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leslie beck's food for thought

If you scan the nutrition labels on foods in your kitchen cupboard, you'll quickly see that sodium is everywhere - and not only in the usual culprits like soup, frozen dinners, canned vegetables and cold cuts. Sodium lurks in foods you wouldn't think to check including hot chocolate mixes, instant oatmeal, frozen waffles, bread, and yes, breakfast cereals.

It's even added to toddler foods - one jar (213 g) of Heinz's Toddler Chicken Cacciatore has 470 milligrams of sodium - half the daily sodium requirement for a one-year old.

Consuming sodium in excess of daily requirements - as most Canadians do - increases the risk of high blood pressure, stroke, osteoporosis, kidney stones and possibly even obesity.

Healthy adults need 1,500 milligrams of sodium per day, and the upper daily sodium limit is 2,300 milligrams.

In our world of processed, packaged foods, reducing your sodium intake is a challenging task. But just as our taste buds get used to high levels of sodium, they can adjust to eating less salt within a few weeks. The following tips will help you reduce sodium from your family's meals and snacks.

Read nutrition labels

Sodium levels vary widely across different brands of similar products. Sodium is listed in milligrams per one serving of food. Be sure to adjust the amount of sodium you're getting if you consume more than the serving size indicated.

Sodium is also listed as a percentage of a Daily Value. However, the DV for sodium is based on 2,400 milligrams, an outdated value that exceeds the needs of all Canadians.

Use the Daily Value to get a quick overview of whether there's a little or a lot of sodium in one serving of a food. A food that has 5 per cent or less of DV is considered low in sodium. A food that has 15 per cent or greater of DV would be high in sodium.

Balance your meals

It's not possible to choose all foods with a low per cent DV for sodium. Instead try to balance your food choices over the course of the day. For instance, if you're going to have Lean Cuisine's Chicken Club Panini for lunch (36 per cent of the DV for sodium) you'd be wise to pass on other high sodium foods for the rest of the day.

Dine out less often

Thanks to salty ingredients and hefty portion sizes, restaurant meals are often overloaded with sodium. Consider these nutrition facts: Boston Pizza's Cajun Rice Bowl, 2,050 milligrams of sodium; Kelsey's Chicken Quesadilla, 2,480 milligrams; Milestone's Grilled Chicken Salad (no dressing), 1,110 milligrams. Even the Old Spaghetti Factory's meatless lasagna clocks in at 1,683 milligrams - more than a day's worth of sodium.

If you eat meals frequently in food courts or chain restaurants, visit the company's website to review the nutrition facts of menu items.

Order wisely

When you do eat out, be aware of terms that indicate higher sodium: pickled, marinated, smoked, barbequed, teriyaki, soy sauce, broth, miso, gravy, bacon and, of course, salted. Order dressings, gravies and condiments on the side and use only a little.

Request that your meal be prepared without added salt, MSG or sodium-containing ingredients such as soy sauce and broths.

Make it from scratch

Make your own pasta sauces, chilis, soups and salad dressings. Simmer dried beans instead of buying them canned. Make these staples in big batches and freeze for later use. Not only are fresh fruit and vegetables naturally low in sodium or sodium free, they are also an excellent source of potassium, a mineral that helps keep blood pressure in check.

Adjust recipes

Remove or reduce the salt called for in recipes whenever possible. In most casseroles, stews and main dishes you can omit the added salt. In baked goods it's usually safe to reduce salt by one-half without affecting quality and taste.

Start the day off right

Ideally, choose ready-to-eat breakfast cereals with no more than 200 milligrams of sodium per serving. Brands such as Nature's Path and Kashi are lower in sodium than most. A few brands, such as Post Shredded Wheat and Kashi Puffs, are sodium free.

Instead of eating instant oatmeal (180 milligrams sodium per pouch), make a batch of rolled oats in advance and reheat a serving each morning (0 milligrams).

Try a new slice

Most brands of bread deliver roughly 200 milligrams of sodium per slice. The bigger the bread, the more sodium. Great Canadian Bagel's Spinach bagel, for example, packs in 1,550 milligrams. Lower sodium breads include Dempster's Healthy Way with Procardio Recipe (115 milligrams per slice).

Switch up your snacks

Instead of pretzels, potato chips and salty crackers, snack on air-popped popcorn with a dash of chili powder, plain nuts, and unsalted crackers.

Limit luncheon meats

Ham, sausage, salami and smoked turkey are high in sodium. When preparing dinner, bake or grill extra chicken, turkey breast or roast beef for low-sodium sandwich fillings.

Keep an eye on vegetable products

When possible, choose sodium-reduced or no-added-salt brands of vegetable juice, soups, and canned vegetables. Rinse canned vegetables and beans to remove some of the added salt before using them.

Be smart with convenience foods

When convenience is important, choose pre-made and frozen dinners that contain no more than 200 milligrams of sodium per 100 calories. Select frozen burgers with less than 500 milligrams of sodium per patty. Look for store-bought soups with no more than 500 milligrams of sodium per serving.

Limit condiments

Dips, stir-fry sauces, salad dressings, Worcestershire sauce, barbeque sauce, ketchup and relish all contain sodium. Use sparingly, don't slather.

Add herbs and spices

Use cayenne pepper, rosemary, basil, thyme and wasabi to season foods instead of salt. Or try a salt-free herb blend like Mrs. Dash.

Acidic ingredients such as lemon or lime juice, vinegar and zest from citrus fruit add flavour to meats, salad and vegetables.

Keep the shaker at a distance

Remove the salt shaker from the table to break the habit of salting foods.

Leslie Beck, a Toronto-based dietitian at the Medcan Clinic, is on CTV's Canada AM every Wednesday. Her website is

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