You don’t have to settle for bland, boring food when you’re eating a low sodium diet for heart health. Keep reading to learn how to make low-sodium diet taste better!
If you’re one of the millions of people worried about high blood pressure, you’ve probably already been told to follow a low sodium diet. And it’s true, eating a low sodium diet for heart health is backed by research. But what does that even mean? And how can you stick to it when nothing tastes as good as it used to?
I’m sure you’ve seen the same tips over and over again. It usually looks like, “get rid of the salt shaker,” or “stick to only salt-free foods.” And while that can be helpful in some ways, I’ve learned it’s not enough. Because if we’re being honest, salt-free foods simply don’t taste as good and their higher sodium counterparts. You have to know how to make a low sodium diet taste good to you if you plan to stick to it long-term.
As a registered dietitian, I want to help you find success in sticking to an eating pattern that’s not only good for your health, but also satisfying and delicious. So keep reading for my best tips to make low sodium recipes taste better.
Salt is the common name for the sodium chloride (NaCl) compound, which is 40% sodium and 60% chloride. In this post, I’ll be using “salt” and “sodium” interchangeably to refer to dietary sodium or table salt.
But first, what does a “low sodium diet” even mean?
Low-Sodium Diet for Heart Health
The current dietary guidelines recommend eating no more than 2300 milligrams (mg) of sodium per day. That’s about the same amount as a teaspoon of salt.
A low-sodium diet for high blood pressure (hypertension) is capped at just 1500 mg of sodium per day (about ¾ tsp). Note that different types of salt have a range of sodium levels. For example, finely ground salts are denser than coarse ground salts, so the sodium content is higher and lower, respectively. And despite what wellness influencers might suggest, pink Himalayan salt or non-iodized salts are not any “better” than other types of salt.
The average American eats about 1000mg more than what’s recommended, based on recent estimates. And the majority of that comes from eating out at restaurants and processed or packaged foods. I don’t think it’s realistic or necessary to completely avoid those high sodium options, and I also don’t think it’s realistic to expect anyone to slash their salt intake in half overnight.
Let’s get into my tips for how to make low sodium recipes taste better.
Reducing Sodium In Canned Foods
Think you can’t use canned foods anymore just because you’re on a low sodium diet? Think again! There are still plenty of options from the canned food aisle to help make home cooking easier and more affordable.
When you’re cooking with canned beans or canned vegetables, make sure you drain AND rinse those ingredients. Rinsing can reduce the amount of sodium per serving by 40% compared to just draining. That’s a pretty significant difference for not much effort. To see this tip in action, head over to my YouTube channel for the full video.
But you might be thinking, “Wait…there’s times when I actually don’t want to lose the liquid or flavor in my canned ingredients.” And I hear you! When we make my One-Pot Chili Mac & Cheese at home I’m not draining and rinsing away all that flavor from my canned tomatoes.
In that case, we need to decode the low-sodium labels to get a truly low (or lower) sodium option.
Low Sodium Labels
Not all labels on the front of food packages are regulated by the Food & Drug Administration (FDA). But some of the low sodium labels are. Here’s what to look for:
- Low Sodium: This means a food contains 5% or less of the recommended sodium limit in each serving. Anything with 20% or more per serving is considered a high sodium food.
- Sodium Free: A sodium free label claim means a food contains less than 5 mg of sodium, which is most likely trace amounts of naturally occurring sodium
- Unsalted or No Salt Added: Zero sodium is added during processing or packaging. However, there’s usually another label statement saying “this is not a sodium-free food” because not adding additional sodium doesn’t get rid of the naturally occurring sodium that might be in those ingredients
- Lower in Sodium or Reduced Sodium: Be wary of this one because it is relative to the amount of sodium in the original version of the food. So while it might seem impressive to boast a “50% reduction in sodium”, you should still flip that package over to see how many milligrams of sodium are in each serving. It might be surprisingly high for something that feels like it should be a low sodium option.
Although many food companies are reformulating their products to use less sodium, it can be a long, slow process. So in the meantime, you can still make low sodium recipes taste better using my next tip.
Swap the Table Salt for MSG
It’s no secret that I love to cook with MSG, or monosodium glutamate. But I also understand (after many, many online debates) that it’s a controversial topic.
So here’s why I advocate for MSG as a strategy for making low salt recipes taste better:
- It’s easy. You can start with a 50/50 blend of salt to MSG in your salt shaker or salt-free spice blend. We use a combination of garlic powder, black pepper, salt-free steak seasoning, and MSG for lots of dishes when we cook at home. And if you’re following a recipe, you can exchange the salt it calls for with an equal or smaller amount of MSG.
- It’s affordable. I recently found a three pound bag of MSG at my local Korean market for just $10. To put that into perspective, that’s nearly a lifetime supply! But seriously, even for a heavy user like me, that will last a while. It’s a budget-friendly way to add savory, umami flavor to your food without relying on more expensive or perishable ingredients like fresh herbs or dried spices.
