When it comes to mealtime, most Americans need to hold the salt.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports about 90 percent of Americans ages 2 and older eat too much sodium.
Americans, on average, eat about 3,300 milligrams of sodium each day. U.S. dietary guidelines recommend limiting sodium to less than 2,300 milligrams daily. For comparison, one teaspoon of table salt has about 2,300 milligrams of sodium.
People with high blood pressure, kidney disease and diabetes, or those older than 50, should only consume 1,500 milligrams, according to the guidelines.
Excess sodium causes artery walls to thicken and increases blood pressure, said Jendy Newman, a registered dietitian with PeaceHealth Southwest Medical Center. High blood pressure, or hypertension, is known as the “silent killer” because many people don’t know they have the disease. Yet, in 2008, hypertension was listed as the primary or contributing cause of death in about 348,000 deaths in the U.S., according to the American Heart Association.
High blood pressure can also lead to heart disease and stroke, according to the CDC.
“If we could reduce sodium, we could make some significant decreases in health care costs and morbidity and mortality,” Newman said.
The biggest sodium culprit: processed foods.
“For the most part, in our U.S. food culture, we get most of it from the processed and packaged and restaurant food,” Newman said.
Frozen TV dinners, canned foods, soups and processed cheeses can carry high amounts of sodium. So can snacks such as pretzels, popcorn and potato chips, which can contain up to 200 milligrams of sodium per serving, said Claire Stoltz-Urch, registered dietitian with Legacy Salmon Creek Medical Center.
Condiments, salad dressings and sauces can also include a surprisingly high amount of sodium. And foods that only require hot water and a quick stir — such as ramen noodles, stuffing and instant potatoes — are best avoided, Stoltz-Urch said.
“Most foods are somewhat low in salts naturally,” Stoltz-Urch said. “It’s those processed foods that are higher in salt.”
Even foods that seem otherwise healthful can include high levels of sodium. Deli meats and cheeses are cured to preserve them, making their sodium content higher than fresh meat, she said.
Cooking your own chicken or roast beef and using that for sandwiches is a better option, said Kerry Martinson, registered dietitian for Kaiser Permanente.
Knowing what’s in the food you’re eating is another key to reining in sodium levels, according to dietitians.
“I encourage people to be a savvy shopper and read labels,” Newman said.
She also recommends keeping an eye on the serving sizes, as some packages include more than one serving.
Swapping packaged foods for fruits and vegetables, either fresh or frozen, is another way to reduce sodium. That could mean eating another helping of broccoli instead of a second scoop of Rice-a-Roni, or snacking on an apple as opposed to a handful of potato chips, Martinson said.
“If most people ate more fruits and vegetables in place of processed foods, they’d naturally be eating less sodium and get the benefits of fresh fruits and vegetables,” she said.
Dietitians also recommend swapping the salt shaker for natural seasonings.
Instead of sprinkling table salt onto cooked vegetables, try a couple drops of lemon or lime juice, some garlic powder or a bit of Mrs. Dash seasoning. If you have to add salt, avoid using it while preparing the food. Instead, add a dash of salt on top of prepared food to make the taste more prevalent, Newman said.
“If you enhance the flavor with lemon juice or lemon peel or herbs and spices, a lot of times you don’t need the salt because you have the flavor,” she said.