Sodium Requirements and Dietary Sources

Most people eat at least twice the recommended amount each day

CLOSE UP OF SALT SHAKER
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Sodium is a vital part of a healthy diet, though many people eat far more than the recommended amount each day. While salt is a major source of sodium, many processed foods contain added sodium, either as a preservative or flavor enhancer. In order to reduce your sodium intake, it's important to know what to look for in the foods you eat.

Benefits

Sodium is a major mineral found in the fluid surrounding the cells in your body. Sodium and potassium work together to regulate blood pressure and fluid volume. Sodium also helps maintain pH balance and your muscles and nervous system also need sodium to function properly.

Daily Adequate Intakes

The National Academies of Sciences' Institute of Medicine (IOM) sets the recommended dietary intakes of all nutrients, including sodium. The daily adequate intake (DAI) of sodium is based on the amount needed by an average person who is in good health. There are differences by age, but not by sex. Note, the average American consumes 3,400 mg of sodium per day.

Age Daily Adequate Intake
1 to 3 years 1,000 milligrams
4 to 8 years 1,200 milligrams
9 to 50 years 1,500 milligrams
51 to 70 years 1,300 milligrams
71+ years 1,200 milligrams

Sources

The most obvious source of sodium is salt, which is half sodium and half chloride. From cooking to the salt on the table, it is often introduced directly to food to enhance flavor. Kosher and sea salts are no healthier than regular table salt, either. The American Heart Association says that each of these salts contains around 40 percent sodium per weight.

However, a food does not have to taste salty to be high in sodium. Sodium is naturally found in tiny amounts in most foods. Dairy products, beets, and celery are all natural sources of sodium. Processed foods usually contain the largest amount of sodium in the form of artificial preservatives and flavor enhancers. Restaurant foods are also often high in sodium.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the top sources of sodium in the American diet are:

  • Bread and rolls
  • Pizza
  • Sandwiches
  • Cold cuts and cured meats
  • Soups
  • Burritos and tacos
  • Savory snacks (chips, popcorn, pretzels, crackers)
  • Chicken
  • Cheese
  • Eggs and omelets

Sodium Deficiency

Sodium deficiency is rare because the average diet contains about double the recommended levels. The IOM suggests getting about 1,500 milligrams per day, which is about 1/4 teaspoon. You can easily get by with about 500 milligrams per day (1/10 teaspoon).

When a sodium deficiency does occur, it's usually caused by profuse sweating combined with massive water intake in a short time. It does not happen by simply avoiding foods with sodium. This condition, called hyponatremia, is life-threatening and requires immediate medical care. Symptoms include nausea, vomiting, cramps, headaches, confusion, irritability, and in more serious conditions seizures or coma.

The Institute of Medicine recommends getting between 1,500 to 2,400 mg. of sodium per day.

Too Much Sodium

The IOM suggests a daily intake no higher than 2,400 milligrams per day, but it's best to aim for about 1,500 milligrams each day. The Nutrition Facts labels on packaged foods must state how much sodium is in each serving. In the ingredients list, you can also look for words that contain some form of "salt," "sodium," or "brine."

A diet that is too high in sodium puts you at risk for high blood pressure and cardiovascular disease. It may cause the body to retain too much fluid and can increase calcium loss from your bones. Emerging research is also suggesting that low potassium intake compounds the risk for high blood pressure, along with an increase in bone loss. More studies in humans need to be done to see how a low-sodium, high-potassium diet plays in a role of calcium loss in bones.

Limiting Sodium

The best way to lower your sodium intake is to eat more fresh foods and fewer processed foods. Even seemingly harmless things like salad dressings and condiments can be high in sodium. In addition, you can use salt substitutes that are made with potassium instead of sodium. You can also use MSG. MSG can reduce overall sodium intake up by at least 30% and up to 60% when replaced with table salt in a standard recipe.

You can also season your foods with herbs and spices. But watch out for seasoning blends that may be high in salt and sodium. It's also a good idea to remove the salt shaker from your dinner table.

If MSG, potassium, or herbs and spices aren't your cup of tea, then shop for foods that are lower in sodium, but watch out for the label claims. Some of these can be misleading. These terms have specific definitions according the the FDA:

  • No-Salt-Added and Unsalted: No salt is added during processing. But these products may not be salt-free or sodium-free unless stated.
  • Sodium-Free: Less than 5 milligrams of sodium per serving
  • Very Low Sodium: 35 milligrams of sodium or less per serving
  • Low Sodium: 140 milligrams of sodium or less per serving
  • Reduced (or Less) Sodium: At least 25 percent less sodium per serving than the regular product
  • Light in Sodium: The normal sodium level is reduced by at least 50 percent per serving than the regular product

The last two claims can be tricky because they're often applied to food that is already high in sodium. For example, a tablespoon of regular soy sauce has over 800 milligrams of sodium and a "reduced sodium" soy can still have about 400 milligrams of sodium. That is almost one-third of the daily recommendation, so it's really not a low-sodium food.

A Word From Verywell

Since most diets are too high in sodium, it's important to pay attention to how much salt and food additives made with sodium are in the foods you eat. You may also want to consider your overall potassium intake, as well. Ask yourself if you are eating enough fresh fruits and vegetables. It's also a good idea to speak with your healthcare provider or a registered dietitian nutritionist if you have any concerns about sodium intake and your health.

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Article Sources
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  1. van der Wijst J, Tutakhel OAZ, Bos C, Danser AHJ, Hoorn EJ, Hoenderop JGJ, Bindels RJM. Effects of a high-sodium/low-potassium diet on renal calcium, magnesium, and phosphate handling. Am J Physiol Renal Physiol. 2018 Jul 1;315(1):F110-F122. doi:10.1152/ajprenal.00379.2017

  2. Halim J, Bouzari A, Felder D, Guinard J. The Salt Flip : Sensory mitigation of salt (And sodium) reduction with monosodium glutamate (Msg) in “Better‐for‐You” foodsJournal of Food Science. 2020;85(9):2902-2914.

  3. Sodium in Your Diet. U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Updated 04/02/2020

Additional Reading
  • U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and U.S. Department of Agriculture. 2020 – 2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans.

  • American Heart Association. Sources of Sodium. 
  • Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Top 10 Sources of Sodium. 2017.
  • Institute of Medicine. Dietary Reference Intakes Tables and Application. National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, Health and Medicine Division. 2015.