It’s lunchtime, and like millions of Americans daily, you choose a ham or turkey sandwich. Compared to other items on the menu, those are healthy, right?

Homemade or deli-bought, your seemingly innocuous choice is dangerously loaded with sodium. Consuming too much sodium is a leading cause of high blood pressure, which is a major contributor to heart disease and stroke.

turkey sandwich
Source: National Institutes of Health

There’s plenty of sodium in the bread and processed meat. But it’s also higher than you may think in the mustard, or slice of cheese. And that pickle wedge on the side adds a few hundred more milligrams of sodium, all before you’ve bitten into the bag of potato chips and chugged a sports drink (both high in sodium). 

How much is too much?

That sandwich alone contains about 1,500 milligrams of sodium, roughly 65 percent of your daily recommended consumption.

“In the American diet, the bulk of sodium comes from restaurant food and foods that are prepackaged,” said Dr. Sandy Charles, a cardiologist at Novant Health Heart & Vascular Institute - Charlotte.

Dr. Sandy Charles
Dr. Sandy Charles

It’s easy to think since something doesn’t taste salty, or you’re not heavy-handed with the table salt shaker, you’re avoiding sodium. But it’s stashed in many of the foods we eat regularly, accounting for up to 70 percent of the sodium we consume.

Some foods that are high in sodium may surprise you:

  • Breakfast cereals (e.g., Special K, cornflakes, Coco Pops)
  • Tomato sauce
  • Soy sauce and Asian stir-fry sauces
  • Vegetable or meat stocks
  • Canned vegetables and legumes
  • Pasta sauce
  • Bread
  • Baked goods (muffins, cake, doughnuts, etc.)
  • Soup
  • Instant pudding
  • Cottage cheese

Charles said that being mindful of sodium when eating is important. For instance, if you have a salad, don’t top it with croutons (bread) or creamy dressing. If you order chicken at a restaurant, opt for grilled instead of breaded or fried.

The U.S. Food & Drug Administration recommends that Americans consume less than 2,300 milligrams of sodium daily as part of a healthy diet. That’s the equivalent of 1 teaspoon of salt.

man eating burger

About 90 percent of Americans older than age 2 consume too much sodium. The average daily intake for Americans is 3,400 milligrams.

Why is sodium so prevalent? It enhances flavor, preserves freshness and can improve the texture and appearance of food.

There are alternatives to limit your sodium without sacrificing taste:

  • Eat fresh foods that you prepare
  • Choose frozen foods that don’t contain sauce
  • Use canned vegetables that are labeled “no salt added”
  • For flavor, season with fresh herbs like oregano, basil and parsley. Try onion, garlic and ginger, too. 

Charles said that while limiting sodium is important in preventing cardiovascular disease, it should be part of an overall strategy. Key steps include eating plenty of fruits and vegetables for nutritional value, exercising regularly, decreasing the stress in your life and getting enough sleep.

“It’s about taking a balanced approach,” Charles said.

Novant Health's Heart & Vascular Institute offers nutrition counseling services, cardio-pulmonary rehab and cancer wellness.