How to Avoid 'Stealth Sodium'

Knowing where sodium hides will help you make food choices that protect your heart.




One of the biggest risk factors for heart disease and stroke is high blood pressure, or hypertension, a condition that also can lead to vision loss, osteoporosis and kidney disease. While there are many things that contribute to hypertension, too much sodium in the diet is a major culprit.

Salt, a mineral, is made up of sodium and chloride. The sodium in salt is what’s bad for your health, and what you’ll see listed on food labels. The average American adult eats more than 3,400 milligrams of sodium each day—well above the 2,300 milligrams recommended in the 2015–2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans.

While you might think that simply not adding salt at the table will make the needed difference, that’s likely not the case: More than 70 percent of the sodium Americans consume comes from packaged foods and restaurant meals. The unfortunate fact is that sodium is hidden in many everyday foods.

The American Heart Association calls the foods that contain the most hidden sodium the “salty six.” They are: bread, pizza, soup, cold cuts and cured meats, poultry and sandwiches. Other sodium-loaded foods include cheeses, salty snacks, nuts and seeds, frozen dinners, packaged mea condiments, seasoned salts and store-bought sauces. To reduce sodium in your diet, avoid those pitfall foods when you’re shopping. Instead, choose low-salt or salt-free varieties— or make your own low-salt versions from scratch.

The grocery store isn’t the only place to be wary. Foods prepared in restaurants tend to be high in sodium, which improves taste and can mask poor-quality ingredients. When you do eat out, ask for your meal to be prepared with no added salt. Better yet, choose to cook at home more often and flavor foods with herbs, spices and salt-free seasoning blends. By preparing meals with fresh ingredients you select yourself, food will taste better without having to add extra salt. 

When cooking at home, skip canned, smoked or processed ingredients in favor of fresh foods whenever possible. Choose unsalted or low-sodium broths and canned ingredients, and use dried peas and beans instead of canned.

The bottom line: While our bodies need sodium, the modern Western diet contains much more than necessary. By avoiding the hidden sources of sodium in everyday foods, you can lower your risk for hypertension and the health problems it causes.

"Unfortunately, most of the population is eating too much salt, and probably one in three people will be affected by high blood pressure. People should avoid processed foods— which have a lot of hidden salt—and go back to eating natural, unprocessed foods.”

—Diane Schwartz, M.D., internal medicine, Englewood Health

BLOOD PRESSURE: HOW HIGH IS TOO HIGH? 

Nearly half of Americans now have blood pressure above the normal range, based on new guidelines from the American College of Cardiology and 10 other groups. With the revised standards, which define high blood pressure as 130 over 80 (down from 140 over 90), doctors aim to identify affected patients earlier to help reduce their risk of future complications. If you know your blood pressure, check the chart below to see whether you may need to review your situation with your physician.

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