If you have any medical questions or concerns, please talk to your healthcare provider. The articles on Health Guide are underpinned by peer-reviewed research and information drawn from medical societies and governmental agencies. However, they are not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment.
Sodium is a mineral that’s a basic component of table salt, which is 40% sodium and 60% chloride. The human body needs sodium to operate properly: It’s an electrolyte that helps control the body’s balance of water, and it plays a crucial role in the function of all of the body’s cells.
Sodium is removed from the body by the kidneys. However, if there is excess sodium in the bloodstream, the sodium pulls additional water into blood vessels. This can be a big problem for people who have diseases like high blood pressure or heart failure because it can exacerbate those diseases.
Recommended daily sodium intake
If you’re like the vast majority of Americans, your sodium consumption is too high. The American Heart Association recommends consuming no more than 2,300 milligrams of sodium—about one teaspoon of salt—daily. (And about 6 in 10 adults should limit themselves to 1,500 milligrams a day.) Unfortunately, most of us take in 3,400 mg of sodium every day. According to the CDC, 90% of Americans eat more salt than the dietary guidelines recommend—including 98% of men.
Here’s how teaspoons of salt translate to milligrams of sodium:
- 1/4 teaspoon salt = 575 mg sodium
- 1/2 teaspoon salt = 1,150 mg sodium
- 3/4 teaspoon salt = 1,725 mg sodium
- 1 teaspoon salt = 2,300 mg sodium
Where does all that sodium come from? Not just your kitchen salt shaker. The staples of the American diet, meaning processed foods and takeout, are rife with sodium. According to the AHA, 70% of the sodium we consume comes from packaged, processed, or restaurant foods (AHA, 2018).
For example, a large order of McDonald’s fries has 350 mg of sodium. A footlong Spicy Italian sandwich at Subway has 2,480 mg. An order of buffalo wings from TGI Friday’s can have over 4,000 mg. And your Chinese takeout order can pack up to 7,000 mg of sodium per meal (Januzzi, 2018)!
Only 15% of the average American’s sodium intake occurs naturally in foods, and just 11% is added during cooking or eating, the AHA says.
How to limit sodium
Following a lower sodium diet can improve your heart health if you have a disease like hypertension or heart failure. Here are some easy ways to keep your sodium levels in a healthy range.
Read food labels
Check Nutrition Facts labels on packaged and processed foods. In ingredients lists, look for words with “sodium,” “salt,” or “soda” in their name.
Many chain restaurants have nutritional information on their websites. If you have favorite restaurant dishes, you make a habit of eating, check out the sodium content. It might shock you. We might expect foods like french fries to be high in sodium, but restaurants are known to sneak salt into foods you wouldn’t necessarily expect as a way to add flavor.
Heart-healthy diet: what is it and 9 tips to following one
Avoid foods high in sodium
- Pizza. You were probably under no illusions that pizza was a health food. But one serving of a Domino’s medium crunchy thin crust pizza with extra cheese has 590 mg of sodium, and one slice of a large Meat Lover’s pizza from Pizza Hut has 1,180 mg. Frozen varieties aren’t much better.
- Cold cuts. Deli or prepackaged meats can have as much as 1,050 mg of sodium per serving, the AHA says.
- Frozen meals. Heat-and-eat TV dinners and frozen entrees can be packed with calories, fat, and sodium, often containing from 700 mg to 1,800 mg per serving.
- Bread. Breads are one of those stealthy sources of salt you’d likely never expect. Recently, the World Action on Salt and Health analyzed more than 2,000 varieties of bread in 32 countries. It found that one brand in Canada was “saltier than seawater.” And the U.S. had nothing to brag about: The researchers found that Pepperidge Farm’s Hearty Sliced white bread, had 1.4 grams of salt per two slices and Whole Foods’ white sandwich bread had 1.37 grams. Translation: Every slice has as much sodium as about 21 potato chips, said the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI, 2017).
- Canned soups. Soup may seem to be the ultimate wholesome homemade food, but makers of the canned varieties don’t have your best interest at heart: One cup of Campbell’s Homestyle Chicken Soup has only 130 calories—but 1,580 mg of sodium.
- Canned vegetables. Veggies are often canned using excess amounts of salt. A 1/2-cup serving of canned peas has 310 mg of sodium. The same serving size of fresh peas has 3.5 mg.
- Sauces. According to the USDA, just one tablespoon of regular soy sauce has 879 mg of sodium. And it’s a similar story with other bottled sauces: two tablespoons of Kraft Original Barbecue Sauce packs 340 mg. Look for varieties with less sodium.
- Chicken products. Lean, skinless chicken is one of the healthiest things you can eat. But branching out into processed products like chicken nuggets and chicken fingers can get you in trouble—one of the things they’re processed with is salt. For example, one serving of Tyson chicken nuggets has 470 mg of sodium.
What is the Mediterranean diet: how it can help you be healthier
Try the DASH diet
The DASH diet (for Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) is an eating plan designed to lower blood pressure or keep it in a healthy range. It’s a low-sodium eating plan that’s a variation on the Mediterranean Diet — it includes plenty of fruits and vegetables, whole grains, fish, poultry, and heart-healthy fats.
- American Heart Association (AHA). (2017). Sodium Levels Vary Widely in Bread. Retrieved from https://cspinet.org/news/sodium-levels-vary-widely-bread-20170516
- American Heart Association (AHA). (2018). Sodium sources: Where does all that sodium come from? Retrieved from https://www.heart.org/en/healthy-living/healthy-eating/eat-smart/sodium/sodium-sources
- Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI). (2017). Sodium Levels Vary Widely in Bread. Retrieved from https://cspinet.org/news/sodium-levels-vary-widely-bread-20170516
- Januzzi, J. (2018, December 5). Heart failure and salt: The great debate. Retrieved from https://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/heart-failure-and-salt-the-great-debate-2018121815563
Dr. Mike is a licensed physician and the Director, Medical Content & Education at Ro.