These 10 easy steps, both large and small, let you keep the lid on sodium without a whole lot of sacrifice. By: Maureen Callahan, MS, RD
September 08, 2011
1 of 12Photo: Oxmoor House
Reduce Sodium for Good Health
As health experts fight among themselves about how much sodium is safe to eat, the reality is that most of us can get by on far less salt (our biggest source of sodium). In fact, much of the salt in restaurant meals and packaged foods is overkill, just excess salt used to pander our palates in the simplest way. But gradually shaving off a little salt here and a little salt there is critical to good health, not just as a way to lower blood pressure but to keep the heart, kidneys, and bones healthy. It’s also a way to let other flavors shine through in foods and open your palate to a whole new world of flavor.
2 of 12
1. Cook Often
Outsourcing meals to food companies and restaurants may be convenient, but it definitely won’t keep a lid on salt. Order buffalo chicken fajitas at one popular chain and expect 6700 mg sodium (that includes three tortillas and fixings). Hydrate with a 24-ounce diet cola (90 mg sodium) and splurge on molten chocolate cake for dessert (820 mg sodium) and your net sodium expenditure is 7610 mg, or a heaping tablespoon worth of salt. By cooking at home, chances are you won’t come anywhere close to using that much.
Time-Saving Tip: If cooking every night sounds tiring, make big batches of dried beans, marinara, or full recipes on weekends. Portion into small batches and freeze until needed. Use our Get Cooking Guide (March’s Healthy Habit) to help get started.
3 of 12
2. Pair Takeout with Fresh
For times when you can’t cook, dilute the sodium of takeout or frozen family meals by adding equal amounts of fresh steamed vegetables. Take what one popular Italian chain calls a single serving (we call it huge portion) of five-cheese ziti and heat on the stovetop with one (9-ounce) bag of fresh spinach until greens wilt. Divide into two meals. That simple swap cuts sodium in half and whittles calories down from 1050 to a more reasonable 540. Added bonus: the spinach ups the nutrition ante with generous amounts of fiber, vitamins, and antioxidants.
Restaurant Tip: If eating out, split an entrée to cut sodium in half. Order side salads and steamed veggies sans salt to round out the meal.
4 of 12
3. Practice the Incremental Approach
No need to say sayonara to salt, but research shows that small cutbacks of 25% salt in a recipe will go unnoticed. Really. It’s a scientific fact that salt is an acquired taste; the more you eat, the more you become accustomed to it. So turn the tables on that science and gradually cut back on amounts by using a little less salt than a recipe calls for each time you cook. Eventually you’ll bring levels down to reasonable amounts. If you salt foods automatically, practice the same approach, gradually weaning yourself away from larger amounts.
Kitchen tip: Measure out all the salt called for in a recipe. Put 25 percent of it back in the salt shaker and cook with the remaining 75 percent. Do this for two weeks. Then cut back again.
5 of 12
4. Label It Low
Processed convenience items amount for about seventy-five percent of the sodium in most diets. So this is the place to hit hardest with your sodium lowering strategies. Ideally, shift away from highly processed to more minimally processed and fresh foods. But if you must buy processed, zero in on the nutrition facts label to figure out what brands are doing the best job of keeping sodium levels low. See Top 10 Best Processed Foods and Top 10 Lower-Sodium Foods.
Shopping tip: For the biggest impact, look for lower sodium versions of products you eat frequently. The top ten sodium sources for most Americans are meat pizza, white bread, processed cheese, hot dogs, spaghetti with sauce, ham, ketchup, cooked rice, white rolls, and flour tortillas.
6 of 12
5. Take Salt-free Shortcuts
It’s not necessary to give up all convenience products to keep sodium levels in check. Consider using salt-free convenience ingredients in soups, stews, and casseroles. Then add salt to taste, using sparingly. Most plain frozen vegetables are salt free. Ditto for dried beans, chickpeas, and vegetables canned without salt.
