Shake the Salt Habit!

Thinking about ending your love affair with salt? Now's the time to reduce your sodium as the average American consumes twice the recommended amount! This Heart Month, the American Heart Association shows you how extra salt sneaks into your diet and how it hurts your health, and shares tips for kissing the excess salt goodbye and starting a healthier relationship with food.

What's the big deal about sodium? How does it affect my heart health?

Sodium is a mineral that’s essential for life. When there's extra sodium in your bloodstream, it pulls water into your blood vessels, increasing the total volume of blood inside. With more blood flowing through, blood pressure increases. It's like turning up the water supply to a garden hose—the pressure in the hose increases as more water is blasted through it. Over time, high blood pressure may overstretch or injure the blood vessel walls and speed the build-up of gunky plaque that can block blood flow. The added pressure also tires out the heart by forcing it to work harder to pump blood through the body.

Even if you don't have high blood pressure, eating less sodium can help blunt the rise in blood pressure that occurs with age, and reduce your risk of heart attack, heart failure, stroke, kidney disease, osteoporosis, stomach cancer and even headaches. The extra water in your body can also lead to bloating and weight gain.

If someone is sensitive to salt, this means increasing or decreasing their salt intake has a greater effect on their blood pressure (compared to someone who is not sensitive to salt). The effects of salt and sodium on blood pressure tend to be greater in blacks, people over 50, and people with high blood pressure, diabetes or kidney disease. That's about half the American population.

But don't think you're off the hook if you're not in one of those groups. Almost everyone can benefit from cutting back on salt, because nearly all of us eat too much. Blood pressure rises with age, and eating less sodium now will curb that rise and put us on a path to a healthier life.

What can I do to reduce the sodium I eat?

Overall, more than 75 percent of the sodium we eat comes from processed, prepackaged, and restaurant foods. This makes it hard to choose foods with less sodium and to limit sodium because it's already added to food before we buy it. The rest of the sodium in our diets occurs naturally in food (about 12 percent) or is added by us when we're cooking food or sitting down to eat. The latter only makes up about 10 percent of our total sodium intake, so even if you never use the salt shaker, you're probably getting too much sodium.

Here are some top break-up tips:

  • Compare labels and choose the product with the lowest amount of sodium you can find in your store. You might be surprised that different brands of the same food can have different sodium levels.
  • Look for products with the American Heart Association's Heart-Check mark at grocery stores and some restaurants to find foods to help you build a heart-healthy diet. The red and white icon means that a product meets the Heart-Check program's nutrition requirements for certification, including specific sodium limits by food category.
  • Look for fresh and frozen poultry that hasn't been injected with a sodium solution. Check the fine print on the packaging and look for terms such as "broth," "saline" or "sodium solution." Sodium levels in unseasoned fresh meats are around 100 mg or less per 4-ounce serving.
  • Cook at home more. Use herbs, spices, citrus juices and vinegars instead of salt to add flavor to foods. American Heart Association has recipes and tips on how to use them deliciously that can help!
  • Choose condiments carefully. For example, soy sauce, bottled salad dressings, dips, ketchup, salsas, mustard, pickles, olives and relish can be sky-high in sodium. Or search American Heart Association's heart-healthy recipe website and make your own favorite condiment.
  • Control portion sizes. When you cut calories, you usually cut the sodium too.
  • Choose foods with potassium, like sweet potatoes, potatoes, greens, tomatoes and lower-sodium tomato sauce, white beans, kidney beans, nonfat yogurt, oranges, bananas and cantaloupe. Potassium helps counter the effects of sodium and may help lower your blood pressure.
  • Specify how you want your food prepared when dining out. Ask for your dish to be prepared without salt.

As you take steps to reduce sodium gradually, you'll start to appreciate foods for their true flavor. And over time, your taste buds can adjust to prefer less salt. Studies have shown that when people are given a lower sodium diet for a period of time, they begin to prefer lower-sodium foods and the foods they used to enjoy taste too salty.

Get more tips and pledge to reduce your sodium by taking the American Heart Association's sodium pledge.

Contributor Cherish Hart is the Senior Community Health Director at American Heart Association. She can be reached at cherish.hart@heart.org or 206-834-8638.