You've been told to avoid high-sodium foods for years, and on paper, that directive seems easy enough: Limit how much salt you add to your dishes, and avoid foods that you know contain a lot of sodium, such as potato chips and French fries. But there are quite a few high-sodium foods that crop up frequently in our diets without us being aware of just how much salt they contain.
Let's delve into the logic behind limiting sodium, examine where it can sneak in without our knowledge, and look at some ways to manage how much we're eating.
What's the Deal With Sodium?
Sodium is an essential nutrient in the body, as it plays a major role in normal fluid regulation. However, we only need to eat 500 milligrams of sodium daily to support this function -- compare that to the 3,400 milligrams the average American consumes daily, according to the American Heart Association (AHA).
Eating too much sodium increases blood pressure and puts strain on the kidneys and heart, potentially leading to chronic illness down the road. The AHA recommends limiting sodium intake to 1,500 milligrams per day, but that can be a tough goal given the kinds of foods that many Americans are used to eating and the amount of sodium they contain. With this in mind, the AHA notes that just limiting sodium to 2,400 milligrams daily -- about the amount in a teaspoon of salt -- can improve blood pressure and heart health.
One of the drivers behind our country's high sodium intake is processed food, which accounts for more than 75 percent of the sodium we consume each day. Food manufacturers use salt abundantly as a flavoring agent, as well as a preservative.
Sure, you know that sodium levels are high in chips, canned products, and pickles, but there are quite a few other processed-food culprits you might not expect. The top six sources of sodium in the typical American diet include:
- Breads and rolls. The sodium content of a single slice of bread may be a small fraction of your daily allowance, but when you eat bread products multiple times per day, that amount adds up fast.
- Cold cuts and cured meats. Depending on the brand, two ounces of processed meat can provide up to half of your daily sodium allowance.
- Pizza. From the crust to the cheese, this Italian-American favorite is packed with salt.
- Poultry. Believe it or not, the majority of poultry processors inject their products with a salt solution to keep the meat juicy during cooking -- you can see this if you read the nutrition label.
- Canned soups. These products are packed with sodium for preservation and flavor.
- Sandwiches. When you tally up the salt in the condiments, the bread, the cold cuts, and the cheese, the amount of sodium in a sandwich can be astronomical.
Managing Your Intake
It's easy to let sodium creep up without knowing it, but with a little mindfulness, you can keep your intake where it should be. Here are a few practical tips to help you get started:
- Look for low-sodium products. You can find low-sodium breads, canned soups, and packaged poultry in your grocery store -- you just have to do some investigative work. Read food labels, and compare products to see how the sodium content differs.
- Start cooking more. One easy way to reduce your salt intake is to cut down on processed foods and restaurant meals. You can enjoy your favorite foods in healthier forms by creating them in your own kitchen.
- Mind your combos. Think about the sodium in each component of combination foods such as pizza and sandwiches. Enjoy your pizza, but try veggies over pepperoni to balance out the cheese and the crust. Opt for sandwich ingredients with less salt, such as veggies and low-sodium spreads and cheeses -- Swiss cheese is naturally the lowest in sodium.
- Set a limit. When purchasing prepared or packaged foods, stick to items with less than 200 milligrams per serving. This will help you manage how much sodium you're getting from processed foods.
- Learn to adapt. Some find their food less palatable when they first start to reduce salt. Thankfully, our taste buds regenerate quickly. Soon, you'll find those cold cuts you used to love are now too salty to handle.
Our bodies need sodium to function properly, but like anything else, too much can cause problems. If you know where sodium can sneak into your diet, you can make better choices during your next grocery store trip and feel good about the foods you and your family enjoy.