How to Reduce Your Salt Intake—and Still Enjoy What You Eat

How to cut back on salt, boost your health, and barely taste the difference.

A bowl of salt. Find tips for reducing salt intake and learn how to cut back on salt in your food.

From extra-large cartons of French fries to brimming bags of movie popcorn, Americans love the taste of salt—probably too much. On average, adults in the United States consume more than 3,400 milligrams (mg) of sodium daily, mostly from processed and prepared foods. The American Heart Association recommends we limit ourselves to 2,300 mg of sodium per day, though we should ideally max out at 1,500 mg. 

Many of us misjudge the amount of salt we eat, partly because we don’t always recognize where it’s coming from. “The taste of food is very individualized,” says Oleg Chebotarev, MD, FACC, a cardiologist with Hamilton Cardiology Associates and director of the coronary care unit at St. Francis Medical Center in Trenton, New Jersey. “Patients often come and say they don’t add any salt to their food, and yet their sodium intake is high.” 

Too much sodium can contribute to multiple long-term medical issues, including high blood pressure and heart disease. Here’s what you need to know about these potential health problems—plus how to spot significant sources of dietary salt and tips to reduce your salt intake. 

How excess salt can affect your health 

Sodium plays multiple roles in the human body, helping us balance our fluids, move our muscles, and much more. To perform these functions, humans need to take in around 500 mg of sodium daily, which works out to about 1/4 teaspoon of salt. Since American diets contain so much salt, health problems related to sodium deficiencies are rarely an issue. Problems related to excess salt, on the other hand, are commonplace.  

Most significantly, too much salt is a chief risk factor for high blood pressure. About half of U.S. adults are thought to have hypertension, explains Dr. Chebotarev, “and salt is definitely one of the biggest contributors.” High blood pressure, in turn, can cause cardiovascular disease (CVD) and lead to events like heart attacks and strokes. Research has suggested that lowering sodium intake to 2,300 mg daily could prevent millions of cases of hypertension annually and may result in a significant drop in deaths related to CVD. 

In addition to the cardiovascular effects, increased sodium may contribute to osteoporosis, since it can deplete calcium levels in the body. It’s a risk factor for chronic kidney disease, as well, and is associated with higher odds of stomach cancer

It should be noted that the health risks of excess sodium aren’t the same for everyone. Some people may be more vulnerable to the effects of salt, including African Americans, adults 50 years and older, and those who already have high or elevated blood pressure. It’s recommended that members of these groups limit their sodium consumption to 1,500 mg daily. Always consult your healthcare provider about the amount of sodium that’s right for you. 

Significant sources of salt 

Often used to preserve and flavor food, salt is found everywhere in the American diet—even in foods that might not seem salty, like bread and cereal. About 30 percent of our intake comes from the salt found naturally in food or from salt we add at home, including table salt and salt we use in recipes. Almost all of the rest comes from processed foods and restaurant-prepared dishes. In fact, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), more than 40 percent of our daily sodium intake comes from these 10 food categories: 

  • Bread and rolls 
  • Pizza 
  • Sandwiches and burgers 
  • Cold cuts and cured meats 
  • Soups 
  • Burritos and tacos 
  • Savory snacks, like potato chips and pretzels 
  • Chicken 
  • Cheese 
  • Egg dishes 

While bread may not have as high a salt content as some other foods, it’s a top source of sodium since we eat so much of it.  

Condiments, dips, and sauces are often full of sodium, too. Think soy sauce, teriyaki sauce, olives, ketchup, and mustard, all of which may have higher salt content than many of us suspect. One tablespoon of ketchup, for example, has 167 mg of sodium, while a tablespoon of regular soy sauce may have as much as 1006 mg.  

“Different kinds of salad dressings may have a very high salt content, as well,” adds Chebotarev. “If you wanted to put together a salad, I would recommend simply using virgin olive oil and vinegar.” 

In October 2021, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued guidelines recommending that food manufacturers and restaurants lower the salt in their foods. The agency’s hope is that, over a period of two and a half years, it will help lower Americans’ average daily sodium intake from 3,400 mg to 3,000 mg.

How to cut back on salt 

Many studies have found that reducing salt intake can help lower blood pressure. With a few smart strategies, you can do this without denying yourself foods you love. In fact, research suggests it’s possible to lower your salt intake by about 30 percent without noticing a difference in flavor. As time goes on, you may get used to using less salt—and you might even develop a taste for less-salty foods. 

It all starts at the supermarket. When you shop for groceries, stock up on fresh and minimally processed foods like fruit, vegetables, whole grains, beans, and lentils, which naturally contain less sodium. Canned fruits (without added sugar) and frozen fruits and vegetables—without sauce—are generally good choices, as well. Consider prioritizing foods rich in potassium, since they help balance the effects of overdoing sodium. These include sweet potatoes, spinach, yogurt, and bananas, as well as white, black, and kidney beans. 

