Are you on a low sodium diet and need to reduce your sodium levels?
Reducing your sodium intake involves keeping a close eye on all those high sodium foods (of which there are many) that are out there and sticking to eating as many low sodium foods as possible.
While it may sound simple, it can be challenging if you aren’t clear on which food contains the most sodium and which food doesn’t contain so much of it.
This article is designed to help you get to grips with high sodium foods versus low sodium food.
We also explore what sodium is, why it’s in food, the impact it can have on our health and how much we ideally need of it every day.
What is sodium in food?
Sodium is a mineral that happens to be present in a fair few foods.
It is important for our health – our bodies need it to help our muscles and nerves work properly.
Sodium is also responsible for making sure our body fluids are balanced too.1
It’s not uncommon for people to wonder if the salt they sprinkle on their chips or meals as they’re cooking is the same as sodium.
The answer? Most table salt is made from sodium chloride, which means salt that’s used to prepare food and give it a bit of extra flavour does contain sodium however, it’s not exactly the same thing as salt.
Table salt is made up of a combination of sodium and chloride – around 40% sodium and 60% chloride. Here’s some more guidance on the sodium-to-chloride ratio:
- 1/4 teaspoon of salt is the equivalent to 575mg of sodium
- 1/2 teaspoon of salt is the equivalent to 1,150mg of sodium
- 3/4 teaspoon of salt is the equivalent to 1,725mg of sodium
- 1 teaspoon of salt is the equivalent to 2,300mg of sodium2
- Sodium is a mineral that enables our muscles and nerves to work properly and balances our body fluids
- It’s present in a wide range of food
- Table salt and sodium aren’t the same things. Table salt contains sodium – around 40% of its overall make-up
Is sodium in food bad for you?
While sodium may be a mineral and is something we all need for our muscles, nerves and fluid levels, too much of it can actually be bad for our health.
Eating sodium-rich foods on a regular basis can lead to excess water retention.
This can then lead to our organs having to work much harder, which then puts us at a higher risk of getting high blood pressure.
And high blood pressure can have a detrimental effect on our heart and kidneys.
Something as simple as keeping tabs on your daily sodium intake is incredibly important because high blood pressure doesn’t tend to have any symptoms.
Eating sodium in moderation can therefore help reduce the risk of ever developing it.
- Regularly eating high sodium food can result in excess water retention
- In turn, this can lead to high blood pressure, which can put unwanted strain on your heart and kidneys
- It’s best to eat sodium in moderation
Handpicked content: What is heart disease?
How much sodium should we be eating?
We’ve stressed the importance of monitoring your sodium levels, but how much is too much?
Well, according to the NHS, adults should eat no more than 6g of salt a day (2.4g sodium), which is the equivalent of a teaspoon’s worth.
Meanwhile, children’s salt/sodium intake depends on how young/old they are.
For children aged:
- 1 to 3 years old – they should eat no more than 2g salt a day (0.8g sodium)
- 4 to 6 years old - they should eat no more than 3g salt a day (1.2g sodium)
- 7 to 10 years old – they should eat no more than 5g salt a day (2g sodium)
- 11 years and older – they should eat no more than 6g salt a day (2.4g sodium)
As for babies, their salt intake should be minimal because their kidneys aren’t fully developed to process it. Babies under the age of 1 should have less than 1g of salt a day.3
- Adults should eat no more than 2.4g of sodium (6g of salt) a day
- Children’s sodium intake levels depend on how old they are. They range from 0.8g to 2.4g a day
- The sodium intake for babies is minimal because their kidneys aren’t developed enough to process it properly
How do I know if a food contains too much sodium?
It’ll say so on the nutritional label. In fact, by law, all pre-packed food in the UK must state how much salt it contains.4
Most products will clearly state how much salt they contain on the front, with salt content usually being shown as a percentage of your Recommended Daily Allowance.
Colour coding is also used to indicate how high or low food is in salt/sodium:
- Green (low amount).
- Amber (medium amount).
- Red (high amount).
Ideally, you should aim to eat ‘red’ food every once in a while and only in small amounts.
- By law, all pre-packaged food in the UK must state how much salt it contains
- Salt/sodium content is usually shown as a percentage of your Recommended Daily Allowance
- Colour coding is also used to indicate how much salt/sodium is in food
What is the best source of sodium?
Sodium foods contain sodium because: a) it’s naturally present and b) it’s been added during the manufacturing process.
