Cutting Back on Sodium

It’s no secret that most Americans are consuming too much sodium. The average American takes in about 3,400 mg of sodium per day.

Decreasing the amount of sodium in the diet can help many people lower their blood pressure. Lowering blood pressure also means you are decreasing your risk for heart attack or stroke, both of which are common diabetes complications. The American Diabetes Association recommends that people with diabetes aim to have 2300 mg or less per day. If you have high blood pressure, your health care provider may recommend even less.

It is estimated that about 75% or more of the sodium Americans eat is from processed, packaged foods. Many companies are slowly trying to lower the amount of sodium in their products, but there is still much work to be done.

In general, fresh, unprocessed foods are the lowest sodium foods out there. So, an easy strategy to cut back on sodium is to eat more of these foods and less highly-processed foods. Fresh, unprocessed foods include:

  • fresh fruits
  • fresh vegetables (both starchy and non-starchy)
  • dried beans, peas, and legumes (buying dried beans, peas, and legumes is best since canning adds a significant amount of sodium)
  • whole grain foods prepared without salt like brown rice, wild rice, oats, quinoa, popcorn, and whole grain barley
  • unsalted nuts and seeds
  • most fresh or frozen (not processed) cuts of meat, poultry and fish without added salt water or saline

Low-Sodium Alternatives

Below we’ve provided a list of foods that are usually high in sodium, along with some related tips to follow when you decide to include them in your meal plan.

  • Frozen meals — Choose frozen meals with 600 mg of sodium per serving or less. (Be sure to check the serving size, as well.)
  • Cheese — Use less cheese in your recipes and meals. When choosing which to buy, use the nutrition label to compare different cheeses, and opt for those that are lower in sodium. Fresh mozzarella packed in water and Swiss cheese are usually on the low end.
  • Canned vegetables and canned beans — Buying these items fresh or frozen without added salt is a great option. If you want to stick to cans, look for “no salt added” or reduced-sodium varieties.
    Before using canned vegetables or beans, drain and rinse them thoroughly with cold water.
  • Processed or cured meats — Limit these types of meat. This includes hot dogs, bologna, salami, bacon, and sausage products. Instead, choose fresh or frozen meats and poultry, fresh fish, and plant-based protein sources like tofu or dried beans.
  • Other deli meats (chicken, ham, roast beef, turkey) — Choose reduced-sodium varieties and be careful of portion size. When you make sandwiches, use 2-3 slices and then add other healthy, lower-sodium ingredients like:  avocado, lettuce, tomato, cucumber, and/or hummus. When you can, prepare fresh meats or poultry on the weekend and use it for sandwiches throughout the week.
  • Many condiments (especially soy sauce, dressings/marinades, tomato or spaghetti sauce, and teriyaki sauce —There are also other condiments that can be a significant source of sodium if you have too much. This includes: salsa, catsup, taco sauce and seasoning, garlic salt, onion salt, hot sauce, and barbeque sauce. Always check labels and choose lower-sodium varieties. Look for salt-free seasonings and use them to enhance the flavor of your dishes. Be cautious about the amount of condiment you use, and measure if you have to – you may be surprised how a little bit can still add a lot of flavor to your meal. Even reduced sodium versions of some condiments like soy sauce contain over 700 mg per tablespoon, so read labels carefully. Try making your own salad dressing or salsa at home for a lower-sodium version.
  • Soups and broths —Make your own broths and soup at home. It’s easy to boil a chicken with some vegetables and use the broth to make a soup without adding any salt. If you want to buy soup or broth from the store, look for reduced-sodium varieties.
  • Prepared mixes for pasta, rice, etc. —These highly processed foods can easily be replaced with healthy, homemade recipes that use fresh, natural ingredients. If you are looking for a variety of healthy recipes, you may want to check out our FREE nutrition resource, Recipes for Healthy Living.
  • Pickled foods like pickles, relish, and sauerkraut —These foods are usually very high in sodium. One pickle wedge can have 500 mg of sodium! Limit these foods as much as possible.
  • Many restaurant foods —Many restaurant meals (both fast-food and sit-down) have enough sodium in them for the entire day. Large portions are part of the problem. Save half of your meal for the next day – this will help you cut sodium in half too. You can also ask your server to have your food prepared without salt. Take a look at the nutrition information online ahead of time. Don’t forget to consider sodium when looking at your options. Finding lower sodium options can be tough. It may be easier to cook from scratch as often as you can so you know exactly what is going into your food.

To learn more about how these foods fit into a diabetes meal plan, check out our Create Your Plate and Carbohydrate Counting pages.

More Sodium-Savvy Tips

Here are some additional tips that can help you cut back on sodium throughout your day:

Check Labels

Take the time to check labels at the grocery store. Check the amount of sodium in a serving and compare it to other similar items. This may sound time-consuming, but next time you shop for groceries, you’ll know what best options are and exactly where to find them.

Be aware that sometimes fat-free and reduced fat items have more sodium in them. It is usually added to give these products more flavor. Check the nutrition labels on these items so you know what you are getting.

Cook Carefully

Limit the amount of salt that you add when cooking. Instead, stock your spice cabinet with salt-free seasonings and spices. Look for recipes that don’t call for added salt. Fresh herbs, citrus juices, vinegars, and garlic are all low-sodium ways to add flavor to your food. Here are some examples:

  • Squeeze fresh lemon juice on steamed vegetables, broiled fish, rice, or pasta. You may want to try squeezing fresh lime juice on Spanish dishes.
  • Try salt- or sodium-free lemon pepper or mesquite seasoning on chicken.
  • Add cooked onion and garlic to liven up meats and vegetables.
  • Add fresh herbs to salads, pasta, or rice dishes to enhance flavor instead of adding salt or high-sodium condiments.
  • Marinate vegetables or cook them with balsamic vinegar.

Put the Salt Shaker Away

Refrain from using the salt shaker at the table. Try your food without salting it first – it may be better than you think! You’ll get a true taste of the natural flavors in the food you cook. If you need to, remove the salt shaker from the table all together. Keep the pepper out if you want to add a kick to your meal.

Make Some Simple Swaps

Here are just a few more handy tips to slim down the sodium in your diet:

  • Buy unsalted natural peanut butter and almond butter.
  • Choose unsalted nuts and seeds that are raw or dry roasted.
  • Swap out a snack of chips or pretzels for a piece of fresh fruit with unsalted peanut butter or trail mix.
  • Buy fresh meat or poultry on the weekend and cook it up using fresh herbs and spices. Store and portion it out for lunch sandwiches the following week.
  • Buy spaghetti and marinara sauce labeled as “no salt added”.
  • If a recipe calls for salt, cut the amount in half.
  • Choose recipes that call for fresh ingredients that have been minimally processed.
  • Milk and whole wheat bread are healthy carbohydrate choices. However, they have enough sodium in them that it can add up if you have too much. If you have diabetes, you probably already watch your intake of these foods. You can still have them, but be aware that 1 cup of milk has about 130 mg and 1 slice of whole wheat bread could have 130 mg or more.

Note: Some people try to use salt substitutes instead in place of table salt. These substitutes are high in potassium, which could be harmful to some people. Check with your physician before using salt substitutes and make sure they won’t interfere with another medical condition or your medications if you take them.

  • Last Reviewed: August 1, 2013
  • Last Edited: August 22, 2014

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