How to Outsmart Salt

Young woman eating french fries potato with ketchup in a restaurant, having her lunch break. Close up

If you crave salt, you’re not alone. Humans and animals have an innate hunger for salt, or sodium. But salt can really sneak up on you. And it’s in nearly everything we eat and drink. The result? Most of us get too much sodium in our daily diet: from 30 percent to 50 percent more than the recommended amount.  

Excess sodium has been linked to a host of health conditions, from high blood pressure to a potentially higher risk for stomach cancer. And that’s why we need to outsmart it.

Sodium has special properties: It absorbs liquid. In our bodies, it attracts and holds water too, increasing our blood and fluid volume.

That means our kidneys need to work harder to remove excess fluids. Those extra fluids also make it harder for our hearts to pump blood throughout our body, which can increase pressure on our arteries and cause high blood pressure.

High sodium levels can be especially dangerous for those at risk of stroke or heart, liver or kidney conditions.

A little goes a long way
Salt isn’t entirely bad. A small amount is essential for good health. But it doesn’t take much. The Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend less than 2,300 milligrams of sodium a day – just under one teaspoon. For people on a low-salt diet, the limits may be far less: under 1,500 milligrams per day. It’s easy to consume much more than that. Consider that a single serving of leading brand of canned chicken noodle soup contains 890 milligrams – 39 percent of your recommended daily intake. It’s estimated that processed foods contribute about 75 percent of the salt in U.S. diets.

Ready to reduce your salt intake? Start by paying attention to your daily intake.

First steps: shake the salting habit
Many people salt their food before they’ve even tasted it. To shake that habit, don’t keep your salt shaker on the table. Then train yourself not to salt before you taste a few bites – and gradually decrease the amount you use. You can also use freshly ground pepper, a spritz of lemon or sprinkling of fresh herbs and spices to perk up your foods.

And when it’s time to restock your pantry, plan ahead to avoid the most sodium-packed foods. Here’s what to watch for at the grocery store.

Read and compare labels
Most canned and packaged foods list sodium content by serving, so start reading food labels. Be sure to compare different brands, too – they can vary by hundreds of milligrams per serving. Look for packages and cans labeled “no added salt” or “low sodium.”

If you’re aiming for the standard 2,300 milligrams or less per day, each meal should contain no more than about 750 milligrams – not accounting for beverages or snacks.

Stock up on fresh, whole foods
Opt for fresh or frozen foods instead of packaged or canned foods. Fresh fruits, veggies and meats are usually far lower in sodium than their canned, prepared or packaged counterparts.

If you’re buying fresh or frozen poultry, look for meat that isn’t injected with a sodium solution. The label may say it includes “broth,” “saline,” or “sodium solution.” 

Take care with condiments
Condiments are a salty bunch. Fortunately, there are many low-sodium options these days. Shop for reduced-sodium soy sauce, salad dressings and ketchup.

Hidden in “healthy” foods
It’s surprising how much sodium is inside foods usually considered “healthy”— and in some seemingly un-salty foods like bread, cottage cheese and cereals.

Some of the saltiest foods are:

  • Canned and bottled soups, vegetables, vegetable juices and sauces
  • Ham, bacon, hot dogs, sausages
  • Deli meats and cold cuts
  • Dried meats and jerkies
  • Frozen shrimp
  • Frozen pizza
  • Processed cheese
  • Boxed and prepared meals (including potato and macaroni-based meals)

Most of us have become accustomed to the highly salted flavors of processed and fast foods. So give your taste buds some time to adjust.

In just a few weeks, you’ll probably find that some foods taste way too salty!

By Joanne Fischenich, Clinical Nutrition Manager at Mayo Clinic Arizona. For more information about nutrition and healthy lifestyle services at Mayo Clinic, visit

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