Salt good for you

Salt has been linked to many conditions including high blood pressure. Is a low-salt diet really the way to go?

The idea of certain aspects of our diet being healthy or not, often come with a lot of confusion. Salt fits safely in the category that bewilders most people!

I remember the first time I wondered about salt in my dental practice. Salt can have many benefits for the mouth. So is salt healthy?

Salt water rinses are one of my favorite natural remedies for anyone with gum disease, infections, mouth sores or wounds. Salt water rinses promote healing and soothe tissue inflammation, making them especially great after teeth cleaning.

You can even use salt water rinses for daily maintenance. Salt water helps alkalize the mouth, which is great for balancing the pH of the mouth, and for the overall health of your oral microbiome. Even though there’s no question whether or not salt is good for your dental hygiene, the rest of your body is another story.

Contents

Is salt really bad for your body?

Salt has played a critical role in ancestral food preparation for thousands of years. Yet, in the last few decades, salt has been made into somewhat of a villain as it’s been associated with hypertension and heart disease.

The notion that a low salt diet is better for us began about 200 years ago and was founded on flawed science. Doctors knew then that our bodies relied on salt to maintain blood pressure balance. They believed that too consuming much salt contributed to high blood pressure and heart disease. The result were huge (unsuccessful) government campaigns to get people to eat less salt.

However, research is finding that this fundamental theory isn’t as clear cut as we once thought. A meta-analysis of over 6,250 patients found there was no actual link between salt intake, high blood pressure and risk of heart disease. Like many of our dietary recommendations, our beliefs surrounding salt need to be re-examined.

Symptoms of salt deficiency and salt restriction

If you don’t get enough salt, it can cause problems with your body and health. Here are a few signs of salt deficiency from salt restriction:

  • Reduced hydration, especially in athletes
  • Muscle cramps
  • Higher risk of heart attack
  • Headaches
  • Weakness
  • Cognitive decline in elderly
  • Irritability

Why does your body need salt?

We used to think that our body’s weren’t very good at regulating salt levels. For example, it was believed that if you ate more salt, you’d become thirsty and drink more water, which would cause you to dilute the sodium levels in your body.

However, studies are finding that salt has many benefits in the body, including increasing body water conservation and making you less thirsty – probably the opposite of what you might have guessed. This means that your body can prioritize its salt levels, which has been shown help manage metabolism in a positive way.

What type of salt is healthiest?

There are four common types of salt.

  1. Table salt
  2. Sea salt
  3. Himalayan pink rock salt
  4. Celtic grey sea salt

It’s important to differentiate between a natural salt and table salt. Table salt is mostly sodium chloride and heavily processed. Natural salts come in their complete, whole form. Examples of natural salts are sea salt and pink himalayan rock salt.

Always choose a natural salt, and try to avoid the processed table salt variety.

What is the best kind of salt?

  • Regular Natural sea salts contains a small amount of natural iodine, although not nearly as much as iodized table salt. It is typically much less refined than table salt and comes in both fine and coarse varieties. Sea salts contain many more beneficial minerals and tastes better to most people.
  • Pink Himalayan rock salt is rich in minerals, containing all 84 essential trace elements required by your body. Pink salt can assist in many bodily functions, such as reducing muscle cramps, promoting blood sugar health and promoting healthy pH in your cells.
  • Celtic sea salt is an unrefined, unprocessed and sourced from clean coastal waters along the Guérande Region of Brittany, France. Containing unprocessed and naturally forming minerals, this grey Sea Salt is harvested by traditional Celtic methods using a paludier, a craftsman salt harvester.

What is a good quality salt?

A good quality salt will have all of its additional elements present. Varieties like Himalayan salt or Celtic Sea Salt maintain all other ingredients to salt that pack health benefits you simply don’t get from table salt. Celtic Sea Salt contains a higher mineral content than Himalayan and even contains trace amounts of iodine, naturally.

What is the best kind of salt to cook with?

Generally most salts will taste the same, unless they contain a large amount of trace minerals. If you do find a strange taste in your salt, try changing brands as there may be contamination.

5 Benefits of adding natural salt to your diet

With that in mind, here are five benefits of salt in your food.

1. Helps you stay hydrated

To stay better hydrated your body needs a delicate balance of sodium and potassium. This is because water in your body follows sodium, so if you have too much your body will retain water. Potassium works to balance this out, which is why sea salt is much better than sodium chloride or table salt. Sea salt like Celtic or pink Himalayan contains both sodium and potassium, which helps balance your levels naturally.

2. Promotes good vascular health

When it comes to sea salt specifically, it actually has protective effects against heart disease. Again, it’s important to differentiate between sea salt and table salt, which is much less beneficial due it’s nonexistent mineral profile. The findings on how sea salt helps heart disease markers directly contradict the years of recommendations against salt in diets – it’s just important which type of salt you’re using.

3. Balances electrolytes and prevents muscle cramping

Sea salt is an excellent source of electrolytes, which has been shown to prevent muscle cramping during exercise. Sea salt contains sodium, magnesium, potassium, and calcium, all of which you need for optimal health. These minerals must come from your diet because your body can’t create them. Without sufficient electrolytes you can experience irregular heartbeat, fatigue, nausea, and even seizures.

4. Supports a healthy nervous system

Sodium regulates water flow throughout your body, which is critical for a healthy nervous system. Additionally, the water of your nervous system requires salt for electrical conduction to send and receive nervous system signals. Just as with other functions of the body, your brain needs the right balance of sodium to other electrolytes, which is why sea salt is a much better option than table salt.

5. Improves sleep

When you read about salt and sleep, it initially appears there are mixed reports. But if you pay close attention, you’ll realize that the advice against eating salt before bed is referring to table salt and processed foods, which can cause an unbalanced amount of sodium in the body. Sea salt is thought to improve sleep because it contains so many helpful electrolytes for regulating hormones.

