Here’s your quick guide to mastering a low sodium diet for your health. Including simple food lists and tips to stay on track while eating out and at home.
What is Sodium?
Contrary to what you might think, sodium does not just come from salt.
Salt and sodium are often used interchangeably, but they are somewhat different.
Salt contains a mixture of sodium and chloride, adds flavor to food, and is one of the most common sources of sodium in the diet. Other common sources of sodium in the diet include sodium nitrite and monosodium glutamate (MSG).
Sodium is a mineral that is naturally occurring in many foods (including vegetables!), and small amounts of it (less than 500 mg a day) are needed for good health. Because of this, it is impossible to avoid sodium altogether, and it’s not necessary either.
Where we get into trouble is when sodium is added to food through processed ingredients or table salt, and we get way too much of it in our diets, leading to possible health complications - mainly high blood pressure (1).
What is a Low Sodium Diet?
The daily recommendation for sodium is less than 2,300 mg per day (2).
One teaspoon of table salt = 2,300 mg of sodium!
The majority of people get way too much sodium in their diet, with an average intake of around 3,400 mg per day (3).
These guidelines are even stricter for those following a cardiac diet or anyone with high blood pressure with experts recommending they may need less than 1,500 mg of sodium a day - this would be considered a low sodium diet (4).
Sodium Restricted Diet for Heart Failure (Cardiac Diet)
People with heart failure or high blood pressure often benefit from a low sodium diet (less than 1500 mg per day) because sodium can cause water retention, worsening symptoms of hypertension, edema, and fluid build-up (5,6).
One of the most popular low sodium diets used for heart health is the DASH diet (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension).
What Can You Eat on a Low Sodium Diet?
Cutting back on sodium can feel challenging at first, but it doesn’t have to be. It starts by learning what foods to eat less of and which to stock up on.
The best low sodium foods are fresh, whole foods or those made without common high sodium ingredients like added salt, sodium nitrite, and monosodium glutamate (MSG).
High Sodium Foods to Avoid
Majority of salt intake happens when eating out at restaurants or consuming a lot of packaged and prepared foods like the following:
- Sauces like soy sauce, ketchup, marinara, teriyaki, BBQ, salad dressings, etc.
- Canned Foods
- Salted snacks like chips, crackers, popcorn, etc.
- Bread, bagels, and tortillas
- Frozen meals
- Cheese and cottage cheese
- Cured and processed meats like sausage, deli meats, jerky and bacon
- Pickled foods and veggies
- Salted nuts and seeds
- Salted butter
- Seasonings with salt
Additionally, foods naturally higher in sodium include:
- Crab legs
Low Sodium Foods
The following foods are naturally low in sodium:
- Whole Grains
- Dried beans and legumes
- Plain nuts, seeds, and nut butters
- Unseasoned meat
- Low-sodium cheeses, cream cheese, ricotta cheese, and mozzarella
- Unsalted meat, fish, poultry, and eggs
For more processed foods, you can cut sodium intake by looking for low sodium or unsalted (no salt added) versions of some of your favorites.
High Potassium Foods
Potassium is thought to help counteract some of the negative effects of high sodium intake. Most fresh fruits and veggies tend to be a good source of potassium, along with other beneficial nutrients - making them an excellent choice all around.
Consider including more potassium-rich foods like the following in your diet:
- Coconut Water
- Leafy greens
- Low-fat milk
Low Sodium Seasonings
Salt is found in just about every single recipe because it makes food taste good! However, it is entirely possible to add a ton of flavor to your food without reaching for the salt every time. Here are some great seasoning alternatives without all the sodium:
- Fresh and dried herbs
- Citrus juice and zest
- Lemon pepper
- Onion powder
- Chili flakes
- Any salt-free seasoning blend
Starting a Low Salt Diet
Learning how to cut back on salt just takes a little practice. Get familiar with the best low sodium foods and stay on top of your daily intake using the following tips and tricks:
Reading Nutrition Labels
If eating a packaged food item, always check the nutrition facts label to see the amount of sodium you’re getting.
As a general rule of thumb, anything with lower than 5% of the daily value for sodium is considered “low”, and anything with more than 20% is “high” (7).
Use this simple chart to understand sodium claims and guide your food purchases next time you shop:
Less than 5 mg of sodium per serving
Very Low Sodium
35 mg of sodium or less per serving
140 mg of sodium or less per serving
At least 25% less sodium than the original product
Light in Sodium or Lightly Salted
At least 50% less sodium than the original product
No-Salt-Added or Unsalted
No salt is added during processing – but these products may not be salt/sodium-free
When eating at a restaurant or grabbing anything prepared outside of your home, ask your server to skip the salt if possible.
You can also opt for dishes made without common high sodium ingredients like sauces, breading, and cheese, and stick more simple ingredients. For example, instead of chicken Parmesan, try a grilled chicken breast.
You can also check the restaurant’s website for nutrition information in advance or ask your server if this information is available. This will help you know exactly how much sodium you’re getting with your meal choice.
Keeping a Food Diary
Many nutrition tracking apps will also track your daily sodium intake. This is an easy way to ensure you are staying on top of the recommended guidelines and sticking to a low salt diet overall.
Try logging everything you eat and drink in a food tracking app and use your daily and weekly nutrition analytics to see exactly how much sodium you consume.
Planning some or all of your meals in advance is another great way to take control of your nutrition - especially since you know exactly what you’re getting each day.
Take matters into your own hands by learning how to meal prep your lunches and cook healthy dinners at home.
You don’t have to rely on complicated recipes and fancy ingredients to be successful. Start with simple meal ideas and find what works best for you!
Try this simple menu planning template to help guide you!
To help you get started, here is an example of a simple, healthy low sodium diet that requires little food prep and won’t break the bank.
- Daily Calories: 1500
- Total daily sodium: 566 mg
- Total daily potassium: 3,556 mg
327 calories, 128 mg sodium, 1014 mg potassium
- 1/2 cup oatmeal cooked with 1/2 cup skim milk and 1 tsp honey
- 1 banana
513 calories, 213 mg sodium, 1569 mg potassium
- 4 oz grilled chicken breast
- 2 cups of leafy greens
- 1/8 cup shredded carrots
- 1/8 cup cherry tomatoes
- 1/4 cup dried apricots
- 1/3 avocado
- 1 tbsp fresh lemon juice
- 1 tbsp olive oil
- Cracked pepper
401 calories, 222 mg sodium, 590 mg potassium
- 4 oz salmon, lightly seasoned
- 1/2 cup cooked brown rice
- 1 cup steamed broccoli seasoned with 1/2 tsp lemon pepper
273 calories, 3 mg sodium, 383 mg potassium
- 1 Apple
- 1/4 cup unsalted almonds
- 1 piece dark chocolate
Low Sodium Meal Delivery
Not interested in making your own meals or having trouble balancing your salt intake? Put your low sodium diet on autopilot by opting for a meal delivery company that has pre-cooked proteins, grains, and veggies made with minimal seasonings.