By Cheryl Brown
January 04, 2015
Photo courtesy of Meredith

We humans have a long history of fighting over salt. Seriously—we have even killed each other for salt. We literally can't live without it: Our bodies can't absorb some key nutrients without salt. It stimulates muscle contraction (which prevents cramps), prevents heatstroke, aids digestion, and helps maintain a balance of bodily fluids.

And oh yeah: Salt makes food taste good. It can enhance and balance the flavors around it. Too much of the good thing, though, can obscure other flavors and break down textures (can you say "mealy chicken"?).

It can also wreak havoc on blood pressure, which enormously increases the risk of heart attack and stroke. According to the Centers for Disease Control, one out of every three adults in the U.S.—and a whopping 40 percent of African-American adults—have high blood pressure. And that's not all: A high-sodium diet may also increase your risk of gastric cancer and contribute to osteoporosis.

While most scientists agree that anyone with high blood pressure should limit sodium to 1,500 mg per day, there is some controversy about the optimal amount healthy people should get. Researchers generally agree it should be between 2,300 mg and 3,000 mg per day. But chances are good you're already consuming at least that much—even if you don't snack on salty chips or cook with a lot of salt. It's because many sodium-packed foods don't actually taste salty.

Seventy-five percent of the sodium in our diets comes from processed and prepared foods—not just obvious sources like potato chips and ramen noodles, but also seemingly healthful foods like canned tomatoes and bread. In fact, as crazy as it sounds, the No. 1 sodium culprit in our diets is bread! Other foods are higher in sodium, but we don't eat them as much or as often. Sadly, many otherwise diet-friendly processed foods use extra salt to make up for fewer calories or fat.

The good news: It's easy to keep your sodium in check once you're armed with our list of "proceed with caution" foods, salt-busting tips, and lower-sodium recipes.

8 Easy Ways to Trim Your Sodium

Cutting sodium does not condemn you to a bland, joyless diet. For one thing, you cook (you're on, after all!). The more you cook, the less pre-prepared food you eat, and the less sodium you and your family consume. There are also easy places to cut back in your cooking. The idea is to use salt when it counts, and not when it doesn't add much to flavor.

  1. Acid can perk up flavors the way salt does, but with little or no added sodium. Where it makes sense (as in a stew, sauce, or dressing), try using lemon zest or juice, or a splash of vinegar.
  2. Spicy heat can make a great stand-in for salt, too. Try crushed red pepper or cayenne pepper before reaching for the salt.
  3. Salt some foods at the finish for greater impact. Coarse salt sprinkled over baked brownies, for instance, makes a very different impression on your palate than the same amount of salt in the batter.
  4. Rinse low-sodium canned beans well under cold running water to decrease sodium by 30 to 40 percent.
  5. Avoid tomato products that have added seasonings; instead use unsalted or low sodium canned tomatoes, tomato sauce, and tomato paste.
  6. If you use frozen or canned veggies, look for kinds with little or no salt added (read labels!).
  7. Buy low-sodium or salt-free canned broth.
  8. Go for reduced-sodium deli meats and cheeses.

Check out the low-sodium recipes we adapted from existing recipes in the December/January 2016 issue of Allrecipes Magazine! Click here for subscription info.