- It’s safe. Decades of research have never replicated the claims that it causes migraines or other serious symptoms. That was a xenophobic, anti-Asian myth that started in the 1960s. Despite the lack of evidence, that harmful belief persists today and that’s why I advocate for it so often.
MSG contains about ⅔ less sodium than table salt. It’s simply one sodium molecule attached to glutamate, which is one of the most abundant amino acids found in nature. Glutamate is naturally found in tomatoes, mushrooms, parmesan cheese, and other foods with a savory, umami flavor.
“Umami” translates to “essence of deliciousness” and I couldn’t agree more — that savory note can really enhance all other flavors in a dish, including saltiness. You can see how I use it in recipes like my Sweet & Spicy Turkey Meatballs and Ground Beef Stroganoff.
Like I mentioned, most of the sodium in the standard American diet doesn’t come from home-cooked recipes like these. But if you cook a lot or are in the habit of automatically reaching for the salt shaker when you sit down for a meal, swapping some or all of the salt can help your low sodium foods taste better without sacrificing flavor.
But as with everything, it’s a personal choice. If you’re looking for a different way to eat for heart health, try focusing on potassium-rich foods instead.
Pass the Potassium, Please
It sucks to hear a long list of everything you should avoid or subtract from your diet. So here’s a suggestion for what to add: any food with lots of potassium!
That’s because potassium and sodium are both minerals that act as electrolytes in your body. But they carry opposite charges so eating more potassium-rich foods can potentially buffer some of the effects of sodium for high blood pressure and heart health. I think any conversation about a low sodium diet for heart health should also include this reminder.
The current recommendation for potassium is 3400-4700 mg per day. If you think back to the sodium recommendations, that’s about a 2:1 ratio. But here’s the reality: most of us aren’t eating nearly enough of the foods with the most potassium. You probably don’t need to get caught up in the numbers too much. But aiming for more potassium-rich foods while mindfully watching your sodium intake can really make a difference over time.
Potassium-Rich Foods List
I think most people hear “potassium” and immediately think of bananas. If that sounds like you, you’re not wrong! But there are so many other foods to choose from besides bananas:
- Fruits like kiwi, watermelon, guava, and dried fruits like prunes (which are very underrated in my opinion)
- Vegetables like potatoes (especially with the skin on), broccoli, spinach, Swiss chard, and tomatoes or tomato paste
- Legumes like beans and lentils, as well as nuts and seeds
- Dairy (milk) and dairy foods like yogurt
- Salmon and other fish like tuna, cod, and mahi mahi
If you can include some of these in your meals and snacks throughout the day, you’re doing great! There’s no pressure to try to get all of them all at once. That’s totally not necessary because you’re (hopefully) eating regularly throughout the day with plenty of opportunities to enjoy these foods. But if you’re looking for some recipe inspiration, check out my Salmon Salad with Grilled Peaches and Chimichurri or Summer Split Pea Salad.
And last but not least, let’s talk about one thing that can instantly make any food taste better.
Serving Temperatures to Make Low Sodium Food Taste Better
If you want to make your low-sodium diet taste better, I need you to serve your hot foods hot! This doesn’t actually have anything to do with the amount of sodium in your food. But it has everything to do with satisfaction and enhancing flavor.
That’s because as a human, your sense of taste and smell is really impacted by the temperature of your food. Food will simply taste better when it’s served at the optimal temperature vs. when it’s lukewarm or chilled. Think about the first steaming hot bite of your favorite recipe…I know you know what I mean!
Eating satisfying foods you truly enjoy is a cornerstone of intuitive eating. In fact, it’s one of my favorite principle because it feels so good to finally figure out what you enjoy most about food. To read more about getting started with intuitive eating, read this post next.
When we use less salt, food can taste bland or flat. And it will most likely take some time to adjust to less saltiness in each bite. But simply serving hot foods hot or reheating food when you need can help you better pick up on other flavors or aromas. This can make for a more enjoyable eating experience, and help you learn to detect subtle flavors that might have been covered up by salt before.
I don’t expect you to instantly turn the corner and suddenly crave low sodium foods. But I hope you’ll try some or all of these tips if you want to make a low-sodium diet taste better. There might still be high sodium foods you can’t or don’t want to give up. I want you to know that’s OK, too. You have a choice on a case-by-case basis to either look for lower sodium alternatives (if they exist) or include them with the knowledge that you can reduce salt intake in other ways at other meals.
Whether you’re trying to eat a low sodium diet for heart health or just being more mindful about salt, keep these tips in mind! Leave a comment and let me know some of your favorite ways to make a low sodium diet taste better. And don’t forget to save and share with someone else looking to do the same.
Cheers to more fearlessly nourishing meals!