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Why should I cut back on salt?

What is salt and why do we need it?

Salt, also known as sodium chloride, is a mineral that is essential for human life. Our bodies need a small amount of salt to function properly. Salt helps regulate fluids in and out of cells, allows muscles and nerves to work correctly, and keeps your blood pressure normal. While we need salt to survive, most people consume way more than the recommended amount. The average American eats about 3,400 milligrams (mg) of salt per day, when the recommended limit is less than 2,300 mg. The maximum recommended level of sodium intake for adults is 2,300 mg per day, which equals about 1 teaspoon of table salt.

What are the health risks of too much salt?

Eating too much salt can negatively impact your health in many ways:

Increases blood pressure

Consuming excess sodium causes your body to retain water in an effort to dilute the sodium. This increases the volume of blood circulating through your blood vessels, which raises blood pressure. High blood pressure, also called hypertension, forces the heart to work harder to pump blood through the body and can lead to heart disease, stroke, and kidney disease.

Damages blood vessels

Over time, having elevated blood pressure can scar and weaken blood vessel walls. This allows cholesterol and other substances to build up more easily and form plaques that can narrow and harden blood vessels. Hardened blood vessels increase the risk of heart attack, stroke, and other cardiovascular problems.

Increases strain on the heart

High blood pressure caused by excessive sodium forces the heart to pump harder to move blood through the body. This strain can lead to enlarged left heart chambers, heart failure, heart attack, stroke, and kidney disease.

Leads to fluid retention

To dilute high concentrations of sodium, the body will retain water. Fluid retention can lead to swelling, typically in the hands and feet. In severe cases it can cause puffiness around the eyes and shortness of breath from fluid accumulation in the lungs. Fluid retention also strains the heart and blood vessels.

Worsens kidney disease

The kidneys help regulate fluid levels in the body. When sodium intake is high, the kidneys have trouble keeping up and retaining too much fluid. This extra strain on the kidneys can accelerate chronic kidney disease.

Increases risk of stomach cancer

Studies have linked high-salt diets to an increased risk of gastric cancer, one of the most common cancers worldwide. The salt can damage and inflame the lining of the stomach over time, making it more prone to tumor growth.

What foods are high in salt?

While adding salt at the table or cooking contributes to your sodium intake, the majority actually comes from processed and restaurant foods. Here are some foods that tend to be high in salt:

  • Breads and rolls
  • Pizza
  • Sandwiches
  • Cold cuts and cured meats
  • Soups
  • Burritos and tacos
  • Poultry
  • Snack foods like chips, pretzels, and popcorn
  • Condiments like soy sauce, ketchup, mustard, and salad dressing
  • Canned foods, especially soups, vegetables, beans, and meats
  • Frozen dinners
  • Fast food
  • Cheese
  • Salty snacks
  • Cured foods like bacon, deli meats, pickles, olives

Reading nutrition labels can help identify sources of hidden sodium. Look for the milligrams of sodium listed and try to choose options under 300 mg per serving. The Daily Value for sodium is 2,400 mg, so aim for foods with a % DV closer to 10%. Foods with 20% or more are considered high sodium options.

Tips for cutting back on salt

Making some simple changes can help reduce your salt intake to a healthier level:

  • Use fresh herbs, spices, garlic, vinegar, lemon, etc. to season foods instead of salt.
  • Skip the salt shaker and remove it from the table.
  • Rinse canned foods like beans and vegetables to remove some sodium.
  • Choose low-sodium or no-salt-added versions of foods.
  • Limit processed meats like ham, sausage, hot dogs, and deli meat.
  • Opt for fresh or frozen vegetables without sauce instead of canned.
  • Make soups and stews from scratch instead of using pre-made broths.
  • Compare brands and choose the one with less sodium.
  • Remove the salt topping from restaurant foods.
  • Choose fresh meat and poultry instead of frozen meals and processed types like bacon.
  • Avoid adding salt when cooking grains like rice, pasta, and oatmeal.
  • Enjoy unsalted nuts and seeds as snacks.
  • Check labels and opt for low-sodium versions of sauces, condiments, dressings, breads.

When dining out, ask if lower sodium options are available. Request sauces and dressings be left off or on the side.

Should I avoid salt completely?

While the average person consumes excess sodium, restricting salt too much below the RDA can also be harmful. Some salt is still important for:

  • Fluid balance
  • Muscle and nerve transmission
  • Regulating blood pressure
  • Formation of hydrochloric acid to digest food

If cutting back on salt leads to very low intake, increase sodium gradually by using the minimum amount needed to flavor foods and get to a healthy range. Those with medical conditions like adrenal insufficiency or kidney disease may need more sodium. Check with your doctor to determine your ideal sodium intake.

Healthy salt substitutes

To add flavor to foods without as much sodium, try using these salt-free seasonings:

  • Lemon juice – provides acidity
  • Vinegar (balsamic, wine, rice, cider) – adds tangy taste
  • Onion and garlic – provide savory flavor
  • Pepper – produces spicy heat
  • Herbs (oregano, basil, parsley) – great mixed into dishes
  • Spices (cinnamon, cumin, paprika)
  • Mustard – ideal for sandwiches and dressings
  • Ginger – fresh or ground has robust flavor

There are also many salt-free seasoning blends on the market to experiment with. Be sure to check the label as some “no-salt” blends do still contain sodium.

Health benefits of cutting back on sodium

Reducing your salt intake can have many positive effects on your health:

  • Lower blood pressure
  • Reduce risk of stroke and heart attack
  • Decreased fluid retention
  • Less strain on kidneys and heart
  • Potentially lower risk of stomach cancer
  • Overall less stress on the circulatory system

Even just moderately lowering sodium intake has been shown to reduce blood pressure, especially for those with hypertension. The DASH diet (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension), which emphasizes fruits, vegetables, and low-fat dairy while limiting sodium has been proven effective to lower high blood pressure.

Consult with your doctor to determine your recommended daily sodium intake based on your medical history. Then start making small switches to fresh, homemade foods without added salt. Your heart and overall health will benefit.


While some dietary sodium is essential, most people exceed the recommended limits. Eating too much salt can negatively impact heart health, blood pressure, and kidney function, while also increasing the risk of stomach cancer. Processed foods tend to be the biggest source of excess sodium. Simply being mindful to reduce sodium wherever possible can make a big difference. Season foods with herbs, spices, vinegar, citrus, garlic, and other salt-free flavors instead. Read nutrition facts labels to choose lower sodium products. Request less salt when dining out. Getting sodium intake down to healthy levels will benefit your health tremendously.