When you swap your table salt for a natural salt you might find you have better sleep, are less thirsty, hungry, and more satisfied when you eat. It’s also important to make sure you get enough salt anytime you exercise because your body is sweating it out. For anyone who participates in high intensity sports or competition, they make salt tablets for better rehydration.

Conclusion: Which Salt is Best For You?

Salt is one of those food items where you must specify which kind you’re discussing to make the right decision. There’s a big difference between table salt and sea salt. Make sure you swap out all that not-so-great-for-you table salt for Celtic Sea Salt or Pink Himalayan rock salt.

Share this article with a friend who still thinks salt is bad for them. They’ll be happy to hear they can enjoy the right kind of salt on their food.

Now we want to hear from you. Please leave your questions in the comments below.

For more information on Dr. Lin’s clinical protocol that highlights the steps parents can take to prevent dental problems in their children:

Resources:

13 Impressive Benefits of Salt

Maintains Dental Hygiene

Painful bacterial infections like trench mouth can cause ulcers in the gums, which can be subsided using a saltwater rinse. The rinse can be prepared by mixing 1/2 teaspoon of salt mixed with 1 cup of warm water. It helps reduce swelling and soothes sore gums. As a preventive oral hygiene measure, cleaning the teeth with a mixture of 1/4 teaspoon each of salt and baking soda in 1 qt. of warm water helps clean plaque, whiten the teeth, and keep the gums healthy.

Treats Sore Throat

Pharyngitis, commonly known as a sore throat, can be alleviated by repeated gargling with a cup of warm water mixed with ½ teaspoon of salt.

Relieves Muscle Cramps

Muscle cramps can occur due to various reasons such as alcoholism, exercise, or medications. The intake of fluids and drinks that contain salt can be helpful in providing relief.

Chronic Rhinosinusitis

Research studies indicate that the use of nasal irrigation using saline or salt water helps in treating nasal and sinus problems.

Other Benefits

Soaking your tired feet in warm water mixed with salt helps in relieving pain. It is good for skin exfoliation as well because it removes dead skin particles.

How much of Salt Intake is Healthy?

Doctors recommend no more than 6 grams of dietary salt (i.e. 2.5 grams of sodium) on a daily basis. This makes it approx. 1 teaspoon of salt per day. A good amount of that (about 75%) is already present in processed meats, breakfast cereals, and bread. Babies less than one year should not consume more than 1 gram of salt, whereas the recommended intake for young children changes as they grow bigger.

Some food labels only display the sodium content present in the food item. However, you can calculate the salt content by using an easy formula to find out how much actual salt you are eating in the disguise of sodium. Salt content in the food item = 2.5 * (sodium content)

  • If the amount of salt per 100-gram serving is more than 1.5 grams i.e. 0.6-gram sodium, then it is considered to have a high salt content.
  • If the amount of salt per 100 gram serving is less than 0.3 grams i.e. 0.1 gram sodium, then it is considered to have a low salt content.

Some foods with high salt content are tomato ketchup, mayonnaise, pickles, and anchovies.

It can either benefit or harm an individual, depending on their age and condition. A recent study suggests that intake of a high-salt diet increases the risk of cardiovascular diseases in diabetics so it is advisable to opt for a low salt diet in case of diabetes. One needs to be very cautious about its use in order to maintain a healthy body since both the excess and shortage of salt have their respective consequences.

Pass the salt, please. It’s good for you.

Salt intake that is often deemed high may actually have benefits, scientists say.

“We humans eat more salt than is necessary. But we all do it. So the question is: why?” asks Paul Breslin, a professor of nutritional sciences who researches sodium appetite at New Jersey’s Rutgers University.

In the past, people thought that salt boosted health — so much so that the Latin word for “health” — “salus” — was derived from “sal” (salt). In medieval times, salt was prescribed to treat a multitude of conditions, including toothaches, stomachaches and “heaviness of mind.”

While governments have long pushed people to reduce their intakes of sodium chloride (table salt) to prevent high blood pressure, stroke and coronary heart disease, there are good reasons why cutting down on salt is not an easy thing to do.

Scientists suggest that sodium intake may have physiological benefits that make salt particularly tempting — and ditching the salt shaker difficult. It comes down to evolution.

Sources: New England Journal of Medicine, American Heart Association Journal, American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, National Academy of Sciences, Institute of Medicine of the National Academies, British Medical Journal. (Patterson Clark/The Washington Post)

“In biology, if something is attractive and we invest in gaining it, it must be beneficial, adaptive in evolutionary terms,” says Micah Leshem, a professor of psychology at Haifa University in Israel, who spent decades researching salt’s unique appeal.

People tend to consume about the same amount of sodium no matter where they live, and this amount hasn’t changed much in decades. Those facts hint at the biological basis of our sodium appetite.

A 2014 analysis of data that spanned 50 years and dozens of countries (including the United States, France, China and several African nations, including Zimbabwe and South Africa) found that the quantity of sodium that most people consume (and then excrete) falls into a historically narrow range of 2.6 to 4.8 grams per day. (And then there are extremes: In 16th-century Sweden, for example, people ate 100 grams a day, mostly from fish that had been salted to preserve it.)

“Over the last five decades, salt content of commercial food in our food has gone up. But if you look at people’s 24-hour urinary sodium excretion, you see that the amounts of salt people consume have been constant,” he says. Irrespective of age, sex or race, between 1957 and 2003 Americans have been eating on average 3.5 grams of salt a day. “This suggests that we are somehow regulating the amount of salt we are eating,” Breslin says.

