Benefits of a low-sodium diet

Sodium, or salt, is an electrolyte your body needs to function properly. However, almost all Americans eat too much sodium in their diets. The recommended upper amount of sodium in a normal healthy diet is 2300 milligrams, which is about the amount in one teaspoon of salt. While almost everyone should eat foods that are lower in sodium, for some people it's especially important. If you have medical issues such as high blood pressure, kidney disease, or heart problems, you may benefit even more from a low-sodium diet.

A low-sodium diet may have many benefits. Reduced salt may:

  • Lower blood pressure in people with high or borderline blood pressure
  • Prevent fluid collection in the lower legs or abdomen
  • Prevent high blood pressure and swelling, called volume overload, in people with chronic kidney disease and heart failure
  • Lower blood pressure slightly in people with normal blood pressure, which lowers the risk of heart disease
  • Help blood pressure medicines work more effectively
  • Help with weight loss
  • Reduce the risk of dying from stroke
  • Reverse heart enlargement
  • Reduce the risk of kidney stones
  • Reduce the risk of osteoporosis, which is thinning bones

Guidelines for a low-sodium diet

While most people shouldn't eat more than 2300 milligrams of sodium per day, people on a low-sodium diet should aim for less than 2000 milligrams daily or the guidelines provided by your doctor. Your body only needs about one-fourth of a teaspoon daily. The average American eats five or more teaspoons daily. Even if you resist the salt shaker at meals, many prepared and processed foods contain a large amount of sodium. 

Here are some general guidelines for avoiding high-salt foods: 

  • Eat meals cooked at home since they generally have less salt than prepared foods. 
  • Choose fresh food instead of processed whenever you can.
  • Watch sodium levels in over-the-counter medicines such as Alka Seltzer.
  • Don't use softened water to cook with or drink since it has added salt.
  • Use non-salt seasonings on your food such as vinegar, lemon, garlic, ginger, and other herbs and spices.
  • Read the labels on packaged foods. Foods that have less than 140 milligrams of sodium per serving are considered low in sodium. 
  • Avoid foods that have over 400 milligrams of sodium per serving. 

Low-sodium foods

You can't always tell by taste which foods are lower in sodium. Some foods have a lot of hidden sodium. Here are some low-salt foods that can be a part of your healthy diet. 

Fruits and vegetables

Fresh fruits and vegetables are almost always low in salt. If you need alternatives to fresh, try the following: 

  • Frozen vegetables without added sauces
  • Canned vegetables that are low in sodium
  • Low-sodium vegetable juice
  • Frozen fruit without added sugar
  • Canned or dried fruit without added sugar

Grains

Always check the nutrition label, but the following types of grains may be lower in sodium: 

  • Whole-grain bread
  • English muffins
  • Bagels
  • Tortillas
  • Oatmeal
  • Cream of wheat
  • Puffed rice
  • Shredded wheat
  • Unsalted crackers and snack foods
  • Pasta
  • White or brown rice
  • Dried beans or peas

Meat, poultry, and shellfish

Look for fresh or frozen seafood, poultry, and meat. Processed options are usually high in sodium. Some good choices are:   

  • Fresh or frozen shellfish or fish
  •  Skinless chicken or turkey without sauces
  • Lean pork
  • Lean beef
  • Eggs

Dairy

Cheese can be high in sodium, so check the label. Look for:    

  • Low-fat or fat-free milk
  • Low-fat or fat-free plain
  • Cheeses that are low in sodium
  • Soymilk with calcium, vitamin A, and vitamin D

Sauces, condiments, and seasonings

Take the salt shaker off the table and use the following low-salt seasonings instead: 

  • Unsalted margarine or butter substitutes without trans fats
  • Vegetable oils
  • Low-sodium salad dressing
  • No-sodium ketchup or salsa
  • Lemon and lime juice

Foods to avoid

Look out for the following high-sodium foods:  

  • Salted, smoked, canned, spiced, and cured meat, poultry, or fish 
  • Deli meats
  • Bacon, ham, sausage, and lunch meats
  • Prepared salad dressings
  • Processed cheese slices and spreads
  • Packaged baked goods
  • Carbonated beverages with added sodium
  • Bullion cubes
  • Soy sauce
  • Steak and barbeque sauce
  • Olives
  • Sauerkraut
  • Regular canned vegetables
  • Instant potatoes
  • Seasoned potato mixes
  • Prepared dips
  • Salted crackers and snacks such as chips and pretzels
  • Cold cereal
  • Instant hot cereal
  • Salted nuts and seeds
  • Regular peanut butter
  • Macaroni and cheese mix

QUESTION

According to the USDA, there is no difference between a “portion” and a “serving.” See Answer

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Medically Reviewed on 9/28/2021
References
SOURCES:

UCSF Health: "Guidelines for a Low Sodium Diet."

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services: "Lower Sodium Foods: Shopping List."

UpToDate: "Patient education: Low-sodium diet (Beyond the Basics)."