Sodium in Food: A Practical Guide

It’s not an understatement to say that sodium is essential for life.  In fact, sodium is arguably the most critical essential mineral.

While we often hear about the risks of consuming too much salt, your healthy appetite for sodium generally ensures you get as much as you need.  Subsequently, adding ‘salt to taste’ is a good rule of thumb. 

Most people get plenty of sodium from processed food, which contains added salt to make you eat more.  However, you may need to pay more attention to your intake of sodium and other electrolytes when you reduce processed foods in your diet. 

In this article, we’ll show you which foods and recipes contain the most and the least sodium using the tools and charts we used by Optimisers in our Micros Masterclass.

Sodium Food Chart

The chart below shows a range of popular foods in terms of sodium (per calorie) vs potassium (per serve).  Foods towards the right will provide more potassium per calorie, while the foods towards the top will provide more potassium in the serving sizes we typically eat them.

For more detail, you can dive into the interactive Tableau version of this chart (on your computer), check out the food lists of popular foods below or download longer lists in our Optimising Nutrition Community here.

Sodium Foods (Per Serving)

The popular foods listed below will give you more sodium in the typical serving sizes we consume them in. 

  • shrimp
  • pickles
  • olives
  • pork rinds
  • sauerkraut
  • Camembert cheese
  • salmon
  • Edam cheese
  • feta cheese
  • cottage cheese
  • gouda cheese
  • mackerel
  • blue cheese
  • mozzarella cheese (whole milk)
  • parmesan cheese
  • brie cheese
  • salsa
  • whole wheat bread
  • cottage cheese (low fat)
  • mussels

Sodium Foods (Per Calorie)

The popular foods listed below provide the most sodium per calorie. 

  • sour pickles
  • dill pickles
  • sauerkraut
  • salsa
  • green olives
  • kimchi
  • chard
  • shrimp
  • chicken broth
  • black olives
  • salmon (smoked)
  • celery
  • cottage cheese
  • feta cheese
  • watercress
  • spirulina
  • parmesan cheese
  • pork rinds
  • blue cheese
  • egg whites
  • spinach
  • bok choy

Sodium-Rich Recipes

The chart below shows our 1400+ NutriBooster recipes that we use in the Micros Masterclass plotted in terms of sodium vs protein %.  Recipes towards the right contain more sodium per calorie.   

To dive into the detail, you can open the interactive Tableau version of this chart (on your computer).  Then, click on each recipe to learn more about it and view a picture of the recipe.  Some examples of our NutriBooster recipes that contain more sodium are shown below. 

Why Sodium Is Important

Sodium is an essential mineral that is important for human health.

  • Regulates fluid balance: Sodium plays a vital role in regulating the amount of fluid in the body.  It helps maintain the balance of fluids between the cells and the surrounding tissues.
  • Maintains blood pressure: Sodium works with other minerals, such as potassium and magnesium, to help regulate blood pressure.  Adequate sodium intake can help prevent high blood pressure, a risk factor for heart disease and stroke.
  • Supports nerve and muscle function: Sodium is necessary for proper nerve and muscle function.  It helps transmit nerve impulses and aids in muscle contraction and relaxation.
  • Enhances nutrient absorption: Sodium helps the body absorb certain nutrients, such as glucose and amino acids.
  • Balances pH levels: Sodium helps balance the pH levels in the body, ensuring that the blood remains at a healthy pH level.

We Crave Sodium

Sodium is one nutrient we have a specific appetite for, so we crave it and seek it out to ensure we get enough.

Sodium is crucial to many physiological processes, and the body cannot store large amounts.  Away from the ocean, salt is often hard to find in our natural environment.  This is likely why we developed a strong conscious appetite for sodium. 

But once we get enough sodium, our cravings for sodium settle down, and food likely tastes ‘too salty’ because we have had enough sodium.  The rate of sodium absorption is governed by the amount of salt already in your body.  When we need more sodium, it is absorbed quickly.  However, sodium will hang around for longer if we already have enough of it.  Therefore, your food will taste “saltier” as more remains unabsorbed on the tongue if you already have enough sodium. 

While you will need more sodium if you are active and sweat a lot, most people will benefit by shifting their focus to other electrolytes like potassium, magnesium, and calcium before worrying about sodium. 

A study by Tordoff (1992) suggested that our cravings for sodium may increase when we lack other minerals like calcium and potassium.  Hence, your salt cravings may reduce if you do not get enough of the other minerals. 

Salt and Hydration

While most people grab a big glass of water when they’re thirsty, sodium also plays a significant role in keeping you hydrated. 

Athletes like boxers, MMA fighters, and wrestlers trying to ‘make weight’ sometimes manipulate their sodium intake to reduce water retention.  However, this is not a sustainable long-term weight loss strategy.  A lack of sodium can stimulate your appetite to seek more sodium and prevent fat loss.  You also won’t feel great when water and sodium depleted!   

