Sodium 101

Sodium is a nutrient that is found naturally in table salt and many other foods. While sodium is an important nutrient to help maintain normal blood pressure, blood volume, muscle and nerve function in our bodies, we only need it in small amounts for it to do its job properly. Eating more sodium than you need can be harmful to your health by increasing your blood pressure and risks of heart disease, stroke, osteoporosis and kidney disease.

Most adults need only 1500mg of sodium per day which is equal to approximately 2/3 tsp of table salt. On average, most Canadians consume at least 3400mg of sodium per day (that is more than double!).

The main source of sodium in the average, North American diet does not come from salt added to cooking or at the table but instead comes from processed, pre-packaged, ready-to-eat foods, fast foods and restaurant meals. Salt is used in large amounts in these foods as a cheap preservative and an easy way to enhance flavor. Even if a food does not taste “salty”, if it is pre-packaged or processed you can be almost certain that it contains higher amounts of salt than recommended.

Reducing the amount of sodium (salt) in your diet is very important if you have high blood pressure or heart disease, and can help to prevent high blood pressure and heart disease in people at high risk. Here are some tips to help you make lower sodium choices when preparing meals, shopping for groceries and eating out.

1.       Choose whole foods most often and limit processed foods as much as possible

  • Vegetables and Fruits:
    • o Choose fresh or frozen vegetables and fruits, low sodium canned vegetables and fruits canned in water or their own juice.
    • o Limit regular canned vegetables, pickled vegetables, regular vegetable or tomato juice, sauerkraut and olives.
    • o Rinse regular canned vegetables with water before eating to lower the sodium content.
  • Grain Products:
    • o  Choose whole grains cooked without salt (ie. rice, barley, pasta, oats, quinoa, bulgur), unsalted crackers, plain rice cakes and homemade baking without salt.
    • o Limit regular crackers, instant hot cereals, frozen pancakes or waffles, many cold cereals, pre-seasoned rice dishes, pretzels and pre-made muffin, biscuit pancake or waffle mixes.
  • Milk and Alternatives:
    • o Choose low-fat milk, yogurts, fortified soy beverages and unsalted cottage cheese.
    • o Limit regular hard cheese, regular cottage cheese, ricotta, processed cheese and buttermilk.
  • Meat and Alternatives:
    • o Choose fresh meat, poultry and fish, low sodium canned fish, low sodium canned beans and legumes, fresh eggs, unsalted nuts, seeds and nut/seed butters and dried beans and legumes cooked without salt.
    • o Rinse regular canned beans and legumes well in order to minimize the amount of sodium.
    • o Limit processed meats (deli meat, bacon, ham, hotdogs, sausage, imitation meats and seafood), meats or fish that has been salted, smoked, cured marinated, pickled or canned, pickled eggs, sardines/anchovies and salted nuts, seeds and nut/seed butters.

2.       When buying processed foods, be sure to read the food label

  • Use the % Daily Value (%DV) on a food label to tell if a food is high or low in sodium
    • o For sodium, 5%DV or less is “a little” (a low sodium food choice) and 15%DV or more is “a lot” (a high sodium food choice). Aim to always choose foods with 15%DV sodium per serving.
  • Compare the amount of sodium in similar products to help you find the lowest sodium alternative
    • o Serving size can vary a lot between products so be sure when you are comparing foods to ensure the serving size is similar.
    • o Use the %DV to compare the amount of sodium in two products of similar serving size and choose the food with the lowest %DV for sodium.
  • Look for words like “low sodium”, “no added salt”, “salt free” or “sodium free” on a food package to help you make easy low sodium choices.
  • Look at the ingredient list and avoid foods with ingredients such as MSG (monosodium glutamate), soy sauce, celery salt, onion salt and Worcestershire sauce.   

3.       When cooking add flavor to your meals without adding salt

  • Sea salt, kosher salt, pink Himalayan salt, fleur de sel and other gourmet salts all contain about the same amount of sodium as regular table salt. Also minimize the amount of these that you use in your cooking.
  • Cut down the amount of salt you use in your usual recipes a little at a time until you can use the least amount as possible. Your taste buds will adjust I promise!
    • Use fresh herbs such as basil, dill, cilantro, mint, rosemary, chives and thyme to flavor your foods.
    • Add extra garlic, ginger, onion and lemon juice to recipes which usually call for these flavours.
    • Make your own soups, stews and chilis. Canned soups, stews and chilis can be very high in sodium so making your own allows you to control how much salt goes in. Find some great recipes at:

4.       Make healthier choices when eating out

  • There is no doubt that restaurant meals are going to be higher in salt but there are small things that you can do when eating out to help you minimize your sodium intake:
    • o Ask your waiter for no salt to be added to the meal in the cooking process.
    • o Do not add salt at the table.
    • o Ask for sauces, dressings, condiments and gravy on the side.Restaurants often put unnecessarily large quantities of sauces and dressings on food, this way you are able to control the amount that goes on your food.
    • o When a meal is cooked in a sauce ask for half the amount of sauce than usual (ie in a stir-fry).
    • o In fast food restaurants choose a side salad (with dressing on the side) instead of fries.
  • Many restaurants also have their nutritional information on their website. Go check out the nutritional information of the foods on the menu and choose the lowest sodium options.

5.       Do the best you can and try to find balance

  • It is not always possible to have low sodium meals. Do your best to make low sodium choices as much as possible using the tips above and try to balance out higher sodium foods with low sodium foods. One high sodium meal is not going to cause high blood pressure; it is what you do the majority of the time that makes the largest difference.
  • Be patient– as I mentioned above your taste buds will adjust to a low sodium diet. Although you may feel as though foods taste bland without salt, persevere because soon enough those foods will taste “normal” to you and regular high salt meals that you used to eat before will be much too “salty” for your liking!

Chile-Black Bean Tortilla Soup

Here is a fantastic low-sodium soup recipe that has a great spicy kick and is a great way to warm up on a cold Edmonton day!

Adapted from “The New American Heart Association Cookbook”

Serves 8


1tsp canola oil

½ cup chopped onion

2 medium garlic cloves minced

4 cups low sodium or salt free vegetable broth

1 15oz can no-salt-added pinto beans, drained and rinsed

½ 15oz can no-salt-added black beans, drained and rinsed

1 14oz can no-salt-added crushed tomatoes (not drained)

2 fresh poblano peppers diced

1tsp ground cumin

1 tsp chili powder

½ tsp dried oregano

¼ tsp salt

1/8 tsp fresh ground pepper

8 6-inch whole grain tortillas, halved and cut into ¼ inch strips

2 medium green onions thinly sliced


In a large non-stick pan, heat canola oil and cook onion and garlic for about 3 min.

Stir in broth, beans, tomatoes (with liquid), poblano peppers, cumin, chili powder, oregano, salt and pepper. Bring to a boil and then reduce heat and simmer, stirring occasionally, for 20-25min.

While soup is cooking, heat oven to 350°F and lightly spray a cookie sheet with cooking spray. Place tortilla strips in a single layer on baking sheet and sprinkle lightly with chili powder. Bake tortilla strips for 10 min (or until just crispy).

Just before serving soup, garnish with tortilla strips and green onion.


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