Salt. It’s what makes everything taste good—from French fries to caramels.  And yet, we Americans consume far more salt than we need—which can be problematic in terms of our health, specifically high blood pressure, aka hypertension. Too much sodium in the diet causes the body to retain water, placing an added burden on the heart and blood vessels.

“Excessive levels of salt (or sodium) increase blood pressure, which can contribute to higher risk of heart attack and stroke,” says Juleeanna Andreoni, a Nutritionist and Registered Dietician at GreenField Health.

The average American intake of sodium is 3,400 mg per day which is about 30% more than what is recommended for optimal health at 2,400 mg per day. The DASH (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) studies show that people can achieve up to a 14-point reduction in systolic blood pressure by working to increase potassium, magnesium and calcium intake (fruits, vegetables, nuts, dairy or dairy substitutes) along with trying to keep sodium intake to roughly 2,400 mg per day.

Paying attention to how much salt you consume is the first step. “There’s no need to count milligrams of sodium each day,” Andreoni says, “however, try to consider if foods you regularly eat contain extra sodium.”

Foods that are the most salty include:

  • Deli meats and salted cured meats
  • All cheese (except for fresh mozzarella, chevre and other soft goat cheeses, and ricotta)
  • Pre-packaged snack foods
  • Canned foods, i.e., soup
  • Pre-made sauces

‘So what should I do,’ you may say, ‘starve?!’

No need and no worries, assures Andreoni, “you can easily lower your sodium intake—and blood pressure in the process—by eating foods rich in potassium, magnesium and calcium.”

Foods high in potassium, magnesium and calcium include:

  • All fruits and vegetables, especially berries, citrus, broccoli, brussel sprouts, potato, squash and pumpkin, dark greens, avocado, snap beans
  • Nuts and seeds, lentils and beans, brown rice
  • Dairy (milk, cheese, yogurt) and dairy substitutes (almond, coconut, soy milks)
  • Dark chocolate
  • Fresh fish and beef, sardines and canned fish

The key is, she says, is “do what you can," and take a "balanced plate" approach:

  • Assess current eating habits
  • Visualize your plate:  2 fists’ worth of fruit and/or vegetables + 1 fist worth of starch/wholegrain + 1 fist or palm-sized protein (i.e., chicken, fish, beef) + fats as desired for flavor (olive oil, nuts/seeds)
  • Consider a Mediterranean style diet vs a traditional American plate (i.e., meat and potatoes)
  • Cook and eat at home with fresh, whole food ingredients.
  • Experiment with different spices—rosemary, thyme, red chili flakes, cumin, etc.—to enhance flavors

There’s no need to be perfect, Andreoni says. “Even small changes are meaningful.”