Your adrenal glands upregulate aldosterone to tell your kidneys to hold onto sodium when you’re not consuming enough.  The body needs salt to metabolise glucose and regulate insulin levels.  So, although minimising salt is often encouraged, avoidance of salt can drive insulin resistance.

Symptoms of Sodium Deficiency

Because sodium is so critical to fluid balance, nerve signalling, and energy production, consuming too little of this mineral can cause symptoms like:

Factors That Increase Your Demand for Sodium

Sodium demand can be increased or decreased depending on your metabolic demands, the stress your body is under, and if you’re consuming certain products.  You may need more sodium if you:

Satiety Response to Sodium

Our satiety analysis from Nutrient Optimiser users suggests we eat less food with adequate sodium.  Many people experience less hunger when supplementing with additional minerals like sodium.

The median sodium intake of Optimisers is 2.9 g/2000 calories, with an 85th percentile intake of 5.2 g/2000 calories. 

It’s worth noting that we have a more robust satiety response to foods with more potassium than sodium.  For example, our analysis shows that foods with more sodium correlate with a 22% reduction in food intake.  In contrast, foods and meals with more potassium align with a massive 30% reduction in food intake!

Potassium seems more important for most people because they are likely not getting enough from a conventional diet.  But on the other hand, most people get a substantial amount of sodium if they consume a highly processed diet.  This is because large amounts of sodium are often added to processed foods to increase their palatability, driving you to eat more.

Sodium vs Potassium

The sodium-potassium pump is central to your energy production and the movement of energy throughout the body.  Potassium depletion also induces sodium retention, which is associated with hypertension, diabetes, and heart disease. 

In days gone by, salt was rare and highly valued.  We evolved mechanisms for protecting against the threat of low sodium levels, like intense cravings for this mineral to prompt us to seek it out actively.  However, we have not developed similar mechanisms to protect us against low potassium levels because it was plentiful.  

Our Paleolithic hunter-gatherer ancestors are thought to have consumed about 11,000 milligrams (mg) of potassium a day from fruits, vegetables, leaves, flowers, roots, and other plant sources.  At the same time, we were estimated to have consumed less than 700 mg of sodium.  Our potassium: sodium ratio could have been as high as 10:1! 

While we crave salt, sodium could be a stop-gap measure when our body wants more potassium.  You require less sodium when you get enough potassium. 

Our satiety analysis of data from Optimisers shows that people with higher potassium:sodium ratio tend to eat fewer calories.

If you are active, you need at least as much potassium as sodium (i.e., a 1:1 sodium: potassium ratio).  However, if you are relatively sedentary, you should aim to consume twice as much potassium as sodium (i.e., a 1:2 sodium: potassium ratio). 

We find most people need to chase more potassium in their diet before they worry about supplementing large amounts of sodium.  

Optimal Sodium Intake

In the past, the official recommendation has been to consume less than 1 g per day of sodium due to concerns for hypertension from excessive sodium intake.  However, the Australian target intake (not minimum) was raised to 2 g per day for adults in 2017.  So it seems that the risk of high sodium may be due to the low potassium: sodium ratio rather than high sodium itself. 

There is no upper limit set for sodium, given requirements are so individualised.  However, consuming too much sodium is, in some ways, self-limiting.  Consuming too much sodium on an empty stomach can quickly give you a ‘dose of the salts’ and leave you running to the toilet while downing water to clear excess salt.

The charts below from the PURE study indicate that greater than 4 g of sodium is ideal for improving your risk of cardiovascular events or death from any cause.     

A recent study (Sodium intake, life expectancy, and all-cause mortality) had similar findings, with higher sodium intakes aligning with better outcomes in terms of life expectancy and your risk of dying from any cause. 

Based on our satiety analysis, we have set a target sodium intake of 4.0 g/2000 calories.  However, ideally, you should focus on getting more potassium than sodium before jumping to these higher sodium intakes.  For more details, see:

Sodium in the Food System  

The chart below shows that dietary sodium has decreased in the food system since the 1960s.  We now need to consume 58% more food to get the same amount of sodium that we did in the past. 

Synergistic Nutrients

Sodium works synergistically with vitamins B6 and D, bicarbonate, calcium, magnesium, phosphate, and potassium.   For this reason, we recommend consuming nutrient-dense foods that are naturally rich in sodium to ensure you get foods with a complete nutrient profile so sodium can do its job properly.

While sodium can be a controversial nutrient, the bottom line is that you need some. But it may be more important to focus on other minerals, like potassium, calcium and magnesium in your food.

Nutrient Density Starter Pack

We’re eager to make the process of Nutritional Optimisation as simple as possible.  To help you increase your intake of all the essential nutrients, including phosphorus, when you join our free Optimising Nutrition Community, you’ll get a starter pack that includes:

When you join our free Optimising Nutrition Community, you’ll get a starter pack that includes:

Nutrient Series



Fatty acids