When the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans were released, they featured three key messages for consumes to focus on: 1) balancing calories, 2) foods to increase and 3) foods to reduce. Sodium and added sugars are the focus of the third message: foods to reduce.
When addressing sodium content in the diet, the most common thing I hear is “I don’t salt my foods.” While this is an excellent practice to follow (because a ¼ teaspoon of salt contains about 600 mg of sodium), many people do not realize how much sodium is in the food products they commonly consume. The guidelines recommend we consume less than 2,300 mg of sodium per day. Intake should be further reduced to 1,500 mg/day if you are age 51 or older, have hypertension, diabetes or chronic kidney disease and those at any age who are African-American. What’s alarming is the 1,500 mg recommendation actually applies to about half of the American population (including children and most adults).
Your first course of action should be to start reading food labels. A good rule of thumb is to try to keep sodium content of meals to less than 600 mg. You can find this information on the food label. Pay attention to serving size and the amount of sodium per serving. One reason why sodium is added to foods is to act as a preservative. Canned, frozen and pre-packaged foods are all potential sources of high-sodium products. Another reason sodium is added recipes is to soften products; this is why breads contain higher amounts of sodium. Sodium also occurs in foods naturally.
Here are some common culprits containing high amounts of sodium:
Frozen Meal Entrees: Choosing a single-serving, low-calorie frozen meal may seem like a good idea, but often these meals are loaded with too much sodium. Even the “healthy” frozen meals may contain too much sodium for one sitting. While it’s perfectly fine to have these convenient options once in a while (preferably ones with less 600 mg of sodium), your best bet is to pack your lunch consisting of a lean protein, whole grain and fresh fruits and vegetables.
Soups: All varieties contain sky-high amounts of sodium. One serving (8-oz) of chicken noodle soup contains 850 mg of sodium and we typically eat more than one serving! Adding a half cup of oyster crackers increases the meal sodium content to 1,000 mg! Look for reduced-sodium varieties the next time; most brands are now making these options more available.
Cheese: One 1-oz slice of American cheese has 417 mg. This is one of the reasons why pizzas, cheesy macaroni and sandwiches have such high sodium levels. Your best pick for cheese is real Swiss (50 mg/ slice) or cheddar cheese (150 mg/slice)–not the individually wrapped, extra-processed varieties.
Instant Cooking Foods: Any foods that require you add hot water typically contain high amounts of sodium. This includes ramen noodles (noodle mixes), potatoes, rice (packaged blends), some cereal, puddings, biscuit, cake mixes and more.
Condiments: Soy sauce, BBQ sauce, mustard, ketchup, salad dressings and bouillon cubes may add a lot of flavor to dishes, but with this flavor comes a lot of sodium. Look for salt-free seasonings like garlic powder (not garlic salt!) or any Mrs. Dash seasoning blend.
Choosing fresh, minimally processed foods is your best offense for reducing your sodium intake. The DASH meal plan (which stands for Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) focuses on choosing foods with minimal amounts of sodium.