Chances are good you are one of the 90% of Americans getting more than their recommended daily allowance of sodium. And if you are reading this, you’re looking to reduce that intake, either for increased heart health, because of kidney stones kidney disease, osteopenia or osteoporosis, a cancer diagnosis, as part of an anti-inflammatory meal plan, or for overall better health. Learning to love a low sodium diet takes some time and work. But you’ll find easy ways identify and weed out the high sodium items in your pantry and swap them out for high flavor, low sodium alternatives. Bfore you know it, your taste buds will adjust to appreciate the nuanced flavors your new meals.
First, identify the sodium in your diet
Identifying and eliminating sources of sodium is the first step to your low-sodium diet. Start by looking at the nutritional facts on the packages of food in your kitchen for milligrams (mg) of sodium per serving. What is the amount of sodium per serving size? How many serving sized do you generally consume? How does that compare to your daily recommended sodium allowance of 2,300mg/day for adults, the amount of sodium in a teaspoon of salt?
- Anything canned or packaged probably contains sodium. Canned pantry items like beans, tomatoes, vegetables, prepared meal items like refried beans and pasta sauces, frozen dinners, microwave popcorn, marinades, olives, and prepared salad dressings.
- Processed meats, including but not limited to: salami, prosciutto, bologna, hot dogs, ham, bacon, and pre-packaged deli meat.
- Cheese. All cheese contains added salt, but some cheeses have higher sodium content than others. Processed cheese such as American, hard grating cheeses like Parmesan, blue cheeses like Gorgonzola, and hard crumbling cheeses like feta are the highest, at over 300mg per 1 oz serving (source: https://fdc.nal.usda.gov).
- When comparison shopping for low-sodium options, don’t let “salt free” fool you. Sodium is often present in other forms such as MSG, sodium bicarbonate (baking soda), and sodium citrate (citric acid).
- Similarly, “low sodium” is a marketing term, not an actual low sodium food as defined by the FDA, which is 140mg of sodium or less per serving. For example, a serving of Bush’s Low Sodium Pinto Beans contains 230mg of sodium, 90mg per serving OVER the FDA definition.
Finally, when choosing dairy products, compare the amounts of sodium in the whole milk vs. skim milk options. For example, 1 cup of whole milk contains 92mg sodium compared to 130mg per cup of skim milk.
Find Low Sodium Flavor Boosters
Sodium is generally added to foods to boost flavor, so finding new, low-sodium ways to flavor meals is important to learning to love a low sodium diet. Here are three ways you can learn to love a low-sodium diet without sacrificing flavor:
- Look for sodium-free spice blends. For example, Penzey’s has a huge selection of salt-free blends for just about every flavor profile, for curries, jerk dishes, lamb, corned beef – you can take a flavor trip around the world sodium-free with a dash of any of these spice blends to a dish of legumes or meat.
- Experiment with different types of vinegar. Vinegar is either sodium-free or has a very low sodium content, and it can be used not only for salad dressings, but also for marinades, pickling vegetables, in soups, stir-fry dishes, and in rice and noodle bows.
- Keep nutritional yeast in your pantry. Nutritional yeast is completely sodium free but contains protein, fiber, trace minerals, and best of all, an amazing umami flavor boost. Use it in place of salt on popcorn, as a flavor boost in soups and stews, or swap it out for high sodium cheeses in your favorite pasta dish.
Learning to love a low sodium diet
Unfortunately, it’s living a low sodium lifestyle is more of a time investment that grabbing prepackaged meals or eating out on a regular basis. It’s not only about teaching your tastebuds to adapt to less sodium, it’s also practicing new habits. Here are a few tips from Maria Nelson, a California therapist who successfully adapted to a very low sodium diet on her doctor’s advice:
- While you’re first learning to go low sodium, it’s helpful to be really strict on a daily basis while you learn what works for you and how to manage any “cheat” meals.
- Constantly compare and read labels. Sodium content varies among brands, sometimes wildly.
- Make your own dressings and marinades. It goes a long way to impart flavor, pepper and spices.
- Look for the easy low sodium swaps. If you like both corn AND flour tortillas, choose the corn, because they are generally sodium-free. Make homemade oatmeal instead of instant packets or boxed breakfast cereal, Rice cakes are have zero to very low sodium and are a good substitute for bread.
- It’s helpful to organize your weekly meals. Make one-pot soups and stews on your day off that last for a week, doing your own food prep from scratch.
- Stick with it! It may take months instead of weeks for your tastebuds to adapt.
- If you are eating out, ask for dressing on the side. Look for grilled items or dishes with lighter sauces. If you end up at a pizza night, choose mushroom or margarita instead of high sodium pepperoni, sausage, or olive.
Learning to live a low-sodium lifestyle is a worthy effort that pays off in increased health and appreciation for the delicious flavors of real food. Here’s a place to start: the American Heart Association’s Low-Salt cookbook. Click to purchase from Amazon and support your local bookseller along the way. (I may earn an affiliate commission from your purchase as well.)