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Heart Failure: Eating Less Salt

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When you have heart failure, you need to eat less sodium, which is a component of salt. You will feel better and will lower your risk of being hospitalized by following the suggestions in this Actionset.

Key points

  • Your doctor may limit your sodium intake to less than 2 g (2000 mg) a day.
  • Keeping track of your sodium intake is the surest way of evaluating your diet.
  • Processed foods and restaurant foods typically are high in sodium.
  • Food can be tasty and still be low-sodium.

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Sodium causes you to hold onto (retain) water, increases swelling in your legs, and makes it harder for your heart to pump. Eating too much sodium can even trigger sudden heart failure. Limiting sodium, a major component of salt, in your diet helps prevent your body from retaining extra fluid. Your doctor will talk with you about how much sodium you can have in your diet.

Test Your Knowledge

You need to limit the amount of sodium in your diet to:

Usually less than 2 grams (g) a day.
Usually more than 3 grams (g) a day.

Limiting sodium will make you feel better. Too much sodium makes it harder for your already-weakened heart to pump and can lead to sudden heart failure. Fluid may build up in your lungs—making it harder for you to breathe—and in your feet, ankles, legs, and belly (abdomen).

Test Your Knowledge

Limiting sodium in your diet:

Helps decrease thirst.
Helps you lose weight that is not caused by retaining water.
Helps flush your kidneys.
Helps prevent fluid buildup in your body.

Ways to start limiting sodium in your diet

  • Talk with a registered dietitian about how to make tasty, low-sodium meals.
  • When you shop, use a list of low-sodium foods that you enjoy eating. Try to not buy foods that are high in sodium. This is an easy method, although it may narrow your food choices.
  • Count the milligrams (or grams) of sodium in the foods you eat. See counting milligrams of sodium method for help. If you have more sodium than your doctor prescribed, see which foods you could replace or eliminate. This allows you to be more flexible in your food choices. You will need to keep an accurate record of the amount of sodium you eat at each meal and snack. To keep track of your sodium intake throughout the day, use the sodium recordClick here to view a form.(What is a PDF document?).
  • Eat fewer processed foods and foods from restaurants, including fast foods.
  • Read food labels. Buy foods that are labeled "unsalted" (no salt used to process), "sodium-free" (less than 5 mg of sodium per serving), or low-sodium (less than 140 mg of sodium per serving). But reduced-sodium products may still contain too much sodium. Foods labeled "light sodium" contain less than 50% of the sodium in a comparable food.
  • At restaurants, order foods with less salt. For tips on eating out and enjoying yourself on a low-salt diet, see:
    Click here to view an Actionset.Low-Salt Diets: Eating Out.

Know which foods are low-sodium and high-sodium

Fresh foods and foods prepared without salt are low in sodium or have no sodium. These include:

  • Milk.
  • Uncured meats.
  • Fresh or frozen fruits and vegetables.
  • Breads and grains.
  • Unsalted, sodium-free, or low-sodium prepared foods.

Foods that are high in sodium include:

  • Smoked, cured, salted, and canned meat, fish, and poultry.
  • Ham, bacon, hot dogs, and luncheon meats.
  • Regular hard and processed cheese and regular peanut butter.
  • Frozen prepared meals.
  • Regular canned and dehydrated vegetables, soups, broths, and bouillon.
  • Salted snack foods such as chips and crackers.
  • Fast food like french fries, pizza, and tacos.
  • Pickles, sauerkraut, seasonings high in salt, and ketchup and other condiments, especially soy sauce.

Finding hidden sodium

Salt (sodium) can be found in many substances that you might not suspect. Some nonprescription medicines and many canned and other processed foods contain sodium.

Check food labels. Sodium can have many different names. Be careful about using products that have:

  • Monosodium glutamate (MSG). Monosodium glutamate is frequently added to Chinese food.
  • Sodium citrate.
  • Sodium sulfite.
  • Sodium caseinate.
  • Sodium benzoate.
  • Sodium hydroxide.
  • Disodium phosphate.