And, in fact, salt is good for us. Sodium is necessary for preventing dehydration, for proper transmission of nerve impulses and for normal functioning of cells. If we ate no sodium at all, we would die. When they become sodium-deficient, many animals go out of their way to find the mineral. That’s why, for example, sweaty clothes of alpinists tend to attract mountain goats.

Sodium depletion can develop after severe sweating, diarrhea or vomiting or, if you are a lab rat, after it is induced by a scientist. Pharmacology professor Alan Kim Johnson and colleagues from the University of Iowa gave rats diuretics and found that sodium-depleted rodents acquired a strong attraction for salted chips. In other experiments, sodium-deficient animals hungrily drank ultra-salty solutions that they would otherwise find disgusting.

Sources: New England Journal of Medicine, American Heart Association Journal, American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, National Academy of Sciences, Institute of Medicine of the National Academies, British Medical Journal. (Patterson Clark/The Washington Post) Lifetime cravings

Once sodium deficiency is experienced, salt cravings can last a lifetime. That happens with humans, too — but only if the deficiency strikes in very early childhood, or even before birth.

If your mother suffered frequent vomiting in pregnancy or if you lost significant amounts of sodium as a baby (due to vomiting or diarrhea, for example), chances are good that you eat more salt than other people do, even by as much as 50 percent, as one of Leshem’s studies has shown. This is probably because sodium depletion alters our central nervous system so that we develop long-lasting preference for the mineral, Johnson says.

In one of Leshem’s studies, babies who had low concentrations of sodium in their blood in the first weeks of their lives grew up to be teenagers with a penchant for salt, even salt that is seemingly hidden in processed foods. “Even if you can’t taste the salt, apparently your body does. It’s working on an unconscious level to condition a preference for sodium,” Leshem explains.

This makes sense from an evolutionary perspective, says Daniel Fessler, a UCLA anthropologist: If a mother or her infant experiences sodium hunger, it could mean that salt is hard to come by in their environment — and so it is better to be on a constant lookout for it. That is also how humans may have evolved their general liking of salt, Johnson says: “Mankind spent a lot of evolutionary history on the hot African savanna where salt was very scarce and readily lost from the body. Since severe sodium depletion can cause circulatory collapse, there was a selection for mechanisms to save sodium and to drive us to consume more of it.”

A calming effect?

Eating salt may also help calm us, or reduce our stress. In animal studies, the effects are pretty clear. An experiment published in 1995 showed, for example, that when rats are put in stressful situations, they choose to drink salty water rather than unsalted water. In another study, when wild rabbits were stressed, their sodium intake shot up.

The possibly stress-reducing, or mood-enhancing, effects of salt in humans are not as well documented, but there is some evidence. In a 2014 study involving about 10,000 Americans, Leshem and his colleagues found a relationship between salt intake and depression: Women whose diets were high in sodium were less depressed than other women. “Maybe people are self-medicating with salt,” he reasons. “But that’s a small effect; salt is not going to cure anyone of depression.”

Breslin believes there may be another evolution-based reason why we love salt: “Salt accelerates sexual maturation in animal models, resulting in more offspring,” he says. Male rats on high-sodium diets, for example, have increased sperm counts. And in a 1991 experiment, men whose sodium intake was lowered to 2.4 grams a day complained of erectile dysfunction more often than those who consumed three grams a day. “The most problematic was a combination of a diuretic and a low-sodium diet,” says epidemiologist Sylvia Wassertheil-Smoller, the study’s lead author.

What’s more, women from the Yanomami tribe in Brazil, famed for their low salt intake (23 milligrams per day — less than 1 percent of what the average American consumes), have fewer children than could be expected, and they often miscarry. Yet according to Tilman Drüeke, a nephrologist who researches fertility and sodium intake at the French Institute of Health and Medical Research, this observation should be taken “with a grain of salt” because, he says, ”the relatively low fertility and high rate of pregnancy loss in Yanomami women clearly cannot be attributed to their very low salt intake alone. This is only one hypothesis among several others, including the higher prevalence of infectious diseases.”

It’s also possible that sodium aids growth. As scientists from New Jersey Medical School found out, if you put rats on low-salt diets, their bones and muscles fail to grow as fast as they normally would. In one of his experiments, Leshem found that children in general reach for more salt than adults do — independent of calorie intake — which may be explained by the needs of their growing bodies.

Finally, there are a few diseases that can turn a few of us into salt gluttons. About 15 percent of people with adrenal insufficiency (Addison’s disease) — which can cause weakness, anemia and low blood pressure — experience acute salt cravings. Hiding saltshakers from them may not be a good idea.

In 1940 the case of a little boy was described in the Journal of the American Medical Association. From the time he was a year old, the boy would go out of his way to eat massive amounts of salt. When he started speaking, one of his first words was “salt.” During a hospital stay (unrelated to his dietary habits), he was put on a low-sodium diet. To prevent him from sneaking around the hospital and stealing salt, he was strapped to his bed. He soon died. The reason? Due to severe and undiagnosed cortico-adrenal insufficiency, his kidneys were unable to retain sodium. Only eating huge amounts of salt had kept the boy alive.

Salt sensitivity

Yet most of us do not need huge amounts of salt to survive. Just the opposite: About half of humans are what is called salt-sensitive: If they consume lots of sodium, their blood pressure will go up. But if we do have internal regulatory mechanisms that tell us to load up on salt when our bodies need it (for growth, for mood improvement or to simply prevent dehydration), does it even make sense to encourage people to try to reduce their dietary sodium? It does, Breslin says, but only to a point.

“If people are regulating their sodium intakes, they are not going to be able to reduce it a lot — say, by 50 percent or more. It would be like putting someone in a room and cutting the amount of oxygen by half: Your body will try to maintain the level of oxygen in your blood and will make you breathe faster.” And so, as Johnson suggests, when it comes to salt intake, “moderation is probably ideal.”