In the meat and seafood sections, opt for fresh beef, pork, poultry, and fish instead of more processed meats like bacon, hot dogs, and cold cuts. “Pretty much every product in the deli department has a significant amount of sodium,” says Chebotarev. Be aware that fresh chicken is often injected with a salt solution; scan labels for words like “saline” or “broth.”  

Consider dialing back on processed food purchases, too. In terms of overall sodium reduction, it’s likely the best single step you can take. For the processed foods you do buy, take care to read labels. Check the Nutrition Facts for total sodium content and read product packaging for terms like “low sodium” or “reduced sodium.” A low-sodium food has 140 mg or less per serving, while a reduced-sodium item contains 25 percent less than a normal, equivalent product. The American Heart Association’s (AHA) Heart-Check is another good indicator; it means the product meets AHA standards for sodium content. Compare brands for best results.  

Preparing and eating foods with less salt 

When you’re cooking at home, try these tactics for reducing the amount of salt in food: 

  • Replace salt in recipes with other flavor enhancers, such as herbs, spices, onions, chili peppers, garlic, vinegars, lemons, and limes. 
  • Drain and rinse canned vegetables and beans. 
  • Don’t salt the water for pasta and rice. 
  • Punch up the flavor of fresh foods by grilling, roasting, or sautéing them. 
  • Swap store-bought instant products, sauces, mixes, and spice blends (like taco seasoning) for homemade versions. 
  • Take the salt shaker off the kitchen table (but leave the pepper). 
  • Check out meal plans and recipes that mesh with the DASH diet (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension), an eating plan proven to lower high blood pressure. 

Going out to eat? “Ask the chef to prepare your food with less salt,” suggests Chebotarev. “If that’s impossible, ask about the amount of sodium in the dish before ordering.”  

Many chain restaurants post the sodium content of their dishes online, so you can check ahead of time and plan accordingly. Also, be wary of dishes that are brined, cured, smoked, or pickled or that go heavy on gravy, soy sauce, or teriyaki sauce. At parties, snack less on crackers, chips, and pretzels and more on fruit and unsalted nuts. 

In addition to cutting back on salt, you can help keep a handle on your blood pressure by adopting a healthy lifestyle. Getting adequate physical activity, controlling stress, and limiting alcohol go a long way toward good heart health overall well-being. 

Finally, says Chebotarev, “if you have any questions, refer to your primary care physician or cardiologist.” They can suggest tips for reducing your salt intake or refer you to a registered dietitian to provide more specialized guidance. 

Article sources open article sources

American Heart Association. “How much sodium should I eat per day?” May 23, 2019. Accessed October 22, 2021.
Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. “Salt and Sodium.” 2021. Accessed October 22, 2021.
American Heart Association. “How to Reduce Sodium.” May 23, 2018. Accessed October 22, 2021.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “Salt: How to Reduce Sodium.” September 8, 2020. Accessed October 22, 2021.
U.S. Food & Drug Administration. “Sodium in Your Diet.” June 8, 2021. Accessed October 22, 2021.
Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.” Public Health Concerns: Salt and Sodium.” 2021. Accessed October 22, 2021.
American Heart Association. “More than 100 million Americans have high blood pressure, AHA says.” January 21, 2018. Accessed October 22, 2021.
American Heart Association. “Get the Scoop on Sodium and Salt.” April 16, 2018. Accessed October 22, 2021.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “Salt: Sodium Reduction Fact Sheets.” September 14, 2021.
PK Welton, RM Carey, et al. “2017 ACC/AHA/AAPA/ABC/ACPM/AGS/APhA/ASH/ASPC/NMA/PCNA Guideline for the Prevention, Detection, Evaluation, and Management of High Blood Pressure in Adults: A Report of the American College of Cardiology/American Heart Association Task Force on Clinical Practice Guidelines.” Hypertension. 2018;71:e13–e115.
Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. “The Facts on Sodium and High Blood Pressure.” January 2021. Accessed October 22, 2021.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “Salt: Top 10 Sources of Sodium.” February 26, 2021. Accessed October 22, 2021.
National Kidney Foundation. “Top 10 Tips for Reducing Salt in Your Diet.” October 8, 2019. Accessed October 22, 2021.
U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. “2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines.” 2014. Accessed October 22, 2021.
National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. Eating Plan.” 2021. Accessed October 22, 2021.
U.S. Food & Drug Administration. Eating Too Much Salt? Ways to Cut Back...Gradually. October 13, 2021. Accessed June 9, 2022.

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