Tracking Your Sodium Intake? These 5 Tips Can Help

By: Katrina Levine, IFIC Intern and MPH/RD candidate at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill  Date: 10/22/12

The leaves are changing colors, the wind has picked up and the grass glistens with frost in the mornings. Fall is here and so is the pull of warm, hearty soups, stews, and savory dishes of the season. But these foods are known for being high in sodium, so how can we enjoy them and still keep our sodium intake in check?

Reducing dietary sodium seems to be confusing to many people. According to IFIC's 2011 Consumer Sodium Research, most consumers do not clearly understand what constitutes high and low sodium. Have you ever picked up a can of soup at the store and wondered if it was high or low in sodium? If so, you're not alone, because I was confused standing in the same aisle not too long ago - and I'm finishing my degree in nutrition!                                                                                                                              
The research also shows that Americans don't know the appropriate daily sodium intake for a healthy individual.


The 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends most of us should limit sodium to 2300 mg, while people with congestive heart failure, high blood pressure or chronic kidney disease, or those who are African American or over age 51, should aim for no more than 1500 mg.

So how do you know how much sodium you are getting in a day? Here are 5 tips to help you manage your intake.
1)   Read the Nutrition Facts Panel on the foods or beverages you consume. Compare labels and consider lower sodium versions of your favorite foods. Look for foods that are labeled low sodium or very low sodium:
Low Sodium = 140 mg or less of sodium per serving
Very Low Sodium = 35 mg or less of sodium per serving
Many restaurant chains post their nutrition information online, so you can also check the sodium content of your favorite menu items.
2)   Reduced or less sodium is NOT the same as low sodium. Reduced or less sodium products have at least 25% less sodium per serving than the reference product (FDA), but are not necessarily low sodium. For example, reduced sodium soy sauce can have as much as 575 mg of sodium per tablespoon (or about ¼ of what is recommended per day), despite having 40% less sodium than the original version.
3)   Pay attention to portion size. If you would realistically have more or less than the serving size, you'll need to consider how this changes the total amount of sodium you consume. Consuming the appropriate number of calories per day to maintain or lose weight can be an effective way to manage or reduce your sodium consumption.
4)   Eat more fruits and vegetables. These are naturally low in sodium, and many are also high in potassium. Potassium can help lower blood pressure, so look for fruits and vegetables that are great sources of potassium, such as bananas, potatoes (white and sweet) and squash.  It's important to note that cooking methods impact potassium levels. For example, dry methods such as baking can preserve potassium content while boiling vegetables in water promotes potassium loss. Here's a great resource for those interested in learning more about potassium.
5)   Be mindful of your sources of sodium. You may be surprised to find that many foods that do not taste salty, like prepackaged baked goods, contain sodium. These and other processed foods, including canned foods and prepackaged meats, tend to be higher in sodium to extend their shelf-life and increase food safety.
These are some great ways to track and manage your sodium intake, so try them next time you go grocery shopping or eat at your favorite restaurant. But if you're trying to lower your blood pressure, you should know that it is not just about retiring your salt shaker or limiting your sodium intake. The Dairy Council of California addressed this topic in their summer 2012 newsletter, Health Connections
The most effective way to manage your blood pressure is through a holistic approach that combines diet and lifestyle changes. Exercising, weight reduction, following a Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension (DASH) diet, reducing dietary sodium, and limiting alcohol are all effective ways to lower blood pressure anywhere from 2 to over 20 mm Hg. The more of these practices you incorporate into your lifestyle, the better your outcome is likely to be.