Shaking Your Salt Habit

Consuming too much salt is a recipe for poor heath. Here's how to cut back without sacrificing flavor.

All About Salt

Hearing that you should reduce your salt intake to keep your blood pressure in check is like being reminded by your dentist to floss every day — you know you should, you've been hearing it for years, but you rarely get around to it. Even though it's no secret that a high-salt diet can lead to elevated blood pressure, which puts you at risk for stroke, heart disease, and kidney failure, cutting back on sodium hasn't been a high priority — thanks in part to the media's focus on artery-clogging cholesterol, risky trans fats, and the almighty calorie.

Salt isn't all bad, though. According to the Institute of Medicine of the National Academies, your body needs 1,500 milligrams of sodium (just over 1/2 teaspoon of salt) every day for basic functions like carrying nutrients to cells. Most Americans get more than double that amount: 4,000 mg per day on average, reports the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI). The problem is that excess sodium makes your body retain water, which in turn can increase blood pressure and make your heart pump harder than it needs to. The pressure of blood hitting the artery walls can harden them and make them less able to dilate, upping your risk for heart disease and stroke.

Some of us are more vulnerable to the effects of sodium than others. If you're overweight, African-American, or a senior, chances are you're salt-sensitive, says Jeffrey Cutler, MD, senior scientific adviser for the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. Since testing for salt sensitivity is complicated and unreliable, everyone should pay attention to her intake, says Kathy McManus, RD, director of nutrition at Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston. The advice makes sense when you consider that nearly one in three Americans has high blood pressure, and 90 percent of us will eventually develop it if we continue eating and living the way we do now. A limited-salt has been linked to a healthier heart, and some research has linked it to fewer headaches, better cognitive function, and lower risk of painful stomach ulcers. And then there's bloat: Since salt makes you retain water, too much of it makes you look like you've packed on a few pounds. Who doesn't want to look leaner?

How Low Should You Go?

The 2001 DASH-Sodium (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) study tracked people with high blood pressure (140/90 or higher) and prehypertension (120/80 to 139/89). Researchers found that participants' blood pressure decreased when they reduced daily salt intake to 2,400 mg (the upper limit set by the National High Blood Pressure Education Program) or 1,500 mg (the amount your body needs every day). The biggest drop occurred in those who consumed the least sodium.

Salt-Halting Strategies

Reducing sodium in restaurant food could save 150,000 people from dying of heart disease or stroke this year. The good news is that you can retrain your body to crave less salt but still feel satisfied. Here are eight easy ways to reduce your family's intake.

  1. Take baby steps. You'll enjoy your food more and have a better chance of success if you gradually wean yourself off salt. Start by reducing your intake of frozen and canned foods and replacing them with unprocessed fruits and vegetables. If you don't have time to cook and can't break your prepackaged food habit, just swap products with a high-sodium content for ones with less sodium. "You can get used to less salt in as little as a week," says Virginia Utermohlen, MD, taste researcher and associate professor at Cornell University's division of nutritional sciences.
  2. Get cooking. More than 75 percent of our sodium intake comes from processed foods and those eaten outside the home, according to the CSPI. Since the only way to control the amount of sodium in your food is to know what's in it, prepare meals yourself whenever you can.
  3. Rediscover your spice rack. Add flavor (and healthy phytochemicals) without salt; fresh or dried herbs like basil, rosemary, and oregano will deliver that savory taste you're after. Search your supermarket for salt-free seasonings and grilling blends with tasty herb combinations.
  4. Play the matching game. For most foods you should check that there are roughly the same number of sodium milligrams as calories per serving. Buying soup? That can of chicken noodle with 100 calories per serving should provide 100 mg of sodium — or less.
  5. Suss out sodium on menus. Dressings and sauces are common culprits, so ask for them on the side and use sparingly. Also, avoid anything labeled "pickled," "cured," or "smoked," says McManus.
  6. Curb your use of condiments. Soy sauce has 914 mg of sodium per tablespoon, and ketchup has 167 mg. Check nutrition labels before you pour, and look for low-sodium versions at the supermarket.
  7. Get more potassium. Studies indicate that a potassium-rich diet may reduce high blood pressure. Boost your intake to the recommended 4,700 mg daily by eating plenty of fruits (especially bananas and cantaloupe) and veggies (especially leafy greens and root vegetables).
  8. Taste, then shake. Most of the salt in your diet gets into products long before they show up in your kitchen. "Only 10 percent of added salt is sprinkled on at the table or in the home-cooking process," explains Michael Jacobson, PhD, executive director of CSPI. Don't just salt your food out of habit — be sure to taste it first. Then if you feel you need some, use just a little. For instance, it's okay to add a touch to steamed broccoli, but your jarred spaghetti sauce or frozen pizza probably doesn't need it.

Boost Your Label IQ

Read the fine print when you're in the supermarket — don't assume that a certain food is either high or low in salt. "There is a huge variety of sodium content within each food category, depending on the brand," says Jacobson. For example, one popular kind of tuna has 450 mg; another has 190 mg. Your best bet for steering clear of sodium overload is to choose products with these terms on the label.

  • Light sodium: 50 percent less sodium than the regular version.
  • Low sodium: 140 mg sodium or less per serving.
  • Reduced sodium: At least 25 percent less than the regular version.
  • No salt added: None was added during the processing of the product (this usually means low sodium, but double-check the label — some foods, like cheese, are naturally high in salt).