The next time you reach for the salt shaker, pause to ask yourself, "Does this dish really need the extra salt?" The answer is most likely "no."
Alexis Appel, a registered dietician and nutritionist with Roper St. Francis Healthcare, said most Americans consume too much salt – often without even realizing it.
The American Heart Association recommends a maximum of 2,300 milligrams a day, with an ideal limit of 1,500 milligrams, especially for people who have heart issues or high blood pressure.
The reality is that most Americans consume closer to 3,400 milligrams of salt per day – more than double that ideal amount. One teaspoon of salt is about 2,300 milligrams, so it doesn't take long for that daily sodium intake to add up.
Appel said cooking at home is a good way to control your sodium intake, as is being more diligent in reading nutritional labels. Sodium is in condiments, sauces, breads and cereals – not just "salty" foods like chips or crackers, she said.
When it comes to nutritional labels, Appel urged consumers to be mindful of the serving size. Something with 400 milligrams of salt might not sound bad, but, if you're eating two servings, that's now 800 milligrams of added sodium.
Low-fat or fat-free items might seem like a healthier choice, but, as Appel pointed out, those products usually have added salt or sugar to make them taste good. And items like canned vegetables labeled as "low" or "reduced" sodium only have 25 or 50 percent less sodium than the full version, Appel said.
She recommended using fresh and frozen vegetables as much as possible and rinsing canned vegetables in water to remove any excess salt. And at the dinner table – whether at home or in a restaurant – skip the salt shaker, said Appel, who also consults with restaurants like Basic Kitchen.
Many people automatically salt their food, and, by doing so, train their taste buds to want salty foods, Appel said. Cut back on the salt to retrain those taste buds.
How Much Salt Is Too Much?
Your body does need some sodium, an electrolyte that helps keep your body's fluids in balance while also helping with nerve and muscle function. According to the American Heart Association, you need less than 500 milligrams per day, and your kidneys retain needed sodium.
Drinking sugary sports drinks or supplementing with salt tablets is usually unnecessary, Appel said. An athlete running a marathon or participating in a triathlon or other endurance sport might be an exception.
For most adults, the greater issue is consuming too much sodium, which can lead to hypertension, heart disease and the weakening of the bones as sodium draws out the calcium, Appel said.
She recommended using an app such as MyFitnessPal to track your sodium intake for a realistic view of just how much salt you're probably consuming.
"We get hyper-focused on the fat and carb content and we forget about the whole food," Appel said.