Salt is a key component in a heart-healthy diet. We need sodium (from salt, often used interchangeably) for our cells to function, but too much can increase your risk of a stroke.
High salt intake can lead to hypertension or high blood pressure. Hypertension puts you at increased risk for heart failure, liver disease, kidney failure, and shortness of breath.
When counseling my clients about how salt works in the body, I use a simple phrase taught to me by my freshman year biology professor—Salt sucks!
Pro Tip: Your taste buds adapt to salt faster than they do with sugar, lower your salt intake for 1-2 weeks and you’ll notice them adapt! After you go low-salt, you’ll notice a big difference in the way high-salt foods make you feel and how they taste!
Wherever salt goes, water follows. It’s almost like the salt is literally sucking water into your body to maintain the balance between the nutrients in our system. More salt = more fluid.
This fluid retention from eating high-salt foods raises your blood pressure. Ever feel bloated after a high-salt meal? That’s likely extra fluid sticking around to even out the salt in your body. Ever feel really, really thirsty after eating that entire bag of salty movie popcorn (been there, done that)? It’s your body telling you it needs more fluid to restore balance.
How much salt should you eat a day? Stick to less than 2000-2500 milligrams (mg) per day. Your Doctor and Registered Dietitian can help make more specific goals for you, but this is the general guideline for heart health.
Tips to avoid salt
Salt is sneaky, it is found in so many foods! From pasta sauce to soups, even some fresh vegetables have natural sodium. Stick to these general rules to slash your salt intake: Eat more fresh foods. While microwave dinners, frozen meals, and fast foods may save time and—let’s be real, money—they are often full of salt. If you cook your own food, you have complete control of how much salt you use.
- Pass on table salt. While cooking, leave the salt out of recipes. At mealtimes, steer clear of the salt shaker. 1 teaspoon of table salt = 2300 mg sodium, that’s more than you need in a whole day!
- Try salt alternatives. Brands like Mrs. Dash make salt-free seasonings. If you have kidney issues, be aware that these blends may contain high levels of potassium.
- Skip the trendy salt. That’s right, salt is salt, whether it’s pink or black or gold encrusted. Many of my patients think that because they use sea salt or Himalayan pink salt that it is better for their heart health. These trendy salts cost more on average but provide the same sodium content as regular table salt. While some salts have more minerals and benefits, if you are following a heart-healthy diet all salt needs to be limited.
- Order smart. Dining out can mean a sodium overload! Asking your server for dressing on the side and baked proteins can greatly reduce your salt intake without sacrificing a meal out. Also, most restaurants feature their nutrition information by request or on their website, so feel free to inquire. Straight up asking for “no salt added” to your meal is another great way to order smart.
- Labels, labels, labels. Read your labels to find out the number of milligrams of sodium per serving. Many products will be labeled with a “sodium claim” regulated by the FDA:
- Low-sodium foods contain less than 140 mg per serving.
- Very low-sodium foods contain less than 35 mg per serving.
- Packages labeled salt-free or sodium-free are just that! Be wary of foods that are labeled “no added salt,” as it can still be a high sodium food.
- Flavor without salt. There are so many ways to pack a flavor punch without salt. Garlic, fresh herbs like cilantro, lime and lemon juices are all excellent ways to flavor your meals that will not affect your blood pressure! Bonus, some spices like ginger or mint even have stomach-soothing benefits while bringing flavor to your favorite dishes.
Recipe: Low-salt chicken cutlet bake with buffalo sauce
Try one of my favorite weeknight recipes below for a low-salt meal with a kick. I make this nearly weekly, my fiance loves it! The whole dish comes together in less than 30 minutes, and your only sodium comes from the hot sauce. I never end up using a whole serving of hot sauce so the amount of sodium is minimal.
- 3-4 chicken breasts, thinly sliced (you can buy the chicken sliced thin, or beat to desired thinness!)
- ½ cup whole wheat flour + 1-2 tbsp salt-free seasoning (I love this one from Trader Joe’s)
- 1 egg + 2 tbsp water, for eggy coating
- 1-2 tbsp olive oil, for pan frying
- Hot sauce of choice, for topping, optional (I love Frank’s Red Hot Original, only 190 mg per serving!)
- If necessary, pound the chicken breast to ¼” thickness. Pat try with paper towel.
- Dredge chicken breast in egg mixture, then into flour and spice mixture until evenly coated.
- Heat olive oil in a pan, pan fry until cooked through, about 4 mins each side.
- Repeat with remaining chicken, top with a drizzle of low-sodium hot sauce of choice, pair with a vegetable and small amount of starch (broccoli and 1/2 baked potato work really nicely here!) and enjoy!
If you don’t like hot sauce, even a squeeze of fresh lemon tastes amazing with this chicken. You could also try fresh salsa, guacamole, or low-sodium ketchup.
This chicken stores beautifully for 2-3 days in the refrigerator, and makes a great salad topper.
More on nutrition and heart health:
- Eating More Fiber for Heart Health
- The Benefits of the Mediterranean Diet: Fad or Fact?
- What Your Doctor Isn’t Telling You about Nutrient Deficiency and High Blood Pressure
Caroline is a Clinical Registered Dietitian for MedStar Health and Hospital Systems in Baltimore, Maryland. She completed her Masters Degree in Dietetics from San Jose State University and moved back to Charm City to be with her fiancee. When she’s not providing medical nutrition therapy to her patients, Caroline enjoys cooking, waterfront walks and crab-anything (crab pizza is the best!).