If you are on a salt free diet or low salt diet you have discovered how difficult grocery shopping and meal preparation can be. Your doctor probably told you to reduce or eliminate salt in your diet. Your initial thought is you could simply stop using the salt shaker, but soon discover that salt is really called sodium. You start reading the nutrition facts labels on food packages and wonder how you are going to cut salt out of your diet when it's in everything you eat. Scroll down this page for some helpful tips and what you need to know about sodium in food and your diet.
Sodium (aka Salt) Facts
Salt is the common name for sodium chloride.
The nutrition facts panels on packaged foods use the word sodium so you may not have been aware that salt is actually listed as sodium.
Dietary sodium is measured in milligrams (mg). One teaspoon of salt contains 2,400 mg of sodium. There are 1,000 mg in a gram (g). 2,400 mg of sodium equals 2.4 g.
Don't be fooled. Sea salt, Kosher salt, and other designer salts contain the same amount of sodium as ordinary table salt.
We need sodium in our diet to be alive, but very little. Health experts claim 220 mg to 500 mg per day is sufficient.
Keep a food diary. Count the milligrams of sodium in everything you eat including condiments and write it all down. Your doctor probably gave you a target maximum number of milligrams you should consume per day. If not, the U.S. government's Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee recommends consumption of no more than 2,300 mg of sodium per day. The National Academy of Science's Institute of Medicine, which advises the U.S. government about recommended levels of nutrients, is more conservative and offers this guideline as an adequate intake of sodium per day: Ages 19-50: 1,500 mg per day. Ages 51-70: 1,300 mg per day. Ages 70+: 1,200 mg per day.
Look for food patterns in your food diary. Try to pinpont when you crave and indulge in salt. Knowing your tendencies is useful to know so you are better prepared to handle them in the future.
Packaged foods are required to have a nutrition panel on the label. Always read food labels and do the math. The sodium content on the nutrition panel is based on the number of servings the package states. Example: a can of soup may say 770 mg of sodium but bases that number on 2.5 servings. 770 x 2.5 = 1,925 mg of sodium in that can of soup.
Also pay attention to the serving size that correlates to the nutrition panel numbers. Using the same soup example, 770 mg of sodium is based on the food company's declaration that one serving size is one half of a cup. (Seriously, who eats only 1/2 cup of soup?)
Read the list of ingredients on packaged foods, not just the nutrition panel, for sodium-containing compounds such as sodium bicarbonate (baking soda). Look for sodium in words, such as monoSODIUM glutamate (MSG).
Sodium is prevalent in most processed foods. Health experts claim at least 75% of the salt we eat is hidden in packaged food. Simply claiming you don't use salt, meaning you don't sprinkle it on your food, is living in denial.
Don't concern yourself with the sodium content of natural foods (unless you are on a strictly salt free diet). If the food is fresh and unprocessed, the sodium content is really small.
No matter how much food labels help you choose low sodium foods, understand that the best foods are the natural ones that have no labels. For example, a potato in the produce section won't have a nutrition label. But, if it did, it would say "very low sodium," "a good source of potassium," "cholesterol free," and "99% fat free."
Always choose low sodium versions of any packaged food.
Salt Free Cooking Tips
Cook from scratch. Know the sodium content in each of the ingredients used to prepare a meal or snack.
Be very wary of “heart healthy” and other good for you type claims on food packages. These foods may offer benefits addressing other health issues. But, in most cases, the sodium content is very high. Even many of the low sodium versions of packaged foods are still very high. Always read the sodium content and serving size on the package.
Use a kitchen scale. Calculate the weight of food to determine the sodium count. As an example, a skinless chicken breast has approximately 20 mg of sodium per ounce. Your chicken breast weighs 3.5 ounces = 70 mg of sodium. You'll love having a scale.
Throw away your salt shaker.
Use fresh poultry, fish, and lean meat, rather than canned or processed types. Natural steaks, roasts, and hamburger are all low in sodium and usually contain three to five times more potassium than sodium. Once meats are processed into things like hot dogs, sausage, and smoked, cured, and deli meats, they are loaded with salt. AND their all important potassium-to-sodium ratio is totally reversed.
Avoid chicken or turkey that is "prebasted." It always has extra salt added to it. It is usually injected with solutions that contain not only refined salt, but also things like partially hydrogenated oil, artificial flavor, and sodium containing preservatives. Always purchase fresh, unprocessed chicken and turkey.