Cut your sodium intake if your health condition requires it and your doctor recommends it, but don’t look at salt as an evil that should be banned from your plate completely: There may be valid reasons why your body craves it.

Zaraska is a writer based in France.

20 Reasons You Need to Try a Low Sodium Diet (and the Trick to Beating Those Salt Cravings)

Did you know that you have five different taste receptors?

They are salty, sweet, bitter, sour and umami. Those first two are the ones that can cause health concerns. Salty and sweet cravings can be easily triggered. For example, when you eat foods with added salt, you will crave more salt.

Sodium is a mineral that is found in many types of food, but most often in salt as sodium chloride. A low sodium diet has numerous health benefits. The American Heart Association recommends that you consume only 1,500 mg of sodium per day. Foods with added sodium will often be:

  • Fast food
  • Convenience or packaged foods
  • Frozen meals
  • Snack foods

Salt is often added to food as a preservative, adding flavor and to keeping the foods its in moist. Foods with added salt put you at a higher risk for high blood pressure and heart disease.

20 Health Benefits of a Low Sodium Diet

A diet high in sodium has been connected to an increased risk for high blood pressure. High blood pressure is when the pressure of your blood against the walls of your arteries is too strong. This can lead to serious health problems. Reducing the amount of sodium in your diet can:

  1. Lower your blood pressure. The amount of fluid in your blood decreases, which leads to lower blood pressure.
  2. Reduce your risk of a heart attack. By managing high blood pressure, you relieve the pressure and potential damage to your heart. This reduces your chance of a heart attack.
  3. Lower your LDL cholesterol. High blood pressure is one of the factors in metabolic syndrome. This includes having a high cholesterol reading. Packaged foods high in sodium tend to be high in cholesterol as well.
  4. Prevent congestive heart failure. When your heart must pump harder to push your blood through your blood vessels it can lead to heart failure.
  5. Decrease your risk of kidney damage. Your blood vessels in the kidneys can become weakened and narrowed. This can cause kidney failure.
  6. Prevent your chance of stroke. The decreased blood flow to your brain can put you at an increased risk for a stroke.
  7. Lessen the chance of a brain aneurysm. When your blood pressure remains high it can cause the blood vessels in your brain to weaken. You can experience a brain bleed with life-threatening consequences.
  8. Protect your vision. Who knew you could really protect your vision with carrots? High blood pressure in the vessels in your eyes can lead to torn blood vessels and vision loss so incorporate more natural, low-salt foods like carrots.
  9. Reduce your risk of diabetes. A diet that is high in packaged or convenience foods will increase your chance of having diabetes.
  10. Improve your memory. Your ability to think and to build memories are related to the health of your brain. High blood pressure can affect the blood flow to your brain.
  11. Lower your risk of dementia. Vascular dementia is a type of dementia-related to slowed blood flow to the brain.
  12. Reduce the hardening and thickening of your arteries. Continual high blood pressure will cause the walls of your arteries to become thicker and harder. It is more difficult for blood to move through stiff vessels.
  13. Reduce bloating and swelling. A diet high in sodium causes your body to retain fluid. You will notice reduced bloating and swelling when you cut back on your sodium intake.
  14. Reduce the amount you drink. Salty foods will make you thirsty and dehydrated. Often, we will reach for high-calorie drinks like soda or alcohol to quench that thirst. By reducing the amount of sodium, you will have less of an urge for these unhealthy drinks.
  15. Curb your salt cravings. Your taste buds adapt to the increased level of saltiness. When you reduce the amount of sodium in your diet, you can decrease your salt cravings.
  16. Decrease your risk for headaches. A meal high in salt can cause the blood vessels in your brain to expand. These pounding blood vessels can be the culprit behind your latest painful headache.
  17. Build stronger bones. Salt controls how much calcium is pulled out of your bones. Calcium is important for strong bones and to prevent osteoporosis. A high sodium diet can lead to weak bones with the loss of calcium.
  18. Reduce the chance of kidney stones. When calcium is leached out of your body into your urine you are at a higher risk for kidney stones. A high salt diet increases the amount of calcium your kidneys must process.
  19. Allow your heart to pump effectively. When your heart works overly hard to pump blood, the heart muscle can become thick. High blood pressure caused by high sodium puts stress on your heart walls. It can be like squeezing a full water balloon. It takes more force the fuller the balloon is. The heart can pump more easily when your blood pressure is at an ideal level.
  20. Lower your risk of stomach cancer. There is a bacteria called Helicobacter pylori. This bacteria can live in your stomach. The H. pylori bacteria thrives on high salt content. The bacteria is a major risk factor for stomach cancer.

How to Stop Craving Salty Snacks

Sodium is a mineral necessary for our health, but an excess amount of added sodium is harmful.

A major factor in being able to stop yourself from craving salty snacks is to gradually decrease the added salt in your diet. Salt will block your other taste receptors so when you cut back on salt, you will eventually be able to enjoy the more subtle flavors. It takes about two weeks to retrain your taste buds, so be patient.

The best way to reduce your sodium intake is to start with whole unprocessed foods. Think:

  • Fruits
  • Vegetables
  • Meats
  • Eggs
  • Nuts
  • Dairy
  • Grains

Try to imagine what foods you would be able to buy directly from a farmer. These foods in their natural states will contain no added sodium.

6 Ways to Reduce Salt in What You Eat

The quickest way to reduce your sodium is to eat more food in its natural state. That doesn’t mean you have to give up all flavor, sauces, dressings or eating out. These ideas can help you cut back on salt while increasing the yum factor.