There’s also the fact that we can add our own sodium, in the form of salt or baking powder, to our meals too.5
Celery, beets and milk all contain natural sources of sodium, which accounts for around 15% of the sodium that’s in our diet.
Meanwhile, packaged and processed food, such as tinned soup, lunch meats and frozen dinners tend to contain sodium that’s been added while they’re being made.
Overall, it’s believed that more than 70% of the sodium we consume comes from processed, pre-packaged and restaurant food.
And being able to keep tabs on sodium levels is far more difficult when the sodium’s already been added; and not by yourself because there’s no definitive way of knowing how much has been used.
The remaining sodium intake comes from the sodium we actually add to our meals ourselves.
Interestingly, if you never reach for the salt shaker, and you’re consuming natural sodium-rich food, as well as pre-packaged, processed and restaurant food, you may already be consuming too much sodium….
- Food contains sodium because it’s naturally present or it’s been added during the manufacturing process
- Celery, beets and milk all contain natural sources of sodium – which accounts for around 15% of the overall sodium intake in the average person’s diet
- Packaged and processed food contains added sodium – which makes up more than 70% of our overall sodium intake in the average person’s diet
What foods contain sodium?
So we’ve mentioned that pre-packaged, processed and restaurant food tends to be high in sodium, and that celery, beets and milk naturally contain sodium.
But when you’re doing your weekly grocery shop, what are the high sodium foods to swerve and the low sodium foods to reach out for?
We’ve listed some high sodium culprits below.
10 high sodium foods
- Bread and bread rolls – 1 roll = 224mg
- Pizza – 125ml of pizza sauce = 463mg
- Ready-made sandwiches
- Cold cuts and cured meat – 75g of salami = 1,418mg
- Soup – 1 cup of chicken broth = 869mg
- Burritos and tacos – 15ml of taco seasoning = 625mg
- Savoury snacks, such as crisps, popcorn, pretzels and crackers – 1 small pretzel = 338mg
- Chicken – 75g of chicken with seasoning = 235 to 544mg
- Cheese – 50g of Cheddar cheese = 322mg
- Eggs – 2 large, cooked eggs = 125mg6
More than 40% of the sodium we eat every day comes from the 10 high sodium foods above.
To put this further into perspective, a turkey, lettuce, mustard and cheese sandwich made from two slices of bread contains 1,522mg of sodium.
- 400mg in the bread
- 120mg in the mustard (1 teaspoon)
- 2mg in the lettuce (1 leaf)
- 310mg in the cheese (1 slice)
- 690mg in the turkey (6 thin slices)7
- Pre-packaged, processed and restaurant food all tend to be high in sodium
30 low sodium foods
If your sodium consumption is already high or you don’t want it to become high, there are lots of low sodium alternative foods you can eat instead.
Check those labels too, low sodium food will clearly be labelled as being ‘low sodium’ or containing ‘no added salt.’
You can also look out for the colour coding, which is also incredibly useful too.8
Fruit and vegetables
- Fresh fruit, such as apples, oranges or bananas.
- Fresh vegetables, such as spinach, carrots or broccoli.
- Frozen vegetables without any added butter or sauce.
- Tinned vegetables that are low in sodium or contain no salt added.
- Low sodium vegetable juice.
- Frozen, tinned or dried fruits with no added sugars.
Tip – thoroughly rinse your tinned fruit and vegetables; it will help wash the sodium away.
Bread, cereals and grains
Look for products that contain 5% Daily Value or less sodium.
- Wholegrains, such as brown or wild rice, quinoa or barley.
- Wholewheat or whole-grain pasta and cous cous.
- Wholegrain hot or cold breakfast cereals, with no added sugars, such as oatmeal or Shredded Wheat.
- Unsalted popcorn or low sodium crisps and pretzels.
- Wholegrain bread, bagels, muffins, tortillas and crackers
Chose fresh or frozen products over-processed food.
- Fresh or frozen fish or shellfish.
- Chicken or turkey breast without the skin or a marinade.
- Lean cuts of beef or pork.
- Unsalted nuts and seeds.
- Dried beans and peas, such as kidney beans, pinto beans, black beans, lima beans, black-eyed peas, chickpeas, split peas, and lentils.
Dressings, oils and condiments
Use products that contain minimal sodium or no sodium at all.
- Unsalted margarine and spreads (soft, tub, or liquid) with no trans fats and less saturated fats.