Also avoid premarinated chicken or turkey cutlets. Salt is almost always one of the marinade's top ingredients.
Saltwater fish have only slightly more sodium than freshwater fish, but both are low in sodium.
Avoid breaded fish fillets. The breading used to coat the fish is high in salt.
Choose fresh or frozen vegetables over canned vegetables whenever possible. Although you can wash away some of the sodium in canned veggies, you can't restore the potassium that is eliminated during canning.
If you must use canned vegetables, choose the "no salt added" varieties.
Do not try to get more vegetables into your diet by drinking vegetable juice cocktail. Hidden in V-8 type drinks, drinks that sound so healthy, is 600+ milligrams of sodium in a tiny little six ounce serving. Bloody Mary mixes have twice as much or more!
You can easily make your own chili, taco, and meat loaf mixes.
Use a bread machine and bake your own bread using sodium free baking powder (Hains Featherweight brand).
Rinse canned foods, such as vegetables and tuna to remove some sodium.
When available, buy low or reduced sodium, or no salt added versions of foods.
Use low sodium cookbooks. You may find it easier to adapt to your new way of eating by using new recipes.
Search for low sodium foods on the Internet. When you find products of interest, check to find where they are available in your area. Websites usually have a page that tells you which stores carry their products.
Use the Internet as a tool to search for low sodium foods and make your grocery list. Write down the food product, the name of the manufacturer, and the sodium content of each item. This is so much easier and less frustrating than standing in the grocery aisle reading labels on hundreds of choices trying to determine which one has the lowest sodium content.
Mainstream grocery stores are not yet convinced they need low sodium products on their shelves. Talk to your store manager and tell them you need more low sodium food choices.
Snack on fresh fruits and vegetables, which are low in sodium.
Worth Repeating: Cook from scratch! Food in its natural state has enough sodium to give you what your body requires.
Recognize which foods are high in sodium and take control of what you eat.
De-emphasize the use of processed foods where salt is used to excess.
Convenience foods may be convenient, but are laden with sodium. By convenient I mean, if the food is packaged in a box or can or is easy to eat or quick to prepare, it probably has too much salt. The same for frozen one step meals like frozen dinners, appetizers, and pizza.
In my opinion, Fat Free actually means “Way Too Much Salt.” Any label on a package that claims their food is fat free should be required to state, “We took the fat out. Now our food has no taste, so we poured in extra salt to give it flavor!”
The following foods have a lot of salt in them: canned soups, chili, salad dressings, pasta sauces, gravies, broths, sauces and marinades. Many brands of canned soup and chili have more sodium in each can than you should consume in an entire day. If you must eat them, compare different brands and choose the one with the lowest sodium content.
An interesting fact: The Latin root of the word sauce is salt.
Any packaged food that comes with a sauce, such as frozen vegetables in butter sauce, usually has too much sodium.
Cut back on instant flavored rice or pasta. If you open the package and there is a seasoning packet inside, it is a good bet that the sodium content is very high.
Pay attention to the sodium content of your favorite condiments, particularly meat tenderizer, steak sauce, soy sauce, salsa, and ketchup.
Avoid gravy and seasoning mixes in those foil lined pouches.
Avoid ham, bacon, sausage, and lunch meat.
Many varieties of cheese contain a high sodium content.
Bread and baked goods have a high sodium content.
Never use self-rising flour. It has salt and leavening agents added to it, a process that creates an outrageously high sodium product. Avoid using this product.
Avoid salty snack foods such as pretzels, potato chips, salted nuts, olives, and pickles.
These terms indicate high sodium content: pickled, smoked, marinated, teriyaki, soy sauce, broth, au jus.
Cut out sodium rich medicines such as the antacids Alka-Seltzer and Bromo-Seltzer. A two tablet dose of Alka-Seltzer contains 995 milligrams of sodium while Bromo-Seltzer contains 761 milligrams in just one tablet. These two "medicines" contain more sodium to your diet than many processed foods.
There are no good choices at fast food restaurants. Ordering a salad may appear to be the healthy choice, but most salad dressings contain an exorbitant amount of sodium. Many restaurants now have printed nutritional info, but you need to ask for the brochure.