Bread and rolls top the list, followed by pizza, sandwiches, cold cuts and tacos.

Large amounts of sodium can often be found in foods that don’t taste salty. Sodium found in basic menu items like bread, tortillas, cheese and condiments can add up to a surprisingly high number before you know it.

To avoid the most common sources of hidden sodium, limit your consumption of:

  • Processed food such as smoked or cured meat, hot dogs, bacon, ham and bologna
  • Anchovies, pickles, olives and sauerkraut
  • Most cheeses
  • Worcestershire and soy sauces
  • Many bottled salad dressings and salad dressing mixes
  • Most packaged snack foods, including chips and crackers
  • Some antacids and laxatives
  • Tap water if you have a home water softener

Experts say it’s best to choose fresh meats, poultry and fish over more processed options. Fresh or frozen vegetables are also good low-sodium choices. But that may not always be possible. To better manage the sodium you’re getting from packaged foods, look for these key words on the label:

  • Low-sodium
  • Sodium-free
  • No salt added
  • Sodium-reduced
  • Unsalted

“Always read the label and focus on the sodium intake. Be sure to note the serving size,” says Dr. Ahmad. “Identify the high-sodium foods you eat regularly and start making small, regular changes to improve your diet. It can make a true difference in your health overall.”

Small changes, big impact

Getting your sodium consumption under control can seem like a daunting task. But if you break the process into a series of manageable steps in the right direction, it can have a significant impact on your health.

“First, identify what it is that causes you to eat the most salt. Set small, incremental goals and update them constantly until you get to your ultimate goal,” says Dr. Ahmad. “Have realistic goals for yourself and do something you think you’ll actually be able to change.”

According to Dr. Ahmad, there are many small things you can do that make a big difference, including:

  • Cook more meals at home. Start with cutting out one restaurant meal at a time and build up slowly to a mostly home-cooked eating plan.
  • Replace salt with savory herbs and spices to cut back on sodium but not on flavor.
  • Practice portion control. If you reduce the amount of food you eat overall, it will reduce your sodium intake as well.
  • Read the label and choose low-sodium options. Generally, 5% daily value or less per serving is considered low sodium and 20% or more is considered high sodium.

Healthier holidays

Family get-togethers often come with a table full of salty and high-sodium foods. Over the holiday season, try changing your traditional offerings to healthier versions of long-standing favorites. It might take some effort, but with a bit of kitchen creativity, you can eat healthily and still keep your holiday cheer. Here are a few tips to help your holiday stay happy and flavorful:

  • Use fresh or frozen vegetables with no added sodium where you can. Rinse canned vegetables before use to remove surface sodium.

  • Choose low-sodium or no-sodium versions of broth or stock when cooking.

  • Don’t set yourself up for failure by attempting to skip your favorite annual treats. Instead, take smaller portions of the foods you look forward to every year and savor every bite.

  • Limit desserts. Large amounts of sodium are often hiding in grain-based choices such as pie, cake and cookies.

  • Cook with unsalted butter.

“You don’t need to cut sodium out of your diet completely. Conducting a complete overhaul of the way you eat is not only unrealistic, it’s a good way to set yourself up for failure,” says Dr. Ahmad. “Instead, set small goals and try to reach them. Then do it again to build on your success. Over time, it will make a real difference.”

Find a doctor

If you have questions about how high levels of sodium may be affecting your health, contact Primary Care or the Heart & Vascular Institute at Swedish. We can accommodate both in-person and virtual visits.

Whether you require an in-person visit or want to consult a doctor virtually, you have options. Swedish Virtual Care connects you face-to-face with a nurse practitioner who can review your symptoms, provide instruction and follow up as needed. If you need to find a doctor, you can use our provider directory.

Join our Patient and Family Advisory Council.

Additional resources 

Five tips for holiday eating

Understanding women's heart health with Dr. Sarah Speck

Why is a high-salt diet so bad for you?

CDC: Sodium Reduction Resources for Everyone

This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your health care professional's instructions.

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About the Author

The Swedish Heart & Vascular Team is committed to bringing you many years of expertise and experience to help you understand how to prevent, treat and recover from cardiovascular diseases and conditions. From tips to eating better to exercise and everything in between, our clinical experts know how to help you help your heart.

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