Most Americans are aware that too much sodium can be a bad thing. It causes the body to hold excess fluid, which places a greater burden on the heart and causes blood pressure to rise.
But many people may not realize that the salt shaker on their table is not the primary source of the problem.
"Seventy-five percent of the sodium Americans consume comes from processed foods," says Rachel Johnson, professor of nutrition at the University of Vermont and a spokesperson for the American Heart Association.
Such foods include:
- Canned soups
- Canned vegetables and other canned foods
- Prepared mixes
- Tomato and pasta sauce
It is not always obvious that a processed food contains a lot of sodium. However, you can find the amount of sodium in a product by simply reading the ingredient label. Look for the words "soda" or "sodium," or for the symbol "Na."
Natural foods also contain sodium, some more than others. For example, cheese, seafood, olives and legumes often contain higher levels of sodium, according to the AHA.
Table salt is another source of sodium. And sodium can lurk in some unexpected places. For example, over-the-counter and prescription drugs sometimes contain higher levels of sodium.
Cutting back on sodium
Excess levels of sodium increase your risk for many conditions and diseases, including:
- Enlarged heart muscle
- Heart failure
- High blood pressure
- Kidney stones
- Stomach cancer
To stay healthy, it is important to avoid high-sodium foods. The AHA recommends that Americans restrict themselves to consuming less than 1,500 milligrams of sodium each day. That is just under 3/4 of a teaspoon of table salt.
In some cases, a low-salt or no-salt diet makes sense. This is especially true for anyone whose blood pressure is 120/80 or higher, according to the AHA.
"Reducing sodium in your diet will reduce the rise in blood pressure that occurs as we age," Johnson says.
Johns says it is important to check nutrition facts labels on foods so you know how much sodium the item contains.
The AHA has a list of "The Salty Six," a half-dozen foods that are notoriously high in sodium. They include:
- Breads and rolls. The AHA notes that while sodium levels in breads and rolls may lower per-serving than for other foods, Americans tend to eat a lot bread, causing the sodium to add up.
- Cold cuts and cured meats. A 2-ounce serving – six thin slices – may contain half of the daily recommended level of sodium.
- Pizza. A single slice of pizza can contain more than half of the recommended level of sodium, the AHA says.
- Poultry. Sodium levels vary widely, and often depend on how the meat is prepared before cooking.
- Sandwiches. Sandwiches and burgers at fast-food restaurants often contain more than 100 percent of the daily recommended level of sodium.
- Soup. One cup of a canned soup may contain up to 940 milligrams of sodium.
Some people fear that a low-salt diet will condemn them to a life of bland foods. But Johnson says there are ways around that worry.
She suggests experimenting with spices, herbs and citrus to enhance the natural flavor of your food.
"Your taste buds will adapt to eating less salt," she says. "Research suggests that when people eat lower-sodium foods, over time their taste preferences change."
Eventually, the foods you once enjoyed will begin to taste too salty, she says.