Sodium is an essential mineral that helps maintain normal fluid balance and supports nerve and muscle function.
While you need some sodium to support these functions, eating too much sodium can be harmful.
As such, your doctor or dietitian may recommend that you follow a low-sodium diet to reduce your risk of certain diseases or to manage a current condition.
This article explains the benefits of a low-sodium diet, foods to eat and avoid, and provides a sample low-sodium diet menu.
What is a low-sodium diet?
Sodium is an essential mineral involved in many important bodily functions, including fluid balance, maintaining blood pressure, muscle function, and nerve transmission (1).
Many foods like milk, meat, eggs, and most vegetables naturally contain sodium.
Sodium is also commonly added to foods — primarily in the form of sodium chloride or salt — to extend shelf life, enhance flavor, and improve texture and appearance, similar to phosphorus additives.
About 70% of the sodium that people consume comes from prepackaged and processed foods like chips, hot dogs, frozen meals, and fast food (2).
A low-sodium diet limits these foods and others that are high in sodium.
Generally, a low-sodium diet limits sodium to less than 2 grams (2,000 mg) per day (3).
For reference, people worldwide consume an average of 3.6–4 grams (3,600–4,000 mg) of sodium daily (3).
Some people like those with postural orthostatic tachycardia (POTS) may benefit from a high sodium diet, but most people can benefit from consuming less sodium.
Benefits of a low-sodium diet
Following a low-sodium diet can offer several benefits.
May improve certain medical conditions
Sodium helps balance the amount of water in your body.
These diseases cause your body to retain sodium and water, which leads to swelling in your legs and around organs such as the lungs.
This extra fluid — known as edema — can also increase blood pressure and strain your heart and kidneys.
However, while many studies show that a low-sodium diet can benefit those with heart failure, others have suggested that a more liberalized sodium intake of 2.5–3 grams (2,500–3,000 mg) may lead to better health outcomes (5, 6, 7).
May decrease cancer risk
A high sodium diet has been linked to gastritis and stomach cancer.
A review of eleven studies found that a high sodium diet was significantly associated with stomach cancer compared with a low-sodium diet (8).
However, foods high in sodium such as processed meats also contain other compounds that have been linked to stomach cancer like nitrosamines (10).
Still, despite a strong correlation, it’s currently unknown whether a high sodium diet causes gastric cancer, but following a low-sodium diet may decrease your risk.
May improve diet quality
Sodium is abundant in foods like snack items, processed meats, and fast food.
These foods tend to also be high in unhealthy fats and calories and lack important nutrients like vitamins and minerals.
Conversely, foods like fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and lean meats are naturally low in sodium but are packed with nutrients.
That said, eating a low-sodium diet, by default, will encourage you to eat more healthy foods that are rich in nutrients but lack the unhealthy fats and excess calories that many foods high in sodium carry.
Low-sodium diet foods
Sodium is naturally present in some foods and added to others during the manufacturing process.
Choose foods that are naturally low in sodium or contain limited amounts.
Foods to limit or avoid
Here are foods that are high in sodium and should be avoided or limited on a low-sodium diet:
- Processed meats: bacon, hot dogs, salami, pepperoni, lunch meats
- Snack foods: salted pretzels, chips, nuts, crackers, etc.
- Frozen meals: meat and pasta dishes, pizza, etc.
- Dairy: cottage cheese, buttermilk, salted butter
- Salted, canned products: soups, tuna, beans
- Baking mixes: pancake, brownie, and cake mixes
- Boxed meals: pasta and rice meals
- Pickled vegetables: olives, pickles, sauerkraut
- Sauces and condiments: ketchup, barbeque sauce, soy sauce, salad dressing, hot sauce
- Seasonings: salt, sea salt, kosher salt, onion salt, garlic salt, taco seasonings
- Beverages: regular vegetable juice, sports drinks, salty alcoholic drinks
Foods to eat
Here are foods that are low in sodium to add to your shopping list:
- Fruits: apples, bananas, grapes, kiwis, watermelon, etc.
- Vegetables: asparagus, broccoli, mushrooms, peppers, spinach, etc.
- Starchy vegetables: potatoes, corn, peas, and parsnip
- Grains and beans: dried beans, rice, oats, unsalted popcorn, quinoa, and pasta
- Meat and poultry: fresh beef, chicken, turkey, and pork
- Fish: cod, salmon, shrimp, tilapia, trout, etc.
- Eggs: whole eggs and egg whites
- Low-sodium soups: canned or homemade soups
- Dairy and plant-based milk: milk, yogurt, unsalted butter, swiss cheese, almond milk, and soy milk
- Unsalted nuts and seeds: almonds, flaxseed, pumpkin seeds, walnuts, etc.
- Condiments: vinaigrette dressings and low-sodium ketchup
- Seasonings: sodium-free seasonings and herbs, such as basil, bay leaf, dill, nutmeg, paprika, parsley, sage, and thyme
- Beverages: water, coffee, tea, and low-sodium vegetable juices
One-day sample low-sodium diet menu
Here is a one-day sample low-sodium diet menu that contains less than 2 grams (2,000 mg) of sodium:
- Breakfast: scrambled eggs with peppers and spinach with whole wheat toast
- Snack: Greek yogurt and blueberries
- Lunch: homemade vegetable beef soup with a spinach side salad
- Snack: apple slices and unsalted almonds
- Dinner: salmon with roasted sweet potatoes and asparagus
Low-sodium diet tips
Here are some tips to help make following a low-sodium diet easier and more flavorful.
- Cook at home more often. Home-cooked meals tend to be much lower in sodium than restaurant meals.
- Experiment with herbs. Low-sodium doesn’t have to mean tasteless — experiment with herbs and sodium-free seasonings like Mrs. Dash.
- Read labels. Foods marketed as “low-sodium” contain less than 140 mg of sodium per serving. Beware of products marketed as “reduced sodium” or “lower sodium,” as they may still be high in sodium.
- Watch portions. The amount of sodium listed on a nutrition label shows the amount in one serving. So, if you consume more than one serving, you will get more sodium than what’s listed.
- Eat more fresh foods. Foods like fresh vegetables, fruits, most dairy products, and unprocessed meats are naturally low in sodium and high in potassium, which can help lower blood pressure.
The bottom line
A low-sodium diet limits sodium to less than 2 grams (2,000 mg) per day.
Among other benefits, a low-sodium diet can be helpful if you have certain medical conditions like chronic kidney disease or heart failure.
With the diet, it’s best to choose foods naturally low in sodium or foods that have minimal amounts of sodium added.
You can use herbs or sodium-free spices and seasonings to replace sodium for flavor.