  1. Boost the flavor. Up the flavor profile of naturally healthy food by adding herbs, spices and a splash of healthy oil or fat. You can add condiments like:
    • Flavored vinegars
    • Infused olive oil
    • Nuts
  2. Keep a well-stocked spice cupboard. Spices are the chef’s secret ingredients. Salt is a common food to add to increase flavor but spices offer more pizazz. For example, when preparing eggs for breakfast don’t finish with a sprinkle of salt. Spices and herbs can add a satisfying taste that makes you forget about salt. Reach for a new flavor by adding:
    • Smoked paprika
    • Fresh or dry dill
    • Chopped basil
    • An Italian spice blend
  3. Don’t guess at added salt. The recommended amount of salt in a day is less than one teaspoon. You might be surprised by how much that is. When you are cooking, reach for the measuring spoon instead of eyeballing the salt. Try to use half the amount or less of the salt the recipe calls for. When you are adding salt at the table, don’t sprinkle out of the shaker. You can try these methods:
    • Place a ¼ teaspoon of salt in your hand. Observe how much space that amount of salt takes. Take a pinch of salt and add it to your food.
    • Use a container and very small scoop for your salt, or sprinkle the salt on your spoon first. Seeing the amount of salt can help you be aware of how much you are using.
  4. Ask for less salt. When you are eating out you can ask for your dish to be made without extra salt. Another option is to ask for the sauce or dressing to be served on the side. You might find that you don’t eat as much of the dressing when you dress your own salad. Sauces and dressing tend to be where salt is added.
  5. Stay hydrated. Also remember to keep your body well hydrated. You may crave salt after working out, an illness or surgery. Try a glass of cool water with lime or lemon and a natural electrolyte replacement. You may find that when you quench your thirst, you no longer want the extra salt.
  6. Plan your meals in advance. Processed and convenience foods tend to be high in salt. Meal planning is an ideal way to add foods into your diet that are lower in sodium.

20 Satisfying, Low Salt Snacks

These 20 healthy and satisfying low salt snacks will help you next time you are craving a salty, crunchy mini-meal. Try replacing:

  1. Salted peanuts with unsalted almonds
  2. A fruit and nut bar with apples and nut butter (check the label for no added salt)
  3. Flavored popcorn with unsalted popcorn flavored with dill, chili powder or cinnamon
  4. Potato chips with carrot sticks dipped in olive oil, balsamic vinegar and thyme
  5. Pork rinds with snow peas
  6. An ice cream sandwich with banana and almond butter
  7. A popsicle with orange slices
  8. Ice cream with yogurt mixed with nuts and berries
  9. Commercial trail mix with homemade trail mix (mix unsalted almonds, peanuts, sunflower seeds. Toss with a drizzle of olive oil and cinnamon)
  10. Tortilla chips and salsa with cucumber slices and salsa (check the label for low sodium)
  11. Crackers and dip with celery sticks and hummus
  12. Pepperoni sticks with low sodium deli meat, wrapped with a lettuce leaf
  13. A bag of goldfish crackers with low sodium tuna scooped up with cucumber slices
  14. A cup of pudding with a homemade fruit salad (apples, oranges, grapes, melon)
  15. A milkshake with a fresh smoothie made with milk (or milk alternative), greens, ½ cup of fruit and a splash of vanilla extract
  16. Pretzels with pear slices and low sodium cheese
  17. An oatmeal cookie with a bowl of oatmeal served with fresh berries
  18. A can of soda with a cup of sparkling water and lime juice
  19. A donut with fresh watermelon slices
  20. An order of French fries with veggies such as cherry tomatoes, celery, carrots or cucumbers dipped in a low sodium ranch dressing

Give your body nutritious and delicious options for snacks and meals. By loading up on whole fruits, vegetables, nuts and meat you are meeting your body’s need for fuel.

Resources

Cut Down on Sodium

Sodium

DASH Eating Plan

Health Facts: Sodium and Potassium

The Salt Solution: Cutting Back on Sodium

Mayo Clinic: High Blood Pressure

Why Do I Crave Salt?

American Heart Association: Effects of Excess Sodium Infographic

Action on Salt

Health Benefits of Salt

The seasoning we all love to hate

Sodium is an essential micronutrient that regulates blood pressure and blood volume, is vital for the transport of carbon dioxide, muscle contraction, nerve transmission and amino acid transport.1 Excess sodium can result in adverse effects such as high blood pressure which predisposes to hypertension and heart disease. However, a sodium deficiency can be just as detrimental to your health. Here are a few of the reasons why you shouldn’t eliminate sodium from your diet entirely.

Water Balance

Sodium helps to regulate fluid levels in the human body. The balance between sodium and potassium ions helps maintain water balance in your cells.

Brain Function

The brain is very sensitive to change in sodium levels as it works to improve brain function. Deficiency of sodium often manifests as confusion and lethargy.2 A severe deficiency may even lead to convulsions or a coma. Keeping your sodium levels balanced is key.

Muscle Cramps

These are caused mostly due to electrolyte imbalance and dehydration. The balance between sodium and potassium ions helps in preventing muscle pains, spasms, and cramps. Along with properly hydrating the body, it is also important to restore the amount of electrolytes.

Anti-aging

Sodium defends against the free radicals that accelerate the aging process. Salt water helps to relieve dry and itchy skin and balances oily skin.3 It facilitates quick healing by opening up the pores, improving circulation and hydrating the tissues.

Carbon Dioxide Transport

Sodium plays an important role in the removal of any excess carbon dioxide that has accumulated in the body. Excess CO2 has been linked to central nervous system damage and permanent deterioration of respiratory functions.4

Sources:

1. Pharmacists’ Letter eds. Natural Medicine Comprehensive Database online edition.

The Health Benefits of Cutting Salt

A computer model suggests that even a modest reduction in salt intake could significantly reduce the number of deaths nationwide from coronary heart disease.

