March 4th, 2010
04:11 PM ET

How can I reduce salt in my diet?

As a feature of CNNhealth.com, our team of expert doctors will answer readers' questions. Here's a question for Dr. Gupta.

From Jack, who lives in New Jersey

My doc says I need to cut back my sodium. What is the best way?


I can tell you, Jack, first of all this may be one of the most important questions we answer. When it comes to sodium, we simply eat too much. The average American consumes about 4,000mg per day of salt in his or her diet a day, but as an adult, we really need about half that – 2,300mg per day. Simply cutting back on sodium could potentially save about 150,000 lives a year according to the American Medical Association.

Of course, that's easier said than done. Especially because salt is hidden in almost everything we eat. Frozen foods are one of biggest culprits. Even the "healthy" frozen dinners can contain as much sodium as a person needs in an entire day. A big reason manufacturers pump their products with extra salt is that it's a good preservative – makes the shelf life longer. Canned foods, cereal and pastries are also some of the biggest culprits of '”hidden” high sodium levels. That is why reading the ingredient label is so crucial when you're shopping at the grocery store.

A good rule of thumb when reading labels is try to find foods that that have fewer than 5 ingredients. That's really going to help you make healthy food choices overall. Specific to sodium, pay attention to not only how many grams are listed on the label, but also the serving size. One can of soup lists a sodium content of 500mg, but if you examine the label a little further, the can of soup could contain three servings. That means eating one can of soup can almost tap out the amount of sodium you should have for the entire day.

One thing that we do in our house is never leave crackers or cookies just sitting out in a big box. We portion high-sodium and snack foods out which is really important because it helps limit the mindless eating that's so easy to do. Also, I've found a lot of people cook with salt or add it to prepared food for extra flavor simply out of habit. If that sounds like you, Jack, one tip is to remove the salt shaker from your table – just get it out of there altogether. You'll most likely find you don't even miss it. You can also take a trip to the spice isle next time you're at the grocery store. There are several salt substitutes and other salt-free seasonings that will add flavor to your food, without increasing your sodium intake. Incorporating just a few of these small changes into your daily diet can dramatically change your sodium intake. And Jack, I'm willing to bet you hardly notice any change in taste.

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About this blog

Get a behind-the-scenes look at the latest stories from CNN Chief Medical Correspondent, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, Senior Medical Correspondent Elizabeth Cohen and the CNN Medical Unit producers. They'll share news and views on health and medical trends - info that will help you take better care of yourself and the people you love.