The Salty Six

Printed with permission from the Cooper Institute.


Every five years the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) update the Dietary Guidelines for Americans with the intention of improving the health of our nation’s current and future genera­tions by facilitating and promoting healthy eating and physical activity choices. The most recent version released in 2010 is packed full of great information and recommendations that address the needs of our nation at this time. But for many, going through all of the information included in the guidelines can be overwhelming. To address this, several key messages were highlighted for us to focus on–one being reducing sodium intake. And they aren’t alone in stressing this focus. The American Heart Association also has a campaign targeting sodium reduction.

Why the fuss over a little thing like salt? Well consuming a diet high in sodium is linked to a number of health problems including high blood pressure which is a major risk factor for heart disease and stroke. The average American consumes 3,400 milligrams of sodium a day which is well beyond the recommendations (1). The Dietary Guidelines suggest that we should consume less than 2,300 milligrams of sodium and those who are who are 51 and older or those of any age who are African American or have hypertension, diabetes, or chronic kidney disease should only consume only 1,500 milligrams (1). The later makes up about half our nation so this means that for this group they are consuming more than twice their recommended intake!

So you may be thinking, “Okay. So I’ll back off the salt shaker a bit.” While this will help, the reason our sodium consumption is so high is not because of what we add to our foods at home. More than 75% of our sodium consumption comes from processed and restaurant foods (1). The American Heart Association, to increase awareness, has created “The Salty Six”—the top six sources for sodium in today’s diet. They are:

  1. Breads and Rolls—foods you eat several times a day can add up to a lot of sodium.
  2. Cold Cuts and Cured Meats—6 slices of deli meat can contain as much as half of your daily recommended dietary sodium.
  3. Pizza—one slice can contain more than half of your recommended intake.
  4. Poultry—can vary largely based on preparation.
  5. Soup—some cans can contain as much as 940 milligrams in one serving (and there are typically two or more servings per can)!
  6. Sandwiches—a sandwich or burger from a fast food restaurant can contain more than 100% of your daily suggested dietary sodium.

Click here for a pdf graphic of this information.

So if the salt shaker won’t cut it, what can we do? Americans can reduce their consumption of sodium in a variety of ways:

  • Read the Nutrition Facts label for information on the sodium content of foods and purchase foods that are low in sodium.
  • Consume more fresh foods and fewer processed foods that are high in sodium.
  • Eat more home-prepared foods, where you have more control over sodium, and use little or no salt or salt-containing seasonings when cooking or eating foods.
  • When eating at restaurants, ask that salt not be added to your food or order lower sodium options, if available.

Specifically for “The Salty Six”: look at the labels on your bread products, cold cuts and cured meats, and soup for lower sodium options; limit the cheese on pizza and add more veggies to your next slice; choose lean, skinless, grilled chicken most of the time when consuming poultry, and try half a sandwich with a side salad instead of a full one.

If you are serious about trying to lower your sodium intake, you should check out the DASH diet—or the Dietary Approach to Stopping Hypertension. Not only has it been proven to lower blood pressure and cholesterol, but it is also associated with lower risk of several types of cancer, heart disease, stroke, heart failure, kidney stones, and a reduced risk of developing diabetes. It has also been shown to slow the progression of kidney disease. Not too shabby for coming from one way of eating.

Making some small dietary changes can have a tremendous impact on lowering your sodium consumption and it is well worth it!


  1. U.S. Department of Agriculture and U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2010. 7th Edition, Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, December 2010.
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