Eating a Low-Salt Diet

Salt shakerPatients with many different types of cardiovascular disease will be told they need to eat a low-salt/low-sodium diet to improve their health. This includes patients with heart failure, high blood pressure (hypertension), and pulmonary hypertension.

Sodium acts like a sponge in your body, making it hold onto water. Moving this extra water through your body requires your heart to work harder, which raises blood pressure. For patients with heart failure or pulmonary hypertension, whose heart or blood vessels in the lungs are already damaged, this extra work can be more than the cardiovascular system can handle, leading to a trip to the emergency room.

Reducing the amount of salt in your diet can also help prevent the development of chronic high blood pressure. Health Canada recommends that even adults without cardiovascular disease limit their sodium intake to less than a teaspoon a day (2,300 milligrams).

For people with cardiovascular diseases that are sensitive to salt intake, the recommended maximum is 2,000 milligrams of sodium per day, or about two-thirds of a teaspoon. (Note: Table salt includes sodium, but they are not exactly the same.)

Tips and Tricks for Eating Less Salt

Eating less salt can be difficult at first. Your taste buds are accustomed to a certain level of sodium, and less-salty foods initially seem bland. But your taste buds adapt to eating less salt, and soon food will taste just as flavourful with less salt added.

The Heart Institute’s dietitians recommend some basic strategies for reducing salt intake:

  • Eat more meals at home. Food made in a restaurant will always be higher in salt than a home-cooked meal.
  • Eat fewer processed foods; 75% of the salt in the Canadian diet comes from processed foods.
  • Learn to read food labels (see below); choose foods that have less than 200 mg of sodium or 8% of the daily allowed sodium per serving.
  • Don’t add salt when you cook or at the table.
Foods to Limit on a Low-Salt Diet Lower-Sodium Foods*
  • Restaurant food
  • Hot dogs and smoked meats
  • Cold cuts such as ham
  • Bacon
  • Sausages
  • Pizza
  • Cheese
  • Canned beans
  • Store-bought sauces and seasonings
  • Potato chips and other processed snack foods
  • Salted crackers
  • Vegetable juice
  • Bouillon cubes or powders
  • Pickles
  • Olives
  • Chinese food
  • Frozen meals
  • Canned vegetables
  • Soy sauce
  • Fruit
  • Fresh fish and seafood
  • Fresh meats: roasted, baked, boiled, or poached
  • Yogurt
  • Milk
  • Fresh and frozen vegetables
  • No-salt-added canned beans and vegetables
  • Lemon
  • Oil
  • Vinegars
  • Dried beans
  • Whole oats
  • Unsalted crackers
  • Eggs
  • Unsalted nuts and nut butters
  • Rice and pasta
  • Spices and herbs
  • Onion
  • Garlic
  • Low-sodium canned soup
  • Angel food cake
  • Hard or soft rolls
  • Plain bread or toast
  • Sherbet or fruit sorbet

* Always check labels on packaged foods, sodium content varies between brands

Lower-Sodium Tips for Cooking at Home

  • Reduce your salt gradually to give your taste buds time to adjust.
  • Don’t use the salt shaker when cooking or at the table.
  • Season foods with herbs and seasonings that do not have salt.
  • Avoid “instant” foods that come in a bag or a box.
  • Use frozen vegetables instead of canned vegetables.
  • When choosing canned goods, look for those with no added salt.
  • When grocery shopping, choose items from the outer aisles where most of the fresh foods are found.
  • Make your own sauces or choose low-sodium sauces.
  • At the grocery store, choose items labeled “no salt added” or “low sodium.”

How to Read a Food Label for Sodium

Reading food labels is the best way to be sure of the sodium content of foods. The sodium content must be listed on the package—check the Nutrition Facts panel. Follow these easy steps to read the label:

Step 1: Look at the serving size; Step 2: Look at the sodium/serving and compare that serving with the amount you might be eating; Step 3: Choose foods with less than 200 mg sodium/serving or 8% Daily Value

This food has 250 mg of sodium in ½ cup. Look for foods with less than 8% DV as an alternative choice.

Lower-Sodium Tips for Eating Out

Foods eaten in restaurants will always be higher in sodium than when prepared at home. Keep these tips in mind when you eat out:

  • Ask for food cooked with no salt
  • Don’t use the salt shaker
  • Choose grilled, baked or steamed items
  • Choose oil and vinegar salad dressing
  • Avoid cheese and sauces
  • Avoid fried foods
  • Avoid bacon, sausage and ham
  • Avoid pickles, potato chips and French fries
  • Request that food be served without high-salt condiments or sides. Items to use less of include:
    • Relish
    • Mustard
    • Ketchup
    • Sauces
    • Dressing
  • Ask for low-salt substitutions, such as:
    • Tomatoes
    • Cucumbers
    • Lettuce
    • Horseradish
    • Oil and vinegar
    • Lemon
  • Eat foods in their fresh states, which are naturally low in sodium; try grilled vegetables or fish instead of battered or deep fried options.
  • Ask for dressings and sauces on the side so you can control how much you add.
  • Ask restaurants if they have a guide listing the sodium content of their food items.
  • Bring half of your dish back home.
  • If you can’t avoid eating a high-sodium meal, cut down on the portion size and make low-sodium choices for the other meals of the day.

This page was adapted in part from the Heart Institute’s Heart Failure Patient Guide.

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