You’ve probably heard that you should consume less sodium. And maybe you have read that you should stop using the salt shaker. Some of you may even be aware of the guidelines to keep your total sodium intake under 2,300 mg per day and you’re reading labels in the grocery store to try to keep your numbers in line. But what does all of this mean and how many of us are actually successful?

Recommended sodium intake

Let’s start with the guidelines. The World Health Organization, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and American Heart Association all recommend keeping sodium under 2,300 milligrams (mg) per day. The Institute of Medicine (IOM) suggests aiming for about 1,500 mg per day.  

What you may not know is that sodium is an essential nutrient. This means we need some sodium to maintain good health. A healthy, active adult needs between 200 and 500 mg of sodium per day.

So how much are we actually consuming? Current data shows that the average American consumes about 3,400 mg of sodium per day. That’s significantly more than needed for survival, and more than double the IOM’s recommendation. To put this in perspective, 1 teaspoon of table salt is equal to about 2,000 mg of sodium and 3,400 mg of sodium is about 1.5 teaspoons of table salt.

Is salt bad for you?

You may be asking yourself if any of this is really that important. The same scientific bodies that provide the above stated guidelines all agree that excess sodium consumption increases our risk of developing hypertension (high blood pressure). In turn, this can lead to heart disease, heart failure, stroke and kidney disease. There is also some evidence that consuming high levels of sodium increase your risk for osteoporosis by leaching calcium from your bones.

Sodium in foods

Where is all this sodium coming from? Sodium is naturally found in many foods and by following a healthy eating pattern, most adults will get all the sodium they require. However, it’s not the naturally occurring sodium we need to monitor, it’s the added salt that is a concern.  We need to watch the salt we add at home, the salt added in restaurant meals and the salt added as part of the food manufacturing process.  

The biggest culprit to our high sodium intake is processed foods. For example, breads, processed meats, snack foods and canned goods all contain added sodium. We could list the sodium content of foods here and provide more data and numbers to see if that will inspire you to change your eating. But maybe some simple tips on what you can do to avoid salt/sodium without too much extra effort will be more helpful!

How to reduce your sodium intake

Four simple actions for a healthier, lower sodium eating pattern:

  1. Fill your plate (and stomach) with fresh fruits and vegetables. Fruits and vegetables are naturally low in sodium and contain potassium which may help reduce blood pressure and risk for other medical conditions.
  2. Select herbs, spices and fresh lemon or lime juice to season your foods. Choosing sodium free seasonings provides plenty of flavor without the negative effects of salt. Give yourself time to adjust to the new tastes.
  3. Enjoy more home cooked meals. Restaurant meals tend to be very high in sodium. By doing more home food preparation you can significantly decrease your overall salt consumption.
  4. Stop eating when you are satisfied. In the Japanese city of Okinawa they refer to this as “Hara hachi bu.”  This translates to “eat until you are 80 percent full.” By decreasing your overall portion of food consumed, you will decrease your salt intake. The people of Okinawa have the lowest rates of heart disease, cancer and stroke. And they have one of the largest centenarian populations!

Looking for more individual advice? Reach out to a qualified Registered Dietitian who can assess your current eating pattern and provide customized guidance and support. For more tips on healthy eating visit the Nourishing section of our Lifespan Living health and wellness blog.

Greg Salgueiro, MS, RD

Greg Salgueiro, MS, RD, LDN

Greg Salgueiro, MS, RD, LDN, is director of well-being for Lifespan Human Resources and a clinical dietitian.