Reducing the Sodium in Your Diet

Step 1 – Hide the Saltshaker

The first and most important step to reducing the sodium in your diet is to stop salting your food. Put the saltshaker in the cupboard and leave it there. This will immediately cut 10 to 15 percent of the salt in your diet. This isn't a difficult step, because most foods have plenty of salt anyway. After a few weeks, you won't even notice.

Step 2 -- Watch What You Put on Your Food

Many of the seasonings and condiments that we use on food are high in sodium. The chart below divides some common condiments into high-, moderate- and low-sodium additions to foods. When selecting, try to use the condiments from the low- and moderate-sodium areas and avoid those from the high-sodium areas. These sodium amounts are for commercial condiments. You can make your own sodium-free salad dressing that will taste as good or better than what you buy at the store. Also, remember to stick to the serving size. Very few people actually eat just two tablespoons of salsa or use only two tablespoons of dressing on their salad.

Step 3 -- Watch How You Prepare Your Food

Food preparation, even if you're starting with low-sodium foods, can add a lot of sodium to the diet. The biggest offender, of course, is salt. One teaspoon of salt supplies an entire day's allotment of sodium. Omit the salt when cooking, cut the amount of salt in half or use "lite salt" that has a reduced amount of sodium. Avoid commercial seasonings such as garlic salt and Cajun spice. If you make your own bread, use yeast instead of baking powder or baking soda for leavening. Don't use monosodium glutamate as a flavor enhancer, it contains sodium.

Step 4 – Read Food Labels

You can find out exactly how much sodium is in a serving of processed food by reading the Nutrition Facts label. For a general sense of sodium content, you can also look for wording like "reduced sodium" or "low sodium" on the product. The FDA requires manufacturers that include such wording to adhere to these criteria:



Reduced sodium

The product has at least 25 percent less sodium than the regular product

Light in sodium

The product has at least 50 percent less sodium than the regular product

Sodium free

5 mg of sodium or less in each serving

Very low sodium

35 mg of sodium or less in each serving

Low sodium

140 mg of sodium or less in each serving

Step 5 -- Choosing the Foods You Eat

You can reduce the amount of salt in your diet by making simple changes. Here are some things to keep in mind:

  • Fruits and vegetables. Fresh fruits and vegetables are virtually free of sodium. (No foods are totally free of sodium, but there is so little in fruits and vegetables that you don't need to worry about it.) Pick your favorites and fill up on them. Avoid canned or prepared fruits and vegetables, however, because salt and other sodium-containing food additives are usually part of these foods. Don't add sauces, condiments, glazes or toppings to vegetables, or if you do, choose low-sodium products (see chart). Vinegar, lemon juice and some spices all impart a salty taste without adding sodium. You can also use a salt substitute.

  • Meats. Meat contains a small amount of sodium; what increases the sodium content is adding sauces (barbecue, steak or Worcestershire) and glazes. Instead, season meat with garlic, cayenne or paprika. Some fish goes well with lemon. Chicken can be marinated in vinegar and red pepper before barbecuing. Avoid bacon, sausage, salami, bologna, pepperoni, corned beef, smoked meats, potted meats, canned meats and other processed meats.

  • Cereals. Most cereals and other grain products are naturally low in sodium -- at least until they are processed. Check the Nutrition Facts label to find out the sodium content; some cereals have more than others. Avoid pre-sweetened cereals, because up to half their calories are sugar. Sugar will add pounds, and extra pounds will increase your blood pressure just as extra sodium does.

  • Bread. Store-bought bread is fairly high in sodium, ranging from about 90 mg to more than 500 mg per slice, depending on the type. Stick to a couple of slices per day, or check your grocery for low-salt or reduced-sodium varieties.

  • Pasta and rice. Cook pasta and rice without salt. Other spices can be added to the boiling water to impart flavor. Generally, the sauces added to pasta and rice contain enough (or more) salt to satisfy most people's taste.

  • Milk. Help yourself to at least three 8-ounce servings per day, as long as it's fat-free or low fat. Milk is reasonably low in sodium and supplies your daily need for calcium, vitamin D and vitamin A. It is also a good source of protein.

  • Cheese. Think of cheese as concentrated milk: Most of the water is removed, and the solids, including sodium, become concentrated. Avoid processed cheeses such as Velveeta because they are exceptionally high in sodium. Stick with mozzarella, cottage cheese and a limited amount of cheddar cheese. Choose low-fat varieties, when possible.

  • Nuts and snacks. Buy unsalted nuts and low-sodium snacks. Nuts sold in the shell (walnuts, pecans, Brazil nuts, hazel nuts) typically come without salt. Peanuts and pistachios are exceptions; buy them unsalted. Limit your consumption of other snack foods; those that you do eat should be low in sodium. Healthier snack choices are fresh fruits and vegetables.

As you cut back on salt, don't get discouraged. It took years to become accustomed to really salty foods. It will take several months to get used to food that isn't as salty. Once you lose your taste for salt, many of the foods you used to crave (particularly fast foods) will no long seem as appetizing. They will probably taste too salty.

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