While the body requires some sodium to help balance fluid levels and regulate muscle and nerve function, too much can be harmful to our health. The American Heart Association recommends aiming for less than 2,300 milligrams of sodium per day (which is only about a teaspoon of salt) — 1,500 milligrams per day, ideally. But the average person actually consumes more than 3,400 milligrams a day and most likely doesn’t even realize it.
Health benefits of reducing sodium intake
When you consume too much sodium, excess water is drawn into the bloodstream, increasing blood pressure and your chances of developing heart disease. A low-sodium diet not only helps control cardiovascular health, it benefits your health in a variety of other ways as well:
- Lowers your risk for kidney disease:
- With less sodium in your system, your kidneys don’t have to work as hard to remove excess fluid from the body.
- Builds stronger bones:
- Too much salt can result in calcium loss from the bones. Lowering salt intake helps maintain bone strength.
- Decreases the chance of liver disease:
- A low-sodium diet helps manage the buildup of fluid in the abdomen.
- Helps control diabetes:
- Lowering your sodium intake helps you maintain normal blood pressure levels and keep blood sugar under control.
- Can lower the risk of stomach cancer:
- Reduced sodium correlates with less H. pylori bacteria, a high-risk factor for stomach cancer.
Foods to avoid
It’s easy to OD on sodium if you eat processed, prepackaged foods. Try to avoid items like chips, canned meals, lunch meats, frozen dinners and high-sodium sauces. And make sure to check food labels for sodium content — if possible, opt for low-sodium versions of the foods you usually buy.
Also, be wary of restaurant food, which is commonly packed with sodium. Ask about the sodium content before ordering and get salad dressings and sauces on the side.
Foods to embrace
A good rule of thumb is to eat foods in their natural state, such as fruits, veggies, nuts, eggs, legumes and whole grains. However, if you do want canned or frozen items, choose options with no sauce — or you can always rinse them before use. Also, put down your salt shaker. There are many other healthier ways to season your food:
- Fresh or dried herbs and spices (paprika, dill, basil, oregano, Italian blend, etc.)
- Chopped onions, garlic or peppers
- Lemon or lime juice
- Vinegars and oils
When you have a craving, satisfy it with a low-sodium alternative:
- Craving chips and dip? Try veggies and hummus.
- Want packaged popcorn? Make air-popped popcorn with dill or chili powder.
- Hungry for cured meat? Snack on low-sodium deli meat wrapped in lettuce leaves.
- Feel like ice cream? Indulge in some yogurt with fresh fruit.
- Thirsty for soda? Quench your thirst with sparkling water.
Be patient with yourself and ease yourself into your new diet. In time, eating low-sodium foods will become second nature.