High blood pressure, or hypertension, is a serious condition that can lead to coronary heart disease, heart failure, stroke, kidney failure and other health problems. About 1 in 3 adults in the United States has hypertension.

Blood pressure can be reduced by lowering dietary sodium. Experts recommend that people consume less than 2,400 milligrams of sodium a day—that’s what’s in about 6 grams of salt, or about a teaspoon. People with high blood pressure should shoot for 1,500 milligrams or less—about 3.7 grams of salt. However, the average man in the United States takes in over 10 grams of salt per day and the average woman over 7.

While some dietary sodium comes from people sprinkling salt on their food, about three-quarters comes from processed food, including breads and cereals, dairy products and processed meats. To limit dietary sodium, people need to read food labels carefully.

Some countries have reduced their populations’ salt intake by using various strategies, such as regulating the salt content in processed foods, requiring labels on ready-to-eat foods and educating the public. Researchers led by Dr. Kirsten Bibbins-Domingo at the University of California, San Francisco, set out to explore the potential impact of a modest reduction in dietary salt on the health of the U.S. population.

The researchers built on the Coronary Heart Disease Policy Model, a computer simulation of heart disease in U.S. adults 35 to 84 years old. The data for the model came from several studies. These include the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, the Framingham studies conducted and supported by NIH’s National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute (NHLBI), and trials testing the effects of reduced salt on blood pressure and heart disease, such as NHLBI’s Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension (DASH) trial. The new study was supported by NIH’s National Center for Research Resources (NCRR) and the American Heart Association.

As reported in the January 20, 2010, online edition of the New England Journal of Medicine, the scientists found that reducing salt intake by 3 grams per day could cut the number of new cases of coronary heart disease each year by as many as 120,000, stroke by 66,000 and heart attack by nearly 100,000. It could also prevent up to 92,000 deaths each year. All segments of the population would benefit, with African-Americans having the greatest improvements overall. Women would particularly benefit from reductions in stroke, older adults from reductions in coronary heart disease and younger adults from lower mortality rates.

Reducing salt intake by 3 grams per day would save the country up to $24 billion in health care costs a year, the researchers estimated. Even a modest reduction of 1 gram per day between 2010 and 2019 would be more cost-effective than using medications to lower blood pressure in people with high blood pressure.

“Our study suggests that the food industry and those who regulate it could contribute substantially to the health of the nation by working toward reducing the amount of salt in the processed foods that all of us consume,” Bibbins-Domingo says.

—by Harrison Wein, Ph.D.

The Paradox And Mystery Of Our Taste For Salt

Bali sea salt and a spoonful of Hawaiian red alae salt. Jim Noelker/AP hide caption

toggle caption Jim Noelker/AP

Bali sea salt and a spoonful of Hawaiian red alae salt.

Jim Noelker/AP

Salt is one of those dangerously tasty substances. We add the magical crystals of sodium chloride to almost everything that we cook or bake, and according to many public health experts, we add too much.

They want us to cut back, to lower our risk of heart attacks or strokes.

Yet when you really start looking for ways to do this, you run into a paradox and a scientific puzzle.

First, the paradox. Too much salt may kill us, but our bodies need some of it to survive.

“If you don’t keep up your sodium level in your body, you will die,” explains Paul Breslin, a researcher at the Monell Center, a research institute in downtown Philadelphia devoted to the senses of taste and smell. (Breslin also teaches at Rutgers University.)

At the same time, Breslin continues, “there’s no question that people who have high salt intakes are at risk for a heart attack and stroke and death, and that lowering their salt intake will save lives. In Finland, when they lowered the salt intake, stroke and heart attack rates went way down, and mortality went way down.”

There are skeptics who discount the relevance of the Finnish example. The average person in Finland, at that time, was eating a lot more salt than Americans typically do. The anti-salt campaign brought that level down to around the global average. The skeptics say, for most of us, that average level of salt consumption may be just fine.

But both the World Health Organization and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are calling on people around the world to cut salt consumption even more. The average American, they say, should cut their intake of salt by a third.

This won’t be easy, because people like salt. It makes many foods taste better.

This is where we get to salt’s mystery. Scientists aren’t exactly sure how much of our taste for salt is nature, and how much is nurture.

On the one hand, Breslin says, a massive international study of salt consumption around the world, conducted in the 1980s, suggests maybe we’re born with it. “All across the planet, with a few exceptions, most people consume more or less the same amount of sodium,” Breslin says.

The exception is people who can’t easily get salt, such as isolated tribes in Amazonia. Everywhere else — from small villages in China to Chicago, people consume similar amounts — much more than our bodies need.

If humanity’s taste for salt preference really is so universal, Breslin says, it’s going to be really hard for any government to convince people to use less of it.

On the other hand, there’s also some evidence that our preferences do shift, based on what’s around us.

Gary Beauchamp, director of the Monell Center, says the first evidence for this came from stories told by doctors who ordered patients with high blood pressure to switch to a low-sodium diet. Their patients reported that “it was awful at first, but after a while, it wasn’t so bad,” Beauchamp says. Their taste sensors seemed to adapt, a little bit the way our eyes adapt to a dark room.

In fact, Beauchamp says, after they did that for a while, “when they went back to their normal food, it was too salty.”

Beauchamp decided to carry out a more carefully monitored experiment to study this. He put people on a controlled, low-sodium diet, and they did adapt. “In about four to eight weeks, the amount of salt that they found optimal in soup or crackers declined by 40 or 50 percent.”

It seems to show that we can get used to foods with less salt in it. So we could be healthier, and still enjoy our food just as much.