Check your medicines. Sodium can be an ingredient in medicines.

  • Prescription medicines. Talk with your doctor about whether the medicines you take contain salt.
  • Nonprescription medicines. Many medicines that you can buy without a prescription contain sodium. Read the labels. If you aren't sure if a medicine contains sodium, talk with a pharmacist. Be sure to check with your doctor before taking any new nonprescription medicine.

When you cook your food, cut down on sodium:

  • Use fresh or frozen foods whenever possible, instead of canned.
  • Rinse canned vegetables, which removes some—but not all—of the salt.
  • Flavor your food with garlic, lemon juice, onion, vinegar, herbs, and spices instead of salt. Don't use soy sauce, steak sauce, onion salt, garlic salt, mustard, or ketchup on your food. Make your own salad dressings, sauces, and ketchup without adding salt. When dining out, use vinegar and oil for salad dressing.
  • Avoid extra salt. Do not cook with salt or add it to your food.
  • Avoid water that has a naturally high sodium content or that has been treated with water softeners, which remove calcium and magnesium and add sodium. Call your local water company to find out the sodium content of your water supply. If you buy bottled water, read the label and choose a sodium-free brand.

If you are not well enough to cook for yourself

You may need to get some help with shopping and preparing food. Consider these options.

  • Have family members or friends help you, or hire someone to help cook low-sodium meals.
  • Check with your local senior nutrition program (often a health department or hospital in your area) to find out where meals are served and whether they offer a low-sodium option.
  • Have meals delivered to your home. Most communities have a Meals on Wheels program. These programs provide one hot meal a day for older adults, delivered to their homes. Ask about the average sodium content of the meals they prepare. Be sure they know that you have to limit the amount of sodium in your diet.

Weighing yourself is an important part of staying healthy

You can tell when your body retains fluid by weighing yourself often, because your weight may increase by several pounds.

  • Get an accurate scale and weigh yourself at about the same time each day. A good time to weigh yourself is first thing in the morning after you have gone to the bathroom and before you eat breakfast. Wear the same amount of clothing (or no clothes) each time you weigh yourself.
  • Keep track of your weight.
  • Call your doctor if you notice a sudden weight gain. Your doctor may tell you how much weight to watch for. But in general, call your doctor if you gain 3 lb (1.4 kg) or more in 2 to 3 days.
  • Take your weight record with you to each doctor visit.

Test Your Knowledge

In general, the biggest source of sodium in our diets is:

Salt added at the table.
Processed foods and foods from restaurants.
Salt added in cooking.

Choose the food that is lowest in sodium (you may need to review the general list of foods allowed and foods to avoid):

Fresh green beans
Canned green beans
Green bean casserole
Green beans served at a restaurant

Now that you have read this information, you can begin to cut down on the sodium in your diet.

Talk with your doctor (heart specialist, family doctor, dietitian, or nurse)

If you would like more information on the sodium content of foods, how to limit sodium, or how to follow a diet for heart failure, the following resource is available:


American Heart Association (AHA)
7272 Greenville Avenue
Dallas, TX 75231
Phone: 1-800-AHA-USA1 (1-800-242-8721)
Web Address:

Visit the American Heart Association (AHA) website for information on physical activity, diet, and various heart-related conditions. You can search for information on heart disease and stroke, share information with friends and family, and use tools to help you make heart-healthy goals and plans. Contact the AHA to find your nearest local or state AHA group. The AHA provides brochures and information about support groups and community programs, including Mended Hearts, a nationwide organization whose members visit people with heart problems and provide information and support.

National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI)
P.O. Box 30105
Bethesda, MD 20824-0105
Phone: (301) 592-8573
Fax: (240) 629-3246
TDD: (240) 629-3255
Web Address:

The U.S. National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI) information center offers information and publications about preventing and treating:

ByHealthwise Staff
Primary Medical ReviewerE. Gregory Thompson, MD - Internal Medicine
Specialist Medical ReviewerRhonda O'Brien, MS, RD, CDE - Certified Diabetes Educator
Last RevisedNovember 22, 2011

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