Sodium has long been considered a baddie in the everyday American diet. Yet despite all the warnings, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that we still eat way too much. Eighty-nine percent of adults consume more than the upper-safe limit of 2,300 milligrams (about a teaspoon of table salt) a day.
"The finding that 9 of 10 adults and children still consume too much salt is alarming," says CDC director Tom Frieden. "The evidence is clear: Too much sodium in our foods leads to high blood pressure, a major risk factor for heart disease and stroke."
Excess sodium finds its way onto our plates in lots of ways—and it turns out the salt shaker is the least of our worries. The average American eats 3,400 milligrams, or about 5 teaspoons of sodium a day. (That’s 20 times as much as the body needs to function properly.) Most of it comes from restaurant, processed, or prepackaged foods.
But even if you've ditched the frozen pizza and MSG-coated nacho chips you devoured in high school, the truth is almost all foods contain at least a little bit of sodium, whether added or just found in the food naturally. One serving of organic baby carrots serving contains 65 milligrams of sodium. A 4-oz. chicken breast could contain up to 440.
Call it sneaky sodium (or a bit of a buzzkill), but even the foods we consider to be healthy have more sodium than we realize. And while our bodies literally need sodium to survive—it helps to send nerve impulses, contract muscles, and maintain normal fluid balance—the amount we consume in a day can add up real quick.
According to the Dietary Guidelines for Americans _2015-2020,_ about 1,500 milligrams of sodium a day is ideal for most adults, even if you’re an active person who loses a lot of sodium through sweat.
One in three Americans will develop high blood pressure in their lifetimes. Eating less sodium now can help curb the risk that comes with age. Reducing sodium intake can also reduce your risk for osteoporosis, kidney disease, stomach cancer, and even headaches.
And here's more good news: you can help keep sodium on the level by cooking low-salt recipes at home (check out Sodium Girl’s Limitless Low-Sodium Cookbook for a girls'-night-in). There are a whole lot of whole-food fruits, vegetables, legumes, grains, spices, and herbs that prove that a low-sodium diet can still be full of fun and flavor.
Potatoes (fingerling, red, russet)
Peppers (banana, bell, habanero, jalapeno, poblano)
Sugar snap peas
Squash (acorn, yellow, zucchini)
Sodium-free grains and legumes
Dry beans (great northern, kidney, lentils, lima, peas, pinto)
Old-fashioned rolled oats
Popcorn (plain, air-popped)
Rice (white long grain)
Shredded wheat (original big biscuit, wheat bran)
Sodium-free fats, oils, and condiments
Cooking oils (olive, canola, safflower, sunflower, corn)
Dried spices (black pepper, cayenne, cinnamon, cumin, garlic powder, paprika)
Fresh herbs (basil, cilantro, dill, oregano, parsley, rosemary)
Lemon and lime juice
Raw unsalted nuts and seeds (almonds, cashews, pecans, sunflower, walnuts)
Salt-substitute seasoning blends
On nutrition labels, a food is technically defined as "sodium-free" when it has less than 5 milligrams of sodium per serving and contains no sodium chloride. One of the surest ways to reduce intake is to keep scrutinizing those nutrition facts, even for foods and beverages that don’t seem like they'd be salty. We see you, Mocha Frappuccino®.
- American Heart Association: Sodium Can Be Sneaky
- Health.gov: Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2015-2020
- American Heart Association: Get the Scoop on Sodium and Salt
- Sodium Girl: Cookbook
- U.S. Food and Drug Administration: Use the Nutrition Facts Label to Reduce Your Intake of Sodium in Your Diet
- Starbucks: Menu
- Cooking Light: The Hidden Sodium in Chicken
- CBS News: 10 sneaky sources of too much salt in your diet
- CDC: New Research: Excess Sodium Intake Remains Common in the United States
Diane Bobis is a Chicago-based lifestyle writer and mom. Since graduating from Saint Mary's College, Notre Dame, she has covered food, fashion, health, wellness, and beauty for dozens of outlets, including Womensforum.com, HowStuffWorks.com, BigOven.com, Hungry? Chicago Family, Winnetka Living, and Daily Dose of Knowledge: America. Wellness Habitat: Ashwagandha, Plant Therapy, Rachel Macy Stafford, Panda Planner, morning snuggles, and laughter.