You’ve heard the warnings about excessive sodium consumption, but apparently the message isn’t getting through: In the U.S., the average daily sodium intake is 3,600 milligrams, according to new research presented last week at a conference hosted by the American Heart Association. That’s more than double the Association’s recommendation of no more than 1,500 mg a day, says Saman Fahimi, MD, lead author and a visiting scientist in the Harvard School of Public Health’s epidemiology department.
For the study, researchers analyzed 247 surveys to estimate adults’ sodium consumption between 1990 and 2010. The surveys were part of the 2010 Global Burden of Diseases Study, a collaboration between 488 scientists from 303 institutions in 50 countries around the world.
Other research presented at the American Heart Association conference showed that eating too much salt contributed to 2.3 million deaths worldwide in 2010. High sodium intake is associated with increased blood pressure, and it can raise a person’s risk of heart disease and stroke.
Shockingly, laying off the salt shaker won’t solve all your sodium problems, says Susan Bowerman, RD, assistant director of UCLA’s Center for Human Nutrition and a member of Women’s Health’s advisory board. If you’re anything like the typical American, about three-quarters of the sodium you consume comes from eating processed and restaurant foods, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Let’s face it: Eliminating processed foods from your diet altogether probably isn’t realistic. The good thing is you don’t have to. By cutting back on these sodium bombs, you can drastically decrease your intake:
Breads and rolls are actually the biggest source of sodium in Americans’ diets, according to a 2012 report from the CDC. The next time you need a loaf, drop by a bakery for something freshly made: “A lot of the sodium that’s in bread is from the sodium compounds that are used to keep it fresh on the shelf,” says Bowerman. “So fresh-baked bread is oftentimes going to be significantly lower in sodium.”
Salt makes sweet foods taste even sweeter, which is one of the reasons you’ll find it in your cereal box, Bowerman says. The less processed the cereal is, the more likely you are to find a lower sodium content, so go for options like shredded wheat or puffed wheat. For hot cereals, your best bet is a whole grain. Don’t want to quit your favorite cereal cold turkey? Bowerman suggests mixing it with a lower sodium option and slowly adjusting the proportions to include less and less of the salty stuff.
Speaking of cold turkey… Sure, you know to be cautious with processed ham and bacon, but are you checking the sodium content of your sliced turkey and chicken? When you’re perusing the pre-packaged deli meat aisle, Bowerman says it’s really important to compare different brands’ nutritional labels side by side. Don’t rely on the words “lower sodium”; just because it has less sodium than another brand doesn’t mean its amount is actually low, says Bowerman. Ideally, you should aim for around 300 mg per 3-ounce serving. For pre-cooked chicken, like the rotisserie ones, ask your store how they prepare it—if they add salt or brine it, pass. Your best option if you can swing it? Get a fresh turkey or chicken breast and cook it yourself.
If you’re buying soup in a can, you can simply choose low-sodium varieties. Another option that also gives you a nutrient boost: Doctor up the soup you already know and love. “Use the soup as a base, and then add things to increase the volume,” says Bowerman. For example, throw some frozen mixed vegetables, some brown rice, or a can of no-salt-added diced tomatoes into a can of vegetable soup. “That way you’re diluting the sodium,” says Bowerman.
With something like salted nuts, the name says it all. But if you want to indulge every once in a while—and if calories aren’t a huge concern for you—make some DIY trail mix with dried fruit. “That way, again, you’re going to reduce the sodium per handful,” says Bowerman.