- Vegetable oils (canola, corn, olive, peanut, safflower, soybean or sunflower).
- Low sodium salad dressing – or oil and vinegar.
- Low sodium or ‘no added salt’ ketchup.
- Low sodium salsa.
Choose fresh seasonings over ready-made ones.
- Herbs, spices or salt-free seasoning blends.
- Chopped vegetables, such as garlic, onions and peppers.
- Lemon juice.
- Lime juice.
- Low sodium food is clearly labelled as being ‘low sodium’ or containing ‘no added salt
- Rinsing your tinned fruit and veg will help wash the sodium away
- Fresh or frozen protein food, fat-free and low dairy products and fresh seasonings all contain less sodium
8 tips for reducing your sodium intake
Ready to lower your sodium levels? As well as keeping an eye on those food labels, you can also:12 13 14
Eat a variety of fruit and vegetables: if frozen, look for ones without added sauces or sodium. If tinned, select low-sodium or no-salt-added items.
Limit your intake of highly processed foods by cooking from scratch.
Choose lower-sodium options for protein foods, such as fresh or frozen lean cuts of meat, chicken, seafood, eggs or dried beans.
Don’t use any added salt: use spices, fresh herbs, lemon juice, lime juice and vinegar instead. Use sodium-free seasoning blends. Buy ketchup, mustard and other condiments that are salt-free or low in sodium.
- Don’t add salt to your food. Aim to cut it out completely.
- Watch out for cooking sauces and seasonings, such as soy sauce or jerk seasoning. Some of them are packed full of salt!
- Swap out salty snacks: replace crisps and salted nuts with fruit and vegetables.
- Avoid saltier foods such as bacon, cheese, takeaways, ready meals and other processed foods.
- Eat smaller meals: less food equals less sodium!
- Be mindful at restaurants: carefully consider what you’re ordering when eating out.
Ask for your meal to be prepared without table salt and for sauces and salad dressings to be served on the side.
That way, you can eat less of them, rather than all of them because they are all over your meal.
And, of course, when you’re looking at the menu, choose lower sodium options.
Sodium is everywhere, but that doesn’t mean it has to be in every single thing that you eat.
Not when you know what to look out for and the food products that tend to contain more sodium than others.
As a general rule of thumb, always check the nutritional levels, keep tabs on your daily intake and eat fresh rather than processed, pre-packaged food, which tends to contain higher levels of sodium.
What’s more, it can be difficult to know just how much sodium it contains too.
Eating a healthy, balanced diet will help you reduce your sodium intake.
So to can cooking more of your meals from scratch and resisting the urge to sprinkle them with salt while you’re cooking or when you’re just about to tuck into them!
Lowering your sodium levels is an important lifestyle change, regardless of whether you’re already experiencing the consequences of eating high sodium food or want to reduce your levels now to help minimise the risk of developing any of the associated health risks in the future.
We hope you’ve found this article useful and that you now have a clearer understanding of what sodium is, how it winds up in our food and how we can all consume less of it, simply by making a few straightforward changes to our eating habits here and there.
You also asked...
In addition to causing water retention and potentially increasing our blood pressure, eating high sodium foods can lead to an increased risk of:
- Bloating (linked to water retention).
- Heart failure.
- Stomach cancer.
- Kidney disease.
- Water retention and high blood pressure are two of the main health side effects of eating lots of sodium
- It can also lead to several other health issues, including heart failure, stomach cancer and kidney disease
You’ll see, because we included them in the list above, that eggs do contain sodium – generally speaking, a large, hard-boiled egg contains around 62mg of sodium.
When you compare this to other food – a large, cooked egg contains as much sodium as half a cooked chicken breast, 3oz of broiled ground beef, 4 wheat crackers, 3oz of cooked halibut and 1 cup of cooked broccoli.
Overall, fruit and veg that isn’t fresh tends to contain more sodium. High sodium fruit and veg culprits include:
- Sour pickled cucumber – 1 cup = 1,872mg
- Tinned asparagus – 1 cup = 694mg
- Tinned mushrooms – 1 cup = 663mg
- Green chilli peppers – 1 cup = 551mg
- Cooked green peas – 1 cup = 382mg
- Cooked beet greens – 1 cup = 347mg
- Green olives – 5 olives = 233mg
- Mashed sweet potatoes – 1 cup = 191mg
Last updated: 17 September 2021