Has the Story Changed on Sodium?

Nutrition can be a puzzling issue for many people, and if you caught the recent headlines on the “dangers” of reduced sodium intake, no one would blame you for feeling a little exasperated. For years, the most trusted sources have said to cut back on sodium to reduce high blood pressure and lower the risk of associated disease. Have the recommendations to lower sodium intake been wrong all along?

The Institute of Medicine (IOM) was recently asked to investigate new research on the potential health risks from low sodium intake (1,500 mg/day to 2,300 mg/day). Unfortunately, the IOM’s report on these studies led some news outlets to claim that a diet low in sodium can be detrimental to health.

What the IOM really said in their report, published May 2013, was that the recent research on the risks of low sodium intake was inconsistent and had many limitations. In fact, the journal that originally published two of these research studies has since retracted the articles after finding issues in the use of unreliable data. As a result, the studies cannot be cited as sufficient evidence to change the current recommendations on sodium.

The IOM committee concluded that current efforts to help the public reduce excessive sodium intake should continue, and they stand behind the established evidence that a diet low in sodium can decrease blood pressure and reduce the risk of heart disease and stroke.

However, the committee also suggested the need for increased research when it comes to reductions in sodium intake to 1,500 mg/day for the general US population and/or certain subgroups. So how much sodium should we consume each day?

The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, which represents a network of over 70,000 dietitians and nutrition professionals, recommends looking to the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans.  These guidelines are evaluated and revised every 5 years, providing the most reviewed, researched, and up-to-date recommendations available to the public.

The Dietary Guidelines suggest consuming less than 2,300 mg of sodium per day for the general U.S. population, which equals about 1 teaspoon of salt. Further reduction to 1,500 mg of sodium per day is recommended for groups who may be at higher risk of hypertension and its complications. This includes those who are 51 years of age and older, African Americans, or people with hypertension, diabetes, or chronic kidney disease.

The average American consumes about 3,400 mg of sodium each day, or about 1 ½ teaspoons of salt. Clearly, we still have some work to do to reach our goal of 2,300 mg per day, let alone 1,500 mg! It may seem daunting at first, but we can take small steps each day to significantly decrease our sodium consumption. Talking to a registered dietitian nutritionist is one of the best ways to learn how to develop a healthful eating plan that is appropriate for your individualized needs.

The following suggestions adapted from the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics can give you some ideas on how to reduce your sodium intake and enjoy the benefits of better health:

  1. Focus on fresh fruits and vegetables. Fresh foods are important because they do not contain the excess salt added during the manufacturing of processed foods. As a result, these foods have little to no sodium, not to mention the numerous other benefits for your health like high vitamin and mineral content. Other fresh foods essential to a low sodium diet include fresh meats, poultry (look for the ones that have not been injected with broths or sodium), fish, beans and peas, unsalted nuts, eggs and low-fat or fat-free milk and yogurt.
  2. Limit food away from home as much as possible. Unfortunately, restaurants are not watching your sodium intake for you, and some plates contain more than a full day’s worth of sodium in one meal. Instead, try to bring your lunch more often or create a list of go-to recipes and low-sodium snack ideas. The more you can eat from home, the more you are in control of what goes into your body and the overall quality of your health!
  3. Taste food before you reach for the salt shaker. Cutting back on the shaker may seem difficult at first, but over time your taste buds will become accustomed to unsalted foods and will actually prefer less salt!
  4. Replace salt with flavor, such as herbs and spices. Using the zest or juice from citrus fruit is another strategy to season foods without missing the salt. Also, keep your eye on the amount of high-sodium condiments you use like soy sauce, dressings, and sauces; choose lower-sodium versions whenever possible.  
  5. Leave out the salt when cooking. At first you may feel that something is missing, but this is an easy way to re-train your taste buds and will slash hundreds of milligrams of sodium from your day.
  6. Choose lower sodium food products. Become friends with the Nutrition Facts label to find the best options when it comes to foods like soups, broths, and breads. Be especially careful when choosing frozen dinners and canned foods – these products can pack loads of hidden sodium. For a quick rule of thumb, if you eat three meals per day and two snacks, each meal should contain less than 600 mg of sodium and snacks should stay under 250 mg of sodium. When looking at a food label, anything that says “low sodium” must be 140 mg or less (this can be useful when looking for low-sodium snack item. As always, fruits and vegetables are your best option!).


Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. Press Release: In wake of new report, Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics reminds consumers to follow Dietary Guidelines’ sodium recommendations. (May 14, 2013). Retrieved from website: http://www.eatright.org/Media/content.aspx?id=6442476390

Daniells, S. Heart journal retracts Italian meta-analysis used in IOM sodium reduction report. (May 28, 2013). Retrieved from http://www.foodnavigator.com/Science-Nutrition/Heart-journal-retracts-Italian-meta-analysis-used-in-IOM-sodium-reduction-report

Institute of Medicine. Sodium intake in populations: assessment of evidence. (May 14, 2013). Retrieved from http://www.iom.edu/Reports/2013/Sodium-Intake-in-Populations-Assessment-of-Evidence.aspx

Jacobsen, M. F. The New York Times bungles the latest salt report. (May 20, 2013). Retrieved from http://www.huffingtonpost.com/michael-f-jacobson/sodium-health_b_3294901.html

Quinn, B. Here’s what’s shaking with sodium. (May 29, 2013). Retrieved from http://www.montereyherald.com/living/ci_23341129/heres-whats-shaking-sodium?IADID=Search-www.montereyherald.com-www.montereyherald.com


Thank you to M.M., Master’s of Dietetics Studies, for writing this article