The problem is, there’s no easy way to make this happen. Consumers aren’t captives who can be forced to adapt.

Most of the salt that we eat comes via food that somebody else makes for us, such as bread, sandwich meat and salad dressing, and the companies that make those products aren’t going to cut salt from them if they think it will drive consumers away.

“We’ll always make sure these products taste good,” says Todd Abraham, senior vice president for research and nutrition at Mondelez International, which makes Ritz crackers, Wheat Thins and Oreos. “If we produce products that are low-salt and consumers don’t buy them, we haven’t helped the American diet at all, because they’ll go to a different product that has higher levels of salt.”

A couple of years ago, a committee of scientists from the National Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Medicine called on the government to help solve this problem with regulations.

Regulations, they pointed out, could force all the food companies to bring down salt levels in unison. There would be no high-salt alternatives, and consumers would eventually adapt to the new taste.

Food industry executives like Abraham don’t like that idea. They say that such regulations are impractical. They also argue that regulations aren’t necessary, because big food companies now are acting on their own. They are reducing salt levels, slowly and silently, in many processed foods. They’re hoping that consumers won’t even notice.

Is Himalayan salt healthy?

First of all, it’s important to understand that all salts are essentially sodium-chloride. And it is high intakes of sodium-chloride that have been repeatedly found to raise blood pressure, which dramatically raises our risk of heart attacks, strokes, and many other serious health concerns.

Himalayan salt is a pink salt mined in the Himalayan Mountains. It is 95 to 98% sodium chloride. Its pink color appears largely due to traces of iron.

There is no reason to believe that Himalayan salt or any other sea salt is any better than iodized table salt despite the fact that it may cost 100 times more than table salt.

Is Himalayan salt healthy? There is no reason to believe that Himalayan salt is any better than table salt despite the fact that it may cost 100 times more than table salt.

Both the American Heart Association and the Pritikin Longevity Center recommend that nearly all Americans consume no more than 1,500 milligrams of sodium per day. It doesn’t really matter whether that sodium comes largely from plain old iodized table salt or from pricey Himalayan sea salt. If you exceed that 1,500-milligram daily level of sodium, it is likely to contribute to:

  • Elevated blood pressure
  • Kidney stone formation
  • Osteoporosis
  • Atrophic gastritis (chronic inflammation of the stomach’s lining)
  • Acid reflux
  • Headaches
  • Senility
  • Strokes
  • Heart attacks
  • Heart failure
  • Kidney failure

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Salt (Sodium)

Most of the sodium in our diet comes from salt that has been added to the food we eat. Most Americans consume more than twice the recommended daily amount of salt. Too much salt increases the risk of high blood pressure, heart disease, and stroke. Decreasing sodium intake could prevent many deaths.

What you should know

  • The majority of the sodium Americans consume comes from processed and restaurant foods. Only a small portion is used in cooking or added at the table (in the form of table salt), and the rest occurs naturally in foods.
  • The average American eats about 2,900 to 4,300 mg of sodium, or about 6 to 10 grams of salt daily.
  • Most healthy adults should try to eat less than 2,300 mg of sodium per day.
  • African Americans, middle-aged and older adults, and people with high blood pressure, diabetes and/or kidney disease should eat less than 1,500 mg of sodium per day.
  • Research shows that gradual reductions in sodium (up to 10 percent per year) are not noticeable to the taste.
  • When reading the nutrition labels of prepared and packaged foods, watch for the words “soda” (referring to sodium bicarbonate, or baking soda) and “sodium” and the symbol “Na.” These products contain sodium compounds.
  • Sea salt has some health benefits – but won’t lower your sodium content. Both sea salt and table salt contain about 40 percent sodium.

What you can do to limit salt intake

  • Avoid adding salt to homemade dishes;
  • Use spices and herbs to flavor your food;
  • When you buy prepared and packaged foods, read the labels and buy those with less or no salt;
  • Eat more fresh food;
  • Select unsalted nuts or seeds, dried beans, peas and lentils;
  • Rinse canned vegetables under water before using;
  • Limit the amount of salty snacks you eat, like chips and pretzels;
  • When dining out, ask for your dish to be prepared without added salt.

Take it with a grain of salt

Published: November, 2006

Cutting back on our most common seasoning is a necessity for some people, but not for everyone.

“The history of the Americas is one of constant warfare over salt.”

“” Mark KurlanskySalt: A World History

Battles for the control of salt once pitted country against country, Cape Cod militiamen against British regulars, even the Union against the Confederacy. Although the physical fights are history, the salt wars still rage in the pages of medical journals and government recommendations.

The controversy boils down to one question: Should we all eat less salt?

Experts have been arguing about this for decades. It’s been a bitter and passionate fight, with little middle ground. One side says everyone needs to cut back on salt and that doing so would substantially reduce heart disease. The other side says universal salt reduction would have little effect on public health and would be a needless deprivation for most people.

Is salt a crystalline demon? A harmless treat for the taste buds? Or something in between? As we’re learning about so many things in medicine, there isn’t a simple right answer. How salt affects your blood pressure and health depends on your genes, your age, and your medical conditions.

Salt in circulation

To a chemist, salt is what you get when positive and negative ions enter each other’s orbit. To most everyone else, salt is sodium chloride, the white crystals left over when seawater evaporates. It’s the sodium in salt that causes most of the problems. One teaspoon of sodium chloride “” table salt “” contains 2,300 milligrams (mg) of sodium.

