The Beginners Guide to a Low Sodium DietThroughout this low sodium guide you will learn everything there is to know about eating a low sodium diet. A low sodium diet doesn’t have to be boring and flavorless. Using the right ingredients and techniques can make all the difference in the world. Below you will find numerous tips and tricks to eating on a low sodium diet. Learn what foods are high in sodium, what foods are low in sodium, how to cook on a low sodium diet and much more.
1: Introduction to a Low Sodium Diet
What is Sodium?
Most people think of salt when they hear sodium, but salt is actually a mineral compound called sodium chloride. The food we eat could contain sodium chloride (salt) or could contain sodium in other forms. Along with potassium and chloride, sodium is one of the body’s three major electrolytes that control the fluids that go in and out of the body’s tissues and cells.
How Much Sodium Should we Consume?
The 2015–2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend that Americans consume less than 2,300 milligrams (mg) of sodium per day as part of a healthy eating pattern.
Based on these guidelines, the vast majority of adults eat more sodium than they should—an average of more than 3,400 mg each day. Eating too much sodium puts Americans at risk for developing serious medical conditions, like high blood pressure, heart disease, and stroke.
2: How can I reduce sodium in my diet?
The easiest way to reduce sodium in your diet is to cut out processed foods. Believe it or not the majority of sodium in our diets comes from processed foods. Examples of processed foods could be: TV dinners, condiments, or a bag of chips. Even if a certain processed food item doesn’t taste salty at all, it can still be very high in sodium. If you have to buy certain processed foods, just be mindful of the nutrition labels before purchasing.
- When cooking, use alternatives to replace or reduce the amount of salt you use, such as garlic, citrus juice, salt-free seasonings, or spices.
- Prepare rice, pasta, beans, and meats from their most basic forms (dry and fresh) when possible.
- Eat more fruits and vegetables.
- Limit sauces, mixes, and “instant” products, including flavored rice and ready-made pasta.
3: How do I Dine Out on a Low Sodium Diet?
Eating at restaurants on a low sodium diet can be stressful. Whether it’s not knowing what’s processed and what’s fresh, or how much salt is being added by the chefs, there’s always going to be sodium hiding somewhere. Below is a list of tips you can use when dining out on a low sodium diet.
- Chain restaurants often put nutritional information online. Check ahead to find the lower sodium options.
- Ask restaurants not to add salt to your meal, and use sauces and condiments only in small amounts.
- Instead of the dressing that comes with the salad, ask for oil & vinegar.
- Reduce your portion size—less food means less sodium. For example, ask the server to put half of your meal in a take-out container before it comes to your table, or split an entree with someone else.
- Ask your server if nutrition information is available before you order, if so select a lower sodium meal.
- Ask that no salt be added to your meal. Order vegetables with no salt added or fruit as a side item.
- Split a meal with a friend or family member. Keep takeout and fast food to an occasional treat.
4: Grocery Shopping on a Low Sodium Diet
Grocery shopping on a low sodium diet can actually be really fun and inexpensive if done correctly. Of course, the most important thing to keep in mind when shopping on a low sodium diet is to avoid processed foods as often as possible. Although it’s ok to buy processed foods that are low in sodium, sticking to whole organic food will yield the best results.
- Buy fresh, frozen, or canned vegetables with no salt or sauce added.
- Choose packaged foods labeled “low sodium,” “reduced sodium,” or “no salt added” when available. Checkout low sodium labels to learn more about the different labels.
- Read food labels and compare the amount of sodium in different products, then choose the options with the lowest amounts of sodium.
- Check the amount of sodium per serving, and don’t forget to check the number of servings per container.
- When possible, purchase fresh poultry, fish, pork, and lean meat, rather than cured, salted, smoked, and other processed meats.
- For fresh items, check to see whether saline or salt solution has been added—if so, choose another brand.
- Ask your grocer if they have a low sodium shopping list available.
5: Reading Nutrition & Product Labels
Understanding the different phrases and terms that go into recipe titles and food product labels is an essential part of following a low sodium diet. Below is a couple of terms for you to watch out for when you’re at the supermarket. Remember it’s very important to keep an eye on the labels when following a low sodium diet.
- Lightly Salted: 50% less sodium was added to this food, compared to the same serving size of the original food.
- Very Low Sodium: 35 milligrams or less of sodium per serving.
- Sodium Free: Less than 5 milligrams of sodium per serving.
- Reduced sodium: a product contains at least 25% less sodium than the standard version.
- Low Sodium: 140 milligrams or less of sodium per serving.
- Unsalted or Salt-Free: No salt is added to the product during processing, but the product still contains sodium that naturally occurs in the product’s ingredients.
How to read sodium content on labels
Please refer to the nutrition label guide.
