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How to cut back on sodium

Sodium is a nutrient that your body needs, but modern eating habits make it easy – and common – to get more than you require.

“It’s necessary for many functions in our bodies, such as maintaining fluid balance. But consuming too much of it is associated with high blood pressure, heart disease and stroke,” says Nicole Bourgeois, registered dietitian with the Family Practice Care Centre at Women’s College Hospital.

As of January 2014, Hypertension Canada recommends that Canadians limit their sodium consumption to 2,000 milligrams per day. However, the average Canadian consumes about 3,400 milligrams per day.

Beyond the salt shaker

Sodium isn’t just found in the salt shaker. Bourgeois notes that more than 75 per cent of the sodium in the average Canadian’s diet comes from sources such as restaurant foods, takeout foods, and ready-to-eat foods such as frozen meals, canned goods and snack foods.

Bourgeois says most ready-to-eat, takeout or restaurant entrées probably have 1,200-1,600 milligrams of sodium. Even salads can have more than 1,000 milligrams, with some more than 1,500 milligrams.

Surprising sources

You’ll find high amounts of sodium in most products labelled “seasoned” such as seasoned frozen meats and potato products such as frozen French fries. Canned goods and deli meats are also high in sodium, and beware of condiments such as barbecue sauce, steak sauce or soy sauce that can be very high in sodium.

Some of the more surprising places where sodium lurks include baked goods and prepared cereals. Breads, bagels and pitas contain about 150 milligrams per slice, and a serving of ready-to-eat cereal has 150-300 milligrams.

Making sense of labels

You can find out how much sodium is in the packaged foods you eat just by checking the label. Bourgeois notes that sodium will be listed both in milligrams, and as a per cent daily value. Don’t forget to check the serving size, and multiply the milligrams or percentage if you’re having more than one serving.

If you don’t want to add up milligrams, use the per cent daily value (%DV on the label).

  • if it’s less than five per cent of the daily value for sodium, it’s a better choice
  • if it’s 15 per cent or higher, it’s not the best choice
  • when you do have a higher sodium meal, try to make the day’s other meals lower in sodium to keep within the daily limit

One thing to keep in mind when looking at per cent daily value of sodium, rather than milligrams, is that those per cent values are calculated using Health Canada’s tolerable upper intake limit for sodium of 2,300 milligrams per day, rather than the recommended 2,000 milligrams per day.

“So you’re not looking to meet 100 per cent of the daily value,” Bourgeois says.

Other things to look for on food labels include terms like “salt free,”  “sodium free” or “without salt,” and “low in sodium” or “low in salt.” Products labeled “less salt” or “reduced salt” aren’t necessarily low in sodium, so check the nutrition label.

Home is healthier

When eating out or getting takeout, you can check the restaurant’s website for nutritional information, including sodium, which may help you make healthier choices.

However, one of the best ways to reduce your sodium intake is to skip restaurants, takeout and ready-to-eat foods altogether.

“The more homemade foods you can have as part of your daily routine – anything you can make from fresh, whole ingredients – is probably the biggest thing you can do for sodium reduction,” Bourgeois says. “I always recommend eating out as little as possible: you save on sodium and money – a double bonus.”

To reduce sodium in home cooking, try these tips:

  • reduce the amount of added salt
  • use salt-free seasoning blends
  • monitor your sauce and condiment intake
  • cut stock mix amounts in half
  • explore all the wonderful flavours that aren’t salt, such as lemon, garlic, ginger, spices and herbs


This information is provided by Women’s College Hospital and is not intended to replace the medical advice of your doctor or health care provider. Please consult your health care provider for advice about a specific medical condition. This document was last reviewed on: Feb. 4, 2014

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