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8 Ways to Decrease Your Sodium Intake

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It’s no secret that the typical college diet isn’t exactly conducive to perfect health. Frozen food, chips and ramen noodles are all often staples of an American collegiette’s diet. But these foods all have one thing in common: a high salt content. The consequences of excess sodium consumption can range from annoying issues like bloating and headaches to serious problems like high blood pressure, strokes and heart failure. 

How much sodium do you actually need? “1,500 milligrams of sodium a day is the ballpark figure,” says Gail Stanton, a registered nurse and former nursing instructor at Holy Family University. “This may vary between people based on level of activity and weather conditions.” 1,500 milligrams may seem like a lot, but that’s equivalent to just 2/3 of a teaspoon of salt, or about one can of soup.

According to the American Heart Association, while the average American should consume no more than 1,500 milligrams of sodium a day, most people consume more than twice that amount. These statistics may seem scary, but reducing salt from your diet is easy if you just make a few simple tweaks. Here are eight tips on how to stay healthy by reducing excess sodium from your diet!

1. Avoid frozen food

Many collegiettes depend on frozen dinners for fast and easy meals, but beware of the sodium content! While frozen food can seem like the easiest option when you’re surviving college without a meal plan, you may want to look for alternatives. 

“Be aware that prepared foods often contain more sodium than fresh foods,” says Stanton. “Sodium is often used in combination with other preservatives to preserve the shelf life of prepared and frozen foods.”

Lean Cuisine’s chicken alfredo pasta has 660 milligrams of sodium, and a Weight Watchers Smart Ones frozen pepperoni pizza has 730 milligrams of sodium.

While some microwaveable meals are more nutritious than others, always opt for fresh food over frozen when you can. 

2. Skip the saltshaker

A couple shakes of salt on your omelet or mashed potatoes may seem harmless, but a little extra salt here and there can add up quickly. Just one teaspoon of salt can equal up to 2,400 milligrams of sodium, according to the American Heart Association. This small amount of salt can put you way over the recommended daily limit of 1,500 milligrams. 

Instead of using salt to add flavor while cooking, try using other herbs and spices, such as basil, oregano and garlic. Spices will give your food lots of extra flavor, but none of the added sodium from salt.

3. Order carefully at restaurants

Restaurants often put extra salt in their food to bump up the flavor. To reduce your salt intake, you can ask for substitutes like low-sodium dressing, or request that your meal be prepared without added salt.

“If I'm at a restaurant, I ask for unsalted fries, which also ensures they are prepared fresh because most places salt the whole batch,” says Sarah Eyd, a junior at Shippensburg University of Pennsylvania.

Many fast food restaurants now post nutritional information online. Stanton recommends looking up the nutritional content of your meal online so you can be aware of the sodium you will be consuming. 

For collegiettes on the go, Fast Food Calories is a free app that can be downloaded from the iTunes store. The app offers nutritional information for popular fast food restaurants such as McDonalds, Burger King and Taco Bell. This way, you can make an informed decision no matter where you are!

4. Rethink your drink

Getting drinks with friends is a huge part of the college lifestyle, but your happy hour drink of choice could be harming your health. That ring of salt around your margarita may seem harmless, but in reality, that salt alone will often contain your recommended sodium limit for the entire day.

Drinks like margaritas, salt-rimmed martinis and Bloody Marys contain a ton of hidden salt. For instance, just one Bloody Mary can contain 1,400-1,500 milligrams of sodium. To decrease the sodium content of your drink, try ordering your margarita with nothing around the rim, or just ask the bartender to go easy on the salt.

5. Read labels on packaged food

The best way to know how much sodium you’re consuming? Read the labels on packaged food!

“Read the nutritional content and realize that name brands do not always have the less sodium content,” Stanton says. “Understand the order in which things are listed on the label. Often ingredients listed first are higher in amounts than those listed later on, so be aware if salt is one of the first ingredients listed.”

Reading labels to check out the calorie content of food is pretty common, but make sure you look at the sodium content as well! Foods such as salad dressing and soup are often incredibly high in sodium. Sodium content will vary between foods, so next time you go to the grocery store, read the nutrition facts and try to choose a lower-sodium option.

6. Rinse canned foods

Canned foods like beans and veggies are a quick, easy and cheap addition to your meals. However, these foods can be high in sodium because they are often preserved in saltwater to retain freshness. 

“I'll rinse canned veggies and beans with cold water in a strainer,” says Sarah. “This removes a lot of the salt and sugar that you don't even know is there.”

To reduce the amount of salt in these foods, follow Sarah’s advice and put the canned food in a strainer and rinse it thoroughly before you prepare it. This will get a lot of the excess salt off while still leaving enough to keep the flavor of the food!

7. Beware of “diet” foods

Low-fat or low-calorie options many not always be healthier. When manufacturers lower the calorie or fat content of a food, they may increase the sodium content to add flavor. While a low-calorie or low-fat option may seem like a good idea, diet foods are often processed and salt-filled. 

A smaller portion of the real thing will give you the flavor you’re looking for without any of the processed ingredients! 

8. Skip typical snack foods

Chips, crackers and pretzels are all often dusted with salt. Try carrots instead of chips with your dip, or munch on an apple with peanut butter. Making some healthy snack swaps is an easy way to reduce your sodium intake and eat healthier all around!

Being aware of how much sodium is in your snacks is key. “I think lack of education is the problem,” says Stanton. “Many college students don’t even realize excess salt is bad; they just don’t think about it.” She recommends unsalted nuts or raw veggies as healthy, low-sodium alternatives to salty snacks.

 

Your body needs a certain amount of sodium to function correctly, but the typical college diet of frozen meals, snack foods and dining out often leads to overconsumption of sodium. Making a few simple changes can ensure that you don’t overdo it!

"A healthy diet containing fresh fruit and vegetables and limiting the amount of prepackaged or fast food will naturally provide adequate levels of sodium,” says Stanton. If you think you might be consuming too much salt, it may be time to tweak your diet!


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