Try these tricks, and your heart doctor will thank us.
Mention the idea of cutting back on sodium, and, it’s hard not to think of bland, tasteless food—salt makes things so much better. And consigning yourself to unhappy meals can feel like too much of a trade-off, even for the benefit of improving your health.
The American Heart Association recommends an intake of between 1500 and 2300 mg of sodium. Yet, most Americans consume more than 3400 mg each day. This accounts for a big increase in risks for heart attack, stroke, osteoporosis, and kidney disease (for everyone, not just those with high blood pressure). Clearly, almost all of us could stand a little decrease in daily sodium intakes.
But what if you could decrease your sodium while still keeping food flavorful? It would be a miracle, right? Well, it turns out that you can! Here are seven easy, nutritionist-approved hacks for cutting back on sodium, while still enjoying a tasty, delicious meal.
1. Skip the Premade Sides
Sure, already ready side dishes may be your secret to successfully pulling dinner together on busy school nights. But check the labels. Most of those items come with a cost: lots of sodium, not to mention chemicals and additives. The solution? Try quick, semi-homemade side items. Here are some of my favorites:
15-minute Roasted Broccoli: Toss pre-cut up broccoli florets with olive oil, garlic, and a pinch of salt (yes, that’s correct), and bake in a hot oven for 12 to 15 minutes.
Sodium savings compared to a frozen broccoli in cheese or butter sauce per cup = 420 mg
Hands-Free Baked Sweet Potatoes: Bake in the oven, zap in the microwave, or (for those who think ahead) place in the slow cooker that morning, for delicious baked sweet potatoes at dinner. Top with a little butter, dash of salt, and your favorite spices.
Sodium savings compared to refrigerated mashed potatoes or frozen fries per 8 ounces = 730 mg
Other “throw-together” sides you can make include steam-in-the bag green beans, fruit salad, baby carrots with 2 tablespoons of hummus, or pretty much any item, fresh or frozen, that you are eating as close to its natural state (no sauces, seasonings, and few preservatives) as possible. Even after adding a dash of salt and a bit of butter or olive oil, you’ll come out ahead.
Sodium Savings = typically 300 to 800 mg of sodium per side dish serving.
2. Choose Your Canned Foods Carefully
There are a few canned items that I can’t live without: Black beans and diced tomatoes for instance.
But canned items generally need preservatives, which means they are always going to be higher in sodium. However, there are a few tricks for cutting the sodium when using them.
For items like beans, simply drain and rinse before using. This can reduce up to 40 percent of the sodium. When I checked the brand in my own pantry, this meant ditching 200 mg of sodium per ½ cup
A second way to skirt around sodium is to look for the products that say “reduced salt” or “no-salt-added.” Typically, you’re adding canned items to something else—a dish or recipe that is going to be seasoned with other spices and flavors, so using the changes little in the dish’s states and cuts 50 to 80 percent of the sodium compared to regular versions.
Sodium Savings = approximately 100 to 400 mg of sodium per ½ cup of beans and 150 to 300 mg per ½ cup of canned tomato products
3. Learn Your Chicken Solutions
Chicken breasts are a staple in many family dinners thanks to their versatility, kid-friendliness, and a reputation for being a “healthy” choice. But they may be adding extra sodium to your plate.
Many people don’t realize that raw chicken breasts are often injected with a salt solution to add juiciness and increase weight. This process takes a naturally low-sodium food and adds 4 to 5 times its normal sodium content—and that’s before you add any additional seasoning.
Effective January 2016 though, manufacturers are now required to state the percentage of weight that an injected solution makes up in raw poultry and most meats.
Obviously, purchasing chicken with no solution would be best, but it can be hard to find. Your next best bet is to find breast meat with around 1 to 2 percent solution added—the lower the better. Also be aware that “solution” equates to added sodium, regardless of whether it is called salt and water or wholesome-sounding broth and seasonings.
Sodium Savings = up to 400 mg of sodium per chicken breast.
4. Make Those Salads Count
Increasing your intake of fresh produce is a key part of living a heart-healthy diet: Fresh veggies are naturally low-sodium and have a higher potassium content.
The easiest way to do this is to make fresh salads. But be careful: Premade salad dressings are typically loaded with sodium.
Luckily, making salad dressing is very doable. It takes about 3 minutes to combine ingredients in a mason jar, and you will slash sodium significantly. Here are a few vinaigrettes to try, and don’t’ be afraid to experiment!
Sodium Savings = 150 to 400 mg per 2 tablespoons.
5. Freeze Those Leftovers
Research suggests that home-cooked meals almost always have fewer calories and less saturated fat and sodium than foods prepared “away from home” (that means fast food and restaurant meals, but also premade items that you heat up at home, like frozen pizzas or frozen dinners).
But let’s be honest, there are going to be some times when you don’t have bandwidth to do more than reheat something. That’s when the convenience of having your own “frozen dinners” on hand can keep you from ordering pizza and loading up on sodium.
The easiest way to do this is to double or triple the ingredients amounts in a favorite recipe—say, a casserole or soup. Serve some for dinner, and freeze the extras in 2- to 4-serving portions. You’ll save a ton of sodium—and money!
Sodium Savings = anywhere from 900 mg for a serving of chicken-broccoli casserole to 1800 mg for a bowl of chicken tortilla soup.
6. Swap Out Your Snacks
For many people, a “snack” typically means something high in carbs that is sweet, salty, or both (thank you, chocolate-dipped pretzels, for ruining everything).
Packaged snack foods are super convenient (and often just a vending machine away), but a few salty snack choices throughout the day can really load you up on extra sodium.
Try swapping them out for fresh fruit, yogurt, roasted chickpeas, or raw veggies with a little hummus—all of which are a good bit lower in sodium.
Sodium Savings = approximately 100 to 250 mg of sodium depending on the swap.
7. Balance Your Sodium Account
Keeping track of your sodium intake as the day progresses makes it hard to ignore how much you’re consuming, as well as the positive and negative impacts that different food choices have. So, from time to time, it’s good to track your “sodium account,” just like you would a checking account.
Write down 2300 mg on a paper, or on your phone when in the morning; then use food labels to subtract your sodium “deficits” through the day. You’ll get a good sense of how well (or poorly) you’re able to stay in the positive.
I’ve found that by doing this periodically increased awareness helps me make better choices even on days when I’m not tracking my balance. And when I tracked my sodium intake for three days, I found I could get it to range from 1100 to 1850 mg less than what I would usually consume, simply by comparing food labels and making smarter sodium choices when I could.