One of the first things you’ll learn as you begin to read labels is that the amount of sodium in many foods is stunning. Reducing your sodium is much more than putting away the salt shaker (although that will help).

Canned foods and frozen convenience items are notorious for packing excessive amounts of sodium. Be sure to pay special attention to the serving size on the label. Many food manufacturers make their foods look more healthy by using unrealistically small serving sizes. If a can of soup says it has 800 milligrams of sodium per serving, you’re in for a surprise if you think of a can as one serving. Look more closely at the serving size, and you might find that they’re counting a can as 2.5 servings. If you’re going to eat the whole can, your sodium intake for just that meal might be more sodium than you might have intended for the entire day! Consider how many servings you really think that can, bag or item provides, and you’ll have a better idea of the real sodium content.

How much sodium should you limit yourself to? That is completely up to your doctor, and it depends on the condition of your heart, as well as other systems like your kidney function. We can’t tell you the level that is safe for you, but we can help you get better control over what you are consuming!

One of your core strategies will be switching from canned foods to fresh and homemade foods. Whatever the level of sodium your doctor recommends, it is most likely a great deal less than what you’ve consumed in the past.

Whatever your limit is, you’ll learn to use it wisely as one of your allowances. Your allowances are the parameters that will help you protect your well-being going forward. Many of the foods that contain large amounts of sodium do nothing to improve your enjoyment of your food; they are there for preservation, or even perhaps to make up for the lack of other flavors.

Your taste buds will adapt quickly! The first few days you begin cutting back on sodium, you might think “Yuck, it needs salt.” But stay with it, because within just a couple of weeks you’ll start realizing you were missing the real, underlying flavors of your foods. It won’t be long before some of foods you were used to taste too salty.

The American Heart Association recommends consuming no more than 2300 mg per day of sodium, but many patients have lower limits, depending on their conditions. When you consume too much sodium, your body has to retain more fluid, in order to maintain the chemical balance inside and outside the cells of your body. The added fluid increases your blood pressure, putting strain on your blood vessels. Limiting sodium helps to reduce this strain and lower your blood pressure. If your arteries have already had to be repaired or rerouted, through stents or bypass surgery, it goes without saying that you will want to put as little strain on them as possible!

Finding out you need to reduce your sodium intake might seem like terrible news. But there’s plenty of good news. First, your desire for salt will be much lower in just a few weeks. Second, there is a wide array of flavors and seasonings that will distract you from the need for salt and open up a whole new world of possibilities.

Your sodium “allowance”

Some patients’ conditions are such that the only recommended choice is a very low sodium level, such as 1,000 per day. Others will be 1,500 or 2,000, or higher, depending on your circumstances. Whatever your sodium “allowance” is, it’s probably lower than the average amounts you were taking in when you didn’t track it.

For those with very low sodium allowances, the natural sodium that occurs even in fresh vegetables and proteins, along with the few things that unavoidably slip in, might use up much of their allowances. It will be critically important to use a variety of outstanding seasonings that are sodium free. Be careful of blends with potassium chloride; for some patients, it is just as important to avoid it as sodium.

Some foods simply waste your sodium allowances without making your food any more enjoyable. Replacing them with fresh ingredients will enhance both your quality of life and your enjoyment of your food. However, even aside from the dramatic difference that fresh ingredients make, consider the difference between a normal canned food and one that has no added salt. You will find that with the no added salt product, you actually taste the food flavors more. Switching to no-salt in this case causes no sacrifice in flavor.

At the opposite end of the spectrum are foods that you might find it really difficult to enjoy without a salty flavor, like eggs, or potatoes. If you have a little bit of salt allowance, save it for these. You can learn to enjoy many things without any salt, so save what you are allowed to have for when it is needed most! If your doctor says you are allowed 2,000 mg. of sodium daily, or even more, count your blessings (and also your sodium, nonetheless, because it adds up faster than you think).