Home cooking with less salt

Your salt shaker usually isn't the worst culprit. Instead, check your condiments, sauces, and spice blends, many of which are high in sodium.

Published: March, 2020

For decades, health experts — especially cardiologists — have been telling people to eat less sodium, one of the main components of salt. Most Americans still consume far too much of this mineral, which raises blood pressure and the risk of heart disease.

Despite these warnings, the average sodium intake in this country is around 3,200 milligrams (mg) per day. That's about 30% more than is recommended by the federal dietary guidelines, which advise people to limit their daily sodium to 2,300 mg. And it's more than twice the target suggested by the American Heart Association of 1,500 mg per day.

National surveys suggest that fewer than 10% of Americans reach that lower target. Even dietitians admit that goal can be hard to achieve, given how much salt is found in many popular convenience foods, such as deli meats, pizza, and snacks. Prepared meals from supermarkets and nearly all restaurant dishes are also very salty, says Liz Moore, a dietitian at Harvard-affiliated Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center (BIDMC).

When it's good to aim low

"I encourage people to aim for 1,500 mg a day. Even if they only cut their sodium to around 2,000, that's still a big improvement," says Moore. The key is eating meals made at home using mostly fresh, unprocessed ingredients. To help her patients, she created the BIDMC CardioVascular Institute's Hungry Heart Cookbook, which features dozens of low-sodium recipes that are also low in saturated fat. You can download a free copy here: www.health.harvard.edu/hungryheart. See "A day of low-salt meals" for an example of how you can eat less than 1,500 mg of sodium per day.

You don't necessarily have to banish your salt shaker, says Moore. A few shakes add just a miniscule amount, so it's not a problem to sprinkle a bit on dishes (such as those featured in her cookbook) that contain no added salt. Scale back on your sodium gradually, over the course of several weeks. Try eating a little less every few days, which will help your taste buds adjust.

A day of low-salt meals

Together, these meals and snacks provide close to 2,000 calories but just under 1,200 milligrams (mg) of sodium.

Sodium (mg)

Breakfast

1 cup cooked oatmeal (made with skim milk)
1 tablespoon chopped walnuts
1 teaspoon brown sugar, pinch of cinnamon
1 medium banana

140
0
0
1

Morning snack

6 ounces nonfat plain Greek yogurt
1/4 cup raspberries
2 tablespoons unsalted pecans

70
0
0

Lunch

1 cup spinach
1 cup Romaine lettuce
1/2 cucumber, chopped
1 small tomato, diced
1/4 avocado, diced
2 hard-boiled eggs, sliced
Dressing: 1 tablespoon olive oil, 1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar, pinch of salt and pepper, herbs to taste

16
9
4
5
21
125
150

Afternoon snack

1 cup baby carrots
2 tablespoons hummus

60
120

Dinner

1 serving Baked Salmon with Dill*
1 cup kale sauted with 1 teaspoon olive oil and minced garlic
1/2 cup brown rice mixed with 1 teaspoon olive oil, basil, and pinch of salt
2 pieces of dark chocolate

74
11
150
2

Evening snack

6 whole grain, low-sodium crackers
1 ounce cheddar cheese

54
180

Total sodium for day: 1,192 mg

Menu courtesy of dietitian Elizabeth Moore and Yanita Shuhman, dietetic intern, Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center.

*Recipe from Hungry Heart Cookbook; see main story.

Sauces and substitutes

Even if you don't add salt when you're cooking, be aware that many condiments, such as ketchup, mustard, mayonnaise, and salad dressing, contain a fair amount of sodium. So do tomato sauce, barbeque sauce, hot sauce, soy sauce, and many packaged spice mixes, such as adobo or taco seasoning. Check the Nutrition Facts panel for the sodium content of these products.

Here are some additional ways you can trim sodium when cooking at home:

  • Rinse canned beans, vegetables, and tuna fish before using.
  • Don't add salt to the water when cooking pasta, rice, or other grains.
  • Try other flavor enhancers, such as fresh herbs, spices, citrus juice, or vinegar.
  • Use baking powder made with potassium bicarbonate instead of sodium bicarbonate.

Image: Creativeye99/Getty Images

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