My grandma used to hide the salt shaker when we came over for dinner. She knew my dad would sprinkle it over whatever he ate, and she worried it wasn’t good for his health.

Apparently the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree because I love salt too. I keep a dish of kosher next to the stove for sprinkling on roasted vegetables and shake table salt onto popcorn.

Since I’m a dietitian, that may be surprising. Salt has long been feared because too much sodium can boost your blood pressure, which can raise your risk for heart attack and stroke.

But there are some misconceptions about salt you should know about:

The salt shaker is not the problem. For most people, about three-quarters of the sodium they take in comes from packaged, processed, and restaurant foods. Only ten percent comes from the salt shaker (the rest is from foods that naturally contain sodium like milk and meat). Since I don’t typically eat things like canned soup, frozen dinners, or fast food, I feel okay about putting some salt on my sweet potato.

Salt makes healthy foods taste good. There are certainly lots of delicious salt-free ways to season foods, but a little bit of salt can make a pan of roasted asparagus more tempting or a bowl of stove-popped popcorn (a good whole grain snack!) even yummier.

Too little salt isn’t good for you. It’s not healthy or realistic to try for a salt-free or sodium-free diet because your body needs some sodium to function correctly. If you aim to slash all sodium from your diet, you may end up feeling tired, especially if you exercise regularly. If you’re eating mostly whole foods--and very few processed and restaurant foods--your sodium intake is likely within a healthy range.

So what should you do?

  • Know where you stand by getting your blood pressure checked regularly--at least every two years, more often if you have high blood pressure or borderline-high. About one in three Americans has high blood pressure (hypertension) and your risk increases with age. Some people are “salt sensitive”, so their blood pressure reacts more to sodium. Those who are older than 50, black, or overweight are more likely to be salt sensitive.
  • Cut back on the amount of restaurant and high-sodium packaged foods you eat. The “Salty Six”--foods that contribute the most sodium to the typical diet--are breads and rolls, cold cuts and cured meats, pizza, poultry (especially processed kinds like nuggets), soup, and sandwiches.
  • Eat lots of produce. Fruits and vegetables are high in potassium, which is sort of a “kryptonite” to sodium because it counteracts some of the negative effects and helps relax blood vessels. Good sources of potassium include sweet potatoes, bananas, avocados, and oranges (plus foods like lentils, yogurt, and edamame).
  • Follow your doctor’s advice about sodium, especially if you have a history of hypertension, heart disease, or other health issue. Everyone is different, so do what’s right for you.