If you’re a self-diagnosed sugar addict like me, I have bad news for you. You’re probably a salt addict too. You may be wondering how this is possible, especially if you always choose sweet over salty. But the fact is, 9 out of 10 Americans consume too much sodium. That’s why I spoke with registered dietitian and certified diabetes educator Janelle Eligon-Ketchum of Nutrition Unlimited. She helped me understand how much sodium is considered too much and showed me how to pay better attention to the foods I’m eating.
Q: What is sodium and why do I need it?
You’re probably most familiar with sodium because it’s a major component of salt. Your body needs it to help keep your fluid levels in balance. For example, salt ensures your body has the fluids it needs to sweat.
What happens when I get too much sodium?
Eating too much salt can raise your blood pressure and increase your risk for hypertension. It can also increase your risk for heart disease and kidney disease. For some people, eating too much salt can cause bloating, swelling, or headaches.
How much sodium do I need?
According to the Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion, it is recommended that you consume less than 2,300 milligrams of sodium per day. I know, that sounds like plenty! But once you start looking at nutrition labels, you’ll learn just how quickly it adds up. In fact, the American Heart Association claims that the average American consumes about 3,400 mg of sodium per day — that’s 1,100 more milligrams than we’re supposed to eat. And if you have certain chronic conditions, you may need to limit your sodium intake even more.
Is there an easier way to identify foods with too much sodium?
Yes, the 5-20 rule is easy to remember and can help you identify lower sodium foods. Here’s how it works:
- Look at the nutrition label on your food.
- Find sodium and look at the percentage listed next to it.
- If the food contains 5 percent of your daily value for sodium, it’s considered a low sodium food. If it contains 20 percent, you know it’s a high sodium food and you should try to avoid it.
What kinds of foods tend to be high in sodium?
Processed foods, like prepared foods and sauces that come in boxes or cans, often have very high levels of sodium. For example, your favorite boxed macaroni and cheese has 570 mg of sodium in one small serving, that’s 30 percent of your daily value! Your comforting can of chicken noodle soup has 28 percent, and a small handful of pretzels has 10 percent. But sodium also hides in other foods as well, such as breads, cereals, cheese, deli meats, and pizza.
Do you have any tips to help lower my sodium intake?
Cooking your meals at home, rather than eating out, is a great way to lower your sodium intake, but you have to be careful about how you’re preparing your foods. These tips can help:
- Opt for powders over salts, like garlic and onion powder.
- Season your foods with herbs and spices.
- Don’t be fooled by sea salt, kosher salt, pink Himalayan, or any other kind of fancy salt. It’s still salt and made up of sodium.
- Try to avoid shortcuts, like prepared sauces, spice mixes, and rice mixes.
- Remove the salt shaker from the dinner table.
How can I watch my sodium intake when I’m eating out at a restaurant?
Sodium levels tend to be very high in foods at restaurants, and not just fast food restaurants. The best thing you can do is really limit how often you eat out. Save it for special occasions, like what you probably did when you were growing up. Today, we eat out so often, several times a week or more seems to be the norm. But to get back to eating healthy, you need to try to prepare more meals at home so you can control what’s going into your meals. This is a tough change but it can make a huge difference in your overall health. Meal delivery services may be a good way to start out since there are plenty of them that deliver healthy, fresh ingredients for you to prepare. Plus, you can still control the amount of salt and seasonings that go in them.
Where else can I get help learning how to eat healthier?
Watching what you eat, changing habits, learning new cooking methods — it all takes time. But it’s even easier with help from a professional. If you’re an IBX member, chances are you’re covered for six free annual visits with a registered dietitian who can help you come up with a healthy meal plan and stick to it — no matter how busy you are. Check to see if your plan covers nutrition counseling. To find a participating registered dietitian, primary care provider, or another network provider, Independence Blue Cross members can search our Provider Finder Tool or call 1-800-ASK-BLUE (1-800-275-2583) (TTY: 711).
Information on this site is provided for informational purposes and is not meant to substitute for the advice provided by your own physician or other medical professional. You should not use the information contained herein for diagnosing or treating a health problem or disease, or prescribing any medication. If you have, or suspect that you have, a medical problem, promptly contact your health care provider.