Ilona Wesle, nutritionist at My Detox Diet takes a look at the role salt plays in our health, and why it might not be as bad for us as we once thought
Salt makes the body hold onto water, and that can cause weight gain and increase blood pressure – at least until the kidneys flush the salt out of the system. But it is believed that the effect is actually more long-lasting, and can lead to hypertension, stroke and even death if unchecked. The DASH-sodium study carried out in the USA in 2001 found that subjects on a lower sodium diet had significantly lower blood pressure than a control group.
Sodium – rather than salt specifically – is actually an essential electrolyte. An electrically-charged molecule, sodium along with potassium maintains electrical gradients across cell membranes – critical for nerve transmission, muscular contraction, and all sorts of other bodily functions.
Lots of foods contain naturally-occurring sodium, but most of the sodium in our diet comes from salt. Studies at the University of Pennsylvania suggest that slashing your salt intake can actually be dangerous. The kidneys will secrete an enzyme called renin if it’s starved of salt, and this can actually trigger hypertension.
Research published in The Journal of Clinical Endocrinology and Metabolism (in 2014) has linked low sodium diets to heart failure and type-II diabetes, citing low sodium-to-potassium ratios as a damaging equation.
A healthy compromise
So banishing salt altogether may not be the answer, but re-educating those tastebuds to crave less salt is a great idea. Be aware, however, that your sodium requirements may be different to that of others. An ‘adequate’ amount of sodium per day for an adult is 250 – 500mg, and the tolerable upper limit for daily sodium intake is generally agreed to be 2300mg. Those over fifty should try and cap their intake at 1500 mg, and people over 70 should consume no more than 1200mg. People on a low-carb diet, however, should be aware that regimes like these encourage the body to shed excess water and salts, so somewhere 3000 – 5000mg sodium per day is recommended to ensure that essential electrolytes are not lost. Consulting a dietician or nutritionist for more specific guidelines is always recommended.
Here are some tips for maintaining a healthy balance of salt in your diet:
1) Unrefined varieties of salt, such as sea salt and Himalayan pink salt, are known for being the healthier options for seasoning food. These types of salt also contain various trace nutrients. This is especially important in the summer when electrolytes and other minerals lost through sweat need replenishing.
2) Experiment with other ways of seasoning your food. Pepper is great for seasoning chips or a bowl of soup, and lemon imitates the acidic bite of salt when squeezed over fish. Capers are wonderfully salty too, but all-natural and full of protein and goodness. Get to know your herb garden and invest in a good balsamic vinegar, umami paste or soy sauce to bring a briny saltiness to your meals. There is no end to the options for seasoning without salt, and it’ll encourage you to experiment further with tastes and ingredients.
3) Processed foods are absolutely packed full of salt – far more than is generally healthy. So, eat ‘real food’ whenever you can and look at the sodium levels on packets before you purchase. It’s not just your blood pressure that’ll improve: ditching convenience food for fresh meals means giving up all those nasty additives and preservatives. You’ll also lower your fat and sugar intake and you’ll burn more calories, since processed food tends to digest more rapidly than whole foods.
4) Cured meats, cheeses, pickled foods like gherkins and capers and salted nuts are all good ways to get some sodium into your diet, though keep your eye on specific salt amounts – especially with foods where salt is added, like peanuts. Feeling thirsty? You’ve probably had too many salted cashews, delicious and moreish as they are…
Essentially, regulating your sodium intake is all about creating a balance and being aware of what you are eating and what it contains. Having fun with your food and trying new things is another way to broaden your repertoire and cut down on added salt. Cut out ready meals as much as possible as these are among the main offenders. Don’t banish salt completely, but choose healthier salt options, and regulate your intake.