6: How to Cook on a Low Sodium Diet
When you begin cooking without salt, at first it may seem a little intimidating. Some people have become habitual salters, adding the mineral without tasting the food first, or worse yet, adding it simply because it is what they have always done.
Herbs and spices are perfect for boosting your food’s flavor and giving you a better experience on your low sodium diet. When you use fresh spices, this sensation is even better than if you would have used something from the grocery store, as these spices are usually not the freshest.
Understanding Sodium Content in Measuring Tools
One of the most important aspects of cooking on a low sodium diet is understanding how much sodium is in common measurements of salt, such as teaspoons, tablespoons, cups, etc. We’ve put together the following table to easily identify the sodium content of the most commonly used measurement tools around the home.
- Check out our Salt to Sodium Conversion Chart
Can I use salt substitutes?
Salt substitutes are ok if you aren’t on a potassium restriction. If you are told to limit potassium in your diet, be very cautious about using salt substitutes because most of them contain some form of potassium. Check with your doctor or dietitian before using and salt substitute.
- Start using fresh lemon, lime, and orange zest.
- Use whole spices when possible, using a spice grinder right before use.
- Use fruit juices (lemon, lime, orange) and vinegars to elevate flavor in salads and more.
- Purchase powdered spices in small amounts. When they sit on the shelf for years they lose their flavor.
- Use no more than ¼ teaspoon of dried spice (¾ of fresh) per pound of meat.
- Combine herbs with oil or butter, set for 30 minutes to bring out their flavor, then brush on foods while they cook, or brush meat with oil and sprinkle herbs one hour before cooking.
- Crush dried herbs before adding to foods.
7: High-Sodium Foods
Below is a detailed list of foods that are high in sodium. If you were instructed to follow a low sodium diet, you should learn to limit the following foods.
- Tomato products
- Vegetable juices
- Canned vegetables
- TV Dinners
- Canned raviolis
- Macaroni & Cheese
- Commercial mixes
- Frozen prepared foods
- Fast food
- Barbecue sauce
- Steak Sauce
- Soy sauce
- Teriyaki sauce
- Oyster sauce
- Potato chips
- Corn chips
- Tortilla chips
- Sunflower seeds
Salt & Salt Seasonings
- Table salt
- Seasoning salt
- Garlic salt
- Onion salt
- Celery salt
- Lemon pepper
- Lite salt
- Meat tenderizer
- Bouillon cubes
- Flavor enhancers
- Salt pork
- Pickles, pickle relish
- Lox & Herring
- Hot Dogs
- Cold cuts, deli meats
- Corned beef
8: What Foods are Low in Sodium?
Below is a list of foods that are naturally low in sodium. If you were instructed to follow a low sodium diet, then the foods below are acceptable to eat.
- Choose fresh instead of processed foods when you can.
- Use the Nutrition Facts label to check the amount of sodium. Compare labels to find products with less sodium.
- Look for foods with low sodium labels
Vegetables & Fruits
- Any fresh fruits, like apples, oranges, or bananas
- Any fresh vegetables, like spinach, carrots, or broccoli
- Frozen vegetables without added butter or sauce
- Canned vegetables that are low in sodium or have no salt added (rinse canned vegetables to remove some of the sodium)
- Low-sodium vegetable juice
- Frozen, canned, or dried fruit with no added sugars
Dressings, Oils, and Condiments
- Unsalted margarine and spreads (soft, tub, or liquid) with no trans fats and less saturated fats
- Vegetable oils (canola, corn, olive, peanut, safflower, soybean, or sunflower)
- Low-sodium salad dressing – or oil and vinegar
- Low-sodium or “no salt added” ketchup
- Low-sodium salsa or picante sauce
Breads, Cereals, & Other Grains
- Whole grains such as brown or wild rice, quinoa, or barley
- Whole-wheat or whole-grain pasta and couscous
- Whole-grain hot or cold breakfast cereals with no added sugars, like oatmeal or shredded wheat
- Unsalted popcorn or low-sodium chips and pretzels
- Whole-grain bread, bagels, English muffins, tortillas, and crackers – many types are high sodium, so be sure to check the label
- Fat-free or low-fat (1%) milk
- Fat-free or low-fat plain yogurt
- Low-sodium or reduced-sodium cheese (like natural Swiss cheese)
- Soymilk with added calcium, vitamin A, and vitamin D
- Fresh or frozen fish or shellfish
- Chicken or turkey breast without skin or marinade
- Lean cuts of beef or pork
- Unsalted nuts and seeds
- Dried beans and peas – like kidney beans, pinto beans, black beans, lima beans, black-eyed peas, garbanzo beans (chickpeas), split peas, and lentils
- Canned beans labeled “no salt added” or “low sodium” (rinse canned beans to remove some of the sodium)