Getting to the Heart of a Healthful Diet: Sodium
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Getting to the Heart of a Healthful Diet: Sodium

Here's Why:

Sodium intake can raise blood pressure in people predisposed to having high blood pressure, and high blood pressure (or hypertension) is a major risk factor for heart attacks.

About half of the people with hypertension and 30% of the general public are described as "salt sensitive." This means that their blood pressures are likely to increase when they eat a high-sodium diet, and conversely, their blood pressures may be lowered by limiting dietary sodium.

Salt sensitivity is difficult to accurately diagnose. Therefore, appropriate sodium recommendations are a subject of great debate among nutrition experts. Some believe that all people should limit their sodium intakes (2300 mg/day) to either treat or prevent hypertension regardless of their present blood pressure level. Others, though, advise that only people with hypertension or those who are believed to be salt sensitive need to limit sodium in their diets.

Nutrition researchers are still trying to tease out the exact role of sodium in hypertension. A major study in this area is DASH—Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension. This study found that a diet rich in fruits, vegetables, and low-fat dairy products, and low in saturated fat, cholesterol, and saturated fat—now called the DASH diet—helped lower blood pressure. The second phase of the study found further reductions in blood pressure when the DASH diet was combined with a sodium intake of no more than 2300 mg/day.

Here's How:

Sodium is found in many foods. Some are obvious, but others may surprise you.

Major Food Sources

Table salt (sodium chloride; NaCl) is the major source of dietary sodium—about 1/3 to 1/2 of the sodium we consume is added during cooking or at the table.

Fast foods and commercially processed foods—canned, frozen, instant—also add a significant amount of sodium to the typical American diet. These include:

  • Beef broth
  • Ketchup
  • Commercial soups
  • French fries
  • Gravies
  • Olives
  • Pickles
  • Potato chips
  • Salted snack foods
  • Sandwich meats
  • Sauces
  • Sauerkraut
  • Tomato-based products

Sodium occurs naturally in:

  • Eggs
  • Fish
  • Meats
  • Milk products
  • Poultry
  • Shellfish
  • Soft water

Other sources of sodium in the diet:

  • Baking powder
  • Baking soda
  • Monosodium glutamate (MSG)
  • Sodium alginate
  • Sodium citrate
  • Sodium nitrate and nitrite
  • Sodium propionate
  • Sodium sulfite
  • Soy sauce

Reading Food Labels

All food products contain a Nutrition Facts label, which states a food's sodium content. The following terms are also used on food packaging:

Food label termMeaning
Sodium freeLess than 5 mg/serving
Very low sodium35 mg or less/serving
Low sodium145 mg or less/serving
Reduced sodium75% reduction in sodium content from original product
Unsalted, no salt added, without added saltProcessed without salt when salt normally would be used in processing

Tips For Lowering Your Sodium Intake

  • Gradually cut down on the amount of salt you use. Your taste buds will adjust to less salt.
  • Don’t add salt from the salt shaker at the table. Or add much less than before. Taste your food before you salt it; it may not need more salt.
  • Substitute flavorful ingredients for salt in cooking, such as garlic, oregano, onion, lemon or lime juice, or other herbs, spices, and seasonings.
  • Select fresh or plain frozen vegetables and meats instead of those canned with salt.
  • Look for low sodium, reduced sodium, or no salt added versions of such foods as:
    • Canned vegetables
    • Vegetable juices
    • Dried soup mixes
    • Bouillon
    • Condiments (ketchup, soy sauce)
    • Snack foods (chips, nuts, pretzels)
    • Crackers
    • Bakery products
    • Canned soups
    • Butter and margarine
    • Cheeses
    • Canned tuna
    • Processed meats
  • Cook rice, pasta, and hot cereals without salt.
  • Adjust your recipes to gradually cut down on the amount of salt you use. If some of the ingredients already contain salt, such as canned soup, canned vegetables, or cheese, you do not need to add more salt.
  • Limit your use of condiments such as soy sauce, dill pickles, salad dressings, and packaged sauces.


American Dietetic Association

The Nutrition Source
Harvard School of Public Health


Canadian Council on Food and Nutrition

Heart and Stroke Foundation of Canada

Last reviewed June 2008 by Dianne Scheinberg MS, RD, LDN

Please be aware that this information is provided to supplement the care provided by your physician. It is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. CALL YOUR HEALTHCARE PROVIDER IMMEDIATELY IF YOU THINK YOU MAY HAVE A MEDICAL EMERGENCY. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.

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