Avoid is a strong word. I actually prefer the word “limit.” Having a healthy relationship with food means knowing what foods are best for your body and eating them most of the time, but still being able to mindfully enjoy less healthy foods in moderation without falling off the wagon.
Sodium in one of the main contributors of high blood pressure (though not the only contributor). What's great about that is it’s totally modifiable! You have complete control over how much sodium you take in.
Typically, people with high blood pressure should consume less than 1500 mg of sodium per day, unless your doctor or dietitian has advised you otherwise. It adds up incredibly quickly if you’re following the Standard American Diet (SAD), and just one restaurant meal is usually about that or more. Ready-made meals don't fare much better.
The best way to know how much you’re eating is to write it down. Every time you eat anything, look at the label, or look it up online, and write down the sodium amount. See how you compare to the recommendations, and take steps to lower your sodium intake if you need. This list will help you identify good places to start!
Usually surprising to most people is that chicken is one of the top sources of sodium in the American diet. I guess that’s good and bad news. Good, because enough people are becoming educated about the sodium in their diets, and watching labels on foods typically high in sodium. But bad news because it’s usually hidden and most people don’t expect it so they don’t look.
Now of course you probably know that chicken you get at about any restaurant is likely to have a lot of high sodium seasonings on it, even if it’s baked. But I’m talking about raw chicken (and turkey, too!) you get at the grocery store, fresh or frozen. Many companies have begun injecting their poultry with a sodium broth solution to increase the flavor and help it retain moisture when cooking. Look at the labels. It must be stated somewhere, and you’ll notice the sodium content is high. When you buy chicken, look for products without seasonings added, and without the sodium broth. Add your own seasoning and save on salt!
Another potential surprise. Breads also are a top contributor of sodium in our diets. Most bread - even whole grain bread - comes in at around 200 mg sodium per slice or more. If you’re having a sandwich with two slices, that's about ⅓ of your daily sodium intake not counting any of the fillings! A bagel comes in at 500-700 mg sodium. Whoa.
There aren’t a lot of low sodium options when it comes to bread products, but there are some. You could try your hand at baking your own, if you have the time and desire. Otherwise, try Ezekiel 4:9 Low Sodium Whole Grain Sprouted Bread, Trader Joe’s Sodium Free Whole Wheat Bread or Nature’s Own 100% Whole Wheat Made with Real Honey. In general, look for breads that are less than 100 mg sodium per slice.
I know, this is a tough one for people. I love cheese, too. Cheese is a double-insult when it comes to heart health, though. Not only is it high in sodium, it’s also high in saturated fat, which is known to contribute to high cholesterol. It’s wise to limit how much cheese we eat. And that’s no short order! A serving of cheese is 1.5 ounces. That’s about 1 slice, ¼ cup shredded, or a block the size of a pair of standard dice. Small. Sodium content varies by type, with harder cheeses, and cheeses like blue and feta, usually having more sodium (they have less water content, so are more concentrated) than soft cheese.
In general, eat cheese in smaller amounts, less often. Try to stick to the proper serving size each time you eat it. Then start reducing the number of times per day or week you eat cheese. No need to go cold turkey or swear it off all together. Some manufacturers do make lower sodium cheeses, which are a good option in addition to eating cheese less often. Other varieties that are lower in sodium to begin with are Swiss, Monterey Jack, and Mozzarella.
Sausage, hot dogs, bacon, pepperoni, ham, etc.
Preserved meats are preserved with sodium, so of course they’re high in sodium. They are also usually high in other things that can be detrimental to heart health: saturated fat and cholesterol (in some cases), namely.
Research is showing that there really is no “safe” amount of processed meats to consume, so the best advice here is to limit them as much as you possibly can, and try not to stress too much when you can’t. There are some pretty tasty homemade “sausage” recipes out there using beans and lots of spices usually found in sausage, if you’re so inclined. You might also try using smoked paprika in some recipes where you would normally use bacon for flavor, like baked beans. Its smoky flavor is very bacon-esque.
If cheese, pepperoni, sausage, and bacon are high in sodium, then of course pizza is! Not to mention the high sodium tomato sauce and the salt usually put into and onto the crust.
Pizza doesn’t have to be terrible for your health, though! Making your own can be easy and fun, and you get to have complete control over the ingredients. (Here’s one of mine to check out!) When you are having a more traditional pizza, have less. Have one or two slices, and pair it with a spinach salad. Spinach is a high-potassium veggie that can help counteract some of the sodium from the pizza.
Deli meat is up there with sausage and other processed meat in terms of sodium, fat, and health risk.
Choose other things for your sandwiches and wraps, like baked or grilled chicken breast, or grilled veggies with hummus. Lettuce, tomato slices, and fresh herbs can take it up a notch in a healthier way.
Burritos and Tacos
Here we go again with the cheese. Plus, the base ingredient in taco seasoning is usually salt, making whatever gets put inside high in sodium. Taco sauce or salsa? More sodium. And the sodium content in most tortillas is nothing to sneeze at. Sigh. Beloved tacos.
Making your own tacos is the best choice. Homemade taco seasoning is the way to go, since it’s easy to just leave out the salt (try this one). Go easy on the cheese, or opt for none once in awhile. Compare labels on salsa to find a lower sodium one, or make your own. Load your taco up with high potassium veggies, like spinach and tomatoes. My 5-minute Weeknight Tacos are a great choice for rushed meals, plus they’re customizable!
You likely already have heard that soup tends to be high in sodium. Like many other foods on this list, it’s used as a preservative and flavor enhancer. A can of soup often contains two or more servings, which can put you over the recommended intake for sodium for the day.
Compare labels and choose the lower sodium options. Or, make your own using leftover proteins, vegetables, and grains you might have lurking in your fridge. Make your own broth for free using my recipe, so you always have some on hand.
Potato Chips, Pretzels, Popcorn, Crackers, and other packaged snacks
You can usually see the salt right on these products, so you already know these are foods to eat less of. The problem with these foods is usually portion control. How many times have you vegged out on the couch with a bag of chips only to find the bag empty an hour later with little recollection of eating it all? While you’re absolutely not alone (I’ve done it, too!), it’s not the best of habits to keep repeating.
Look for lower sodium options of these snacks. If you do have trouble with portion control, try portioning out the food in the kitchen, and taking only one portion with you to the couch. If that doesn’t work, you may want to consider buying that food infrequently. We all have that food that we just have trouble with (mine are Doritos and Oreos - and I can count on one hand the number of times in a year I buy them both combined).
With a little practice, you can become a sodium sleuth! Check your refrigerator and pantry. What foods do you have that surprised you with their high sodium content? Let me know in the comments!