How to reduce sugar and salt in your diet without taking so much work

Cutting back can lower your risk of heart disease, diabetes, and other health problems

By Janet Lee

It is very likely that at your last medical visit your doctor warned you that your blood pressure or blood sugar levels are rising, if you are not already taking medication to control one or both of them. Almost 75% of Americans over the age of 60 have hypertension. About 29% of those over the age of 65 have type 2 diabetes and almost 50% have prediabetes.

Your doctor may also have told you that cutting back on sodium and added sugars can help improve your blood pressure and blood sugar levels, respectively. These dietary changes also benefit your weight and reduce the risk of other health problems, such as heart disease, dementia, stroke, kidney problems, and erectile dysfunction.

“Americans are eating more processed foods than ever before,” says Cary Kreutzer, a professor of gerontology at the USC Leonard Davis School of Gerontology and the Keck School of Medicine in Los Angeles. "Ultra-processed foods are being developed that have 'hedonic' (highly pleasurable) qualities, and salt and sugar play an important role in promoting the hedonic properties of food." This makes it easier to consume excess calories and promote weight gain, which further exacerbates insulin resistance, inflammation, and the risk of type 2 diabetes.

The American Heart Association (AHA) has issued a warning on both ingredients, recommending limits significantly lower than those required by dietary guidelines for Americans. The good news is that with a few tips, it's easy to avoid sodium and added sugars in foods.

Reasons to eat less sugar

Added sugars are not naturally occurring, like those found in fruit, vegetables, and dairy, but are added to foods during the manufacturing process to sweeten them. In excess, added sugars can contribute to insulin resistance, which in turn leads to higher blood sugar levels and increased risk of diabetes. They have also been linked to heart disease, obesity and even depression.

Sugary drinks (soda, iced tea, and sports drinks), cookies, cakes, baked goods, candy, ice cream, and other sweets are the main sources of added sugars. But they're also found in condiments, packaged bread, and other products we wouldn't normally consider sweet.

The Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend limiting added sugars to less than 10% of daily calories, or about 200 calories if you eat 2,000 calories a day. But the AHA guidelines cut them even further: no more than 6 teaspoons (25 grams or 100 calories) a day for women, and no more than 9 teaspoons (36 grams or 144 calories) for men.

Benefits of eating less salt

Reducing your sodium intake is one of the most important dietary changes you can make for your health. In fact, the benefits are so great that the World Health Organization is redoubling its efforts to reduce sodium consumption worldwide by 30% by 2030.

Too much sodium is harmful because it contributes to high blood pressure, which is a leading risk factor for stroke and heart disease, says Maya Vadiveloo, M.D., associate professor of nutrition and food sciences at the University of Rhode Island in Kingston. A recent study of nearly 11,000 people, published in the European Heart Journal Open, found that for every 1,000 mg of sodium in the diet, the risk of narrowing of the carotid arteries increased by 9% and that of the coronary arteries by 16%. Even in adults without hypertension, the risk increased as a function of sodium intake. This means that some people who consume large amounts of sodium may already have hardening of the arteries, even though their blood pressure may not yet reflect it.

The Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend eating no more than 2,300 mg of sodium per day (the amount found in a teaspoon of salt), but the AHA says 1,500 mg is an even healthier goal. Currently, Americans consume an average of 3,400 mg per day. This is because the staples of the American diet—bacon, sausage, frozen dinners, pizza, and most restaurant meals—are packed with sodium.

6 easy ways to reduce sugar and salt

Here's what you can do to cut back on these two common ingredients.

  1. Start reading the labels. “The Nutrition Facts label on food packages makes it easy to see exactly how much sodium and added sugars are in each serving,” says Vadiveloo. And you might be surprised: A cinnamon-raisin muffin can contain 540 mg of sodium. A 6-ounce container of flavored yogurt can contain 13 grams of added sugars, as much as some ice cream. The label also shows the percentage of the maximum recommended daily allowance that that number represents. A daily value of 20% or more for sodium or added sugars is high.
  2. Cook more at home. Most of the sodium in our diet comes from processed foods and restaurant meals. Also, anything made at the grocery store, like grilled chicken or salads, can also contain sodium. Eliminate one restaurant meal a day or week in favor of home cooking and you could save thousands of milligrams of sodium and many grams of added sugar.
  3. Go slow. While some people are able to cut back on salt and sugar quickly, others may need a more gradual approach. It may be more practical to give your taste buds time to adjust to the change. For example, if you usually add two teaspoons of sugar to your coffee, reduce it to one and a half teaspoons, then one and then a half teaspoon in a week or two. The same subtle changes work for sodium: Skip the piece of cheese on the burger. Try low-sodium soups or pasta sauces. And if you go out to dinner, do not add salt to your meals.
  4. Look for sweet alternatives. Opt for plain yogurt with fresh or frozen fruit instead of flavored yogurt. Eat a bowl of wild berries [conocidas también como frutos rojos o frutas del bosque, o berries en inglés] with a serving of ice cream instead of cookies or cake. Nibble on a square of dense dark chocolate instead of a caramel chocolate bar. Choose plain oats (add fruit and cinnamon to sweeten them) instead of sweet cereals.
  5. Explore your spice cupboard. Fortify foods with herbs and spices instead of adding salt. Basil, mint, parsley, crushed or powdered chili or red pepper, ginger, garlic... all of them add flavor, as well as antioxidants and other healthy compounds. Spices can provide sweet satisfaction, too: Try cinnamon, nutmeg, or vanilla extract in yogurt, coffee, and other foods you'd normally add sugar to.
  6. Don't look for perfection. “Making changes can be challenging,” says Vadiveloo. "Every day and every meal is a new opportunity" to reduce consumption. If you eat something salty or sugary, don't beat yourself up or assume you won't be able to stick to this new diet long-term. “You'll get better with time,” she says. "It's a lifelong process."

Editor's note: A version of this article was also published in the July 2023 issue of Consumer Reports On Health.

Consumer Reports is an independent, nonprofit organization that works side by side with consumers to create a fairer, safer, and healthier world. CR does not endorse products or services, and does not accept advertising. Copyright © 2023, Consumer Reports, Inc.

Consumer Reports has no financial relationship with the advertisers on this site. Consumer Reports is an independent, nonprofit organization that works with consumers to create a fair, safe, and healthy world. CR does not endorse products or services and does not accept advertising. Copyright © 2023, Consumer Reports, Inc.

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