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Is Your Sandwich Harming Your Health?

Did you eat a sandwich today? If so, you probably consumed way more sodium than you thought, even if you skipped the salt shaker. High sodium intake is linked to a number of serious and chronic health conditions, including high blood pressure, heart disease, stroke and kidney disease.

According to a USDA survey, half of U.S. adults consume at least one sandwich every day. Sodium in bread, bagels, rolls and buns is the main source of salt in American and Canadian diets. When you consider the processed meats, cheeses and condiments that often go between those bread slices, it’s not surprising that sandwich lovers can routinely consume more sodium than the current dietary recommendation: less than 2,300 milligrams (mg) a day (a teaspoon of salt) and ideally no more than 1,500 mg.

However, sandwiches aren’t the only way that sodium sneaks into people’s diets. Food manufacturers add salt to their products to enhance flavor and prolong shelf life. This can make high sodium intake a problem for consumers who never go near the bread aisle or order a sub. A study from the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that 77 percent of American grocery purchases consist of either moderately or highly processed foods. Prepackaged meals, canned soups and vegetables, cereals, snack foods and salad dressings are often full of salt even if they don’t taste like it. Many restaurant meals are no better. According to the American Heart Association, 25 percent of the sodium in Americans’ diets comes from restaurant foods.

The Good and Bad about Sodium

Sodium occurs naturally in fruits and vegetables and is essential for body function. Sodium helps maintain the right balance of fluids, helps transmit nerve impulses and influences muscle performance. Most people can get all the sodium their body needs for the day by filling half their plate with fruits or vegetables at meal times.

Too much sodium causes the body to retain fluids, disrupting bodily functions and stressing the heart and kidneys by raising blood pressure. High blood pressure has no symptoms, but over time can increase risk for heart attack, stroke and kidney failure. Having accurate information about bread, processed meats, chips, pretzels and other commonly consumed foods that contain sodium can help people make dietary choices that can reduce this risk.

What Can You Do?

Although sodium seems to be in practically everything you eat, you can reduce your intake:

  • Read the nutrition label for sodium content before purchasing food at grocery stores and compare brands to see which ones contain the least amount of sodium. Look for foods with low sodium content [five percent Daily Value (DV) or less]. A sodium content of 20 percent DV or more is high. Prepackaged foods available at convenience stores also display this information.
  • Use fresh ingredients like garlic and lemon or herbs and spices like basil, cumin and curry powder in place of salt when cooking or seasoning food. Go to for ideas on when these and other herbs and spices can be good substitutes for salt.
  • When ordering food in a restaurant, ask for your food to be prepared without added salt or ask about low-sodium options on the menu.
  • Track what you eat for one week and see what foods you can swap for others that contain less sodium. For example, when making a sandwich, consider using corn tortillas (which have less sodium than flour tortillas) instead of bread.

The LHSFNA’s Nutrition and Fitness for Laborers program can help Laborers improve dietary and exercise habits. The program includes an instructor’s guide and participant pamphlets, Becoming Physically Active and Weight Matters, which offer additional tips and information on diet and exercise. They can be ordered by going to and clicking on Publications. For more information, call the Health Promotion Division at 202-628-5465.

Additional tips, shopping guides and recipes that can help you reduce the sodium in your diet are available on the Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension (DASH) website.

[Janet Lubman Rathner]

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