Kitchen tip: Toast dried herbs and spices in a small amount of oil to add underlying flavor to any dish. Say you’re making chili. Toast the chili powder, oregano, and cumin in oil so that the oil can carry flavor into the salt-free beans and tomatoes.
7 of 12Photo: Anna Williams
6. Ratchet Up Fruits & Veggies
Even if you’re having trouble ditching the salt shaker, do try including lots of fruits and vegetables at meals. Research confirms that eating
8 of 12
7. Make Your Own Salad Dressing
Drenching salads with bottled dressing is pretty much akin to sprinkling salt on your mixed greens since most dressings pack as much as 300 to 500 mg sodium in a 2-tablespoon serving. And most of us don’t stop at just 2 tablespoons. But the core ingredients in salad dressing, oil and vinegar, are sodium free. Mix the two with a dab of mustard, any kind works but Dijon is the usual choice, and the sodium numbers are so minimal it’s not even worth counting.
Kitchen tip: Whisk together 1 tablespoon olive oil, 1 tablespoon vinegar and 1/4 teaspoon Dijon mustard for a low-fat vinaigrette. Optional add-ins: dried herbs, chopped shallots, lemon zest, fresh ground pepper. See how step-by-step in Making a Basic Vinaigrette.
9 of 12
8. Ease up on Salty Condiments
At 190mg sodium per tablespoon, ketchup doesn’t sound like a salty offender. And it probably isn’t if you use it sparingly. But slathering ketchup on burgers and fries, drizzling large quantities of soy sauce (900mg sodium per tablespoon) on sushi, or heaping on the pickle relish (240mg sodium per tablespoon) can add up. For some, it’s enough to just cut back on amounts of high-sodium contents, using them judiciously. Also good options: low-sodium versions of soy sauce and salt-free ketchups.
Kitchen tips: Try replacing ketchup with a fresh homemade salsa. Chop roasted bell peppers, drizzle with olive oil and pepper, and use as a relish for burgers or fish.
10 of 12Photo: John Autry
9. Salt with Style
Some of the salt used in foods is an automatic or learned response. You throw salt in the water for boiling pasta. You add salt to a pot of boiling vegetables. You sprinkle salt on potato wedges before roasting. The truth is, it’s easy to skip that step and save salt for finishing a dish. For finishing, choose a specialty salt for the most impact. A fine grind sea salt has the same amount of sodium as regular iodized salt, but flavors and colors are unique and set the mind and palate up to enjoy a food.
Staging tip: Since the terms “low sodium” and “low salt” have come to mean deprivation for some folks, entice guests and family by describing a dish as cooked with “a touch of sea salt.”
11 of 12
10. Use Fresh Herbs & Spice Rubs
Salt may be a great flavor enhancer, but foods that taste salty are often one-note-flavor wonders, lacking depth and complexity. Instead of letting salt dominate a dish, try building in many different flavors with spice rubs and fresh herbs. Think of ethnic cuisines. Indian curries are not built on salt; they’re built by toasting multiple spices. Jamaican jerk is not about salt but a blend of flavorings including allspice, thyme, and onion. The more flavors you build into a dish, the less salt you’ll end up needing.
Kitchen tip: To make fresh herbs last a week or more, treat them like flowers. Snip stems and place in a glass filled with water.
12 of 12
BONUS: Rock the Citrus
A rule of thumb among chefs and the single easiest trick for brightening the flavor of any dish, particularly recipes made with less salt, is to add a splash of lemon juice or stir in a finely grated bit of lime, lemon, or orange zest. When acidic ingredients like citrus (vinegar works too) are added to soups, salads, and entrées at the end of cooking they help brighten and round out flavors. It’s hard to miss the salt when your palate detects a fresh bite of citrus.
Kitchen tip: When zesting oranges, lemon, and limes, opt for organic varieties since their peels are free of waxes and chemicals.