The human body can’t live without some sodium. It’s needed to transmit nerve impulses, contract and relax muscle fibers (including those in the heart and blood vessels), and maintain a proper fluid balance. It doesn’t take much to do this. The Yanomamo people of the Amazon rainforest get by on just 200 mg of sodium a day (about the amount found in one-tenth teaspoon of salt). By comparison, the average American gets 3,400 mg (about 1½ teaspoons of salt), while in northern Japan the daily intake is a whopping 26,000 mg (more than 11 teaspoons of salt).

When sodium is in short supply, a host of chemical and hormonal messages signal the kidneys and sweat glands to hold onto water and conserve sodium. When you get more sodium than you need, the kidneys flush out the excess by making more, or saltier, urine. If they can’t get rid of enough sodium, though, it accumulates in the fluid between cells. Water inevitably follows sodium, and as the volume of this fluid increases, so does the volume of blood. This means more work for the heart and more pressure on blood vessels. Over time, this can stiffen blood vessels, leading to high blood pressure, heart attack, or stroke. It can also lead to heart failure.

There is also some evidence that salt can directly affect the heart, aorta, and kidneys without necessarily increasing blood pressure.

Some people are exquisitely sensitive to salt “” their blood pressure rises and falls as a direct result of how much salt they get. Others don’t seem to be affected at all. Unfortunately, there isn’t an easy test to determine who is salt-sensitive.

A DASH of evidence

Hundreds of studies have looked at the connections between salt intake and blood pressure, heart disease, stroke, and mortality. In general, they show that cutting back on salt lowers blood pressure and reduces the chances of having a heart attack or stroke. The trouble with these studies is that virtually every one has flaws, which are pointed out immediately by those who disagree with the study’s conclusions. They are too short, too small, not like the real world, or influenced by factors other than sodium.

Some of the most compelling evidence that eating less salt can lower blood pressure comes from the Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension (DASH) trials. The first DASH trial showed that a diet rich in fruits, vegetables, low-fat dairy products, whole grains, beans, nuts, fish, and poultry lowered blood pressure in people with normal and high blood pressure. A follow-up trial added salt into the mix. It compared a DASH diet with a control diet that was much like the average American diet. Both also had three levels of sodium: high sodium, at 3,500 mg of sodium a day; moderate sodium, 2,300 mg; and low sodium, 1,100 mg. More than 400 volunteers followed their assigned diets for a month.

The DASH diet again proved better for blood pressure than the control diet. And across the board, the less sodium, the lower the systolic (the top number of a blood pressure reading) and diastolic (the bottom number) pressures. Lower sodium had the greatest effect in people with high blood pressure on the control diet, blacks on the control diet, and women on the DASH diet.

The low-sodium DASH diet worked best of all. Among volunteers assigned to this combination, systolic blood pressure was 8.9 mm Hg lower than it was among those on the high-sodium control diet, while diastolic pressure was 4.5 mm Hg lower. In an individual, that’s the equivalent of taking a medication to lower blood pressure. The study didn’t last long enough to see if this translated into less heart disease. Similar reductions, though, have been shown to reduce the risk of heart disease by 20% and stroke by 35%.

We’re all different

The overall results from the DASH trials and others harbor a fair amount of variation. In almost every experiment of salt reduction, while most volunteers’ blood pressure dropped, some participants experienced no change, and others actually saw their blood pressure rise.

The increases could be chalked up to variations in how, or when, blood pressure was measured in the studies. They might reflect the sometimes substantial day-to-day variations in blood pressure that we all have. They could also be real. In some people, lowering sodium intake could force the body to make more renin which, in turn, can increase levels of angiotensin, a protein that can boost blood pressure.

How low should you go?

There isn’t a one-size-fits-all recommendation for daily sodium intake. Some people definitely benefit from getting less. For others it won’t make much of a difference on blood pressure.

If you are under age 50, your blood pressure is in the healthy range (under 120/80), and your health is good, you have little reason to worry about dietary salt right now. That said, weaning your taste buds from their dependence on salt might be a good idea for down the road.

A lower-sodium diet is good for people who are older, who are of African American descent, who have high blood pressure or diabetes, or whose blood pressure is gradually creeping upward. The Institute of Medicine, the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, and the American Heart Association recommend limiting your sodium intake to no more than 2,300″”2,400 mg a day.

If you have heart failure, salt can cause or increase swelling. Too much salt can lead to hospitalization for powerful intravenous drugs to remove excess fluid. People with heart failure are usually advised to keep their sodium intake under 2,000 mg a day. People with kidney disease are usually instructed to do the same.

Sources of salt

Cutting back

Little of the salt we eat comes from the salt shaker, either in the kitchen or at the table (see “Sources of salt”). The bulk comes from food processing. Luncheon meats, pasta sauce, canned and dried soup, even commercially prepared baked goods pack plenty of sodium (see “Sodium in food”). Fast foods can be just as bad. At Burger King, a Whopper with cheese and a medium order of fries deliver 2,000 mg, or nearly a day’s worth of sodium.

Sodium in food

Most of the sodium we eat comes from packaged, processed, or prepared foods. Some items contain staggering amounts of it.

Food

Sodium

Swanson’s Hungry Man XXL Roasted Turkey, 1 package

5,410 mg

Dunkin’ Donuts salt bagel, 1 bagel

4,590 mg

Fried rice, 1 serving

2,680 mg

Salt, 1 teaspoon

2,300 mg

Oscar Mayer Lunchables Deluxe Turkey and Ham with Swiss and Cheddar, 1 package

1,940 mg

Soy sauce, 1 tablespoon

1,260 mg

Baking soda, 1 teaspoon

1,260 mg

Prepared pasta sauce, 1 cup

1,200 mg

Chicken noodle soup, diluted 1:1 with water, 1 cup

1,070 mg

Mott’s Mr. & Mrs. T Bloody Mary Mix, 6 ounces

1,050 mg

Sources: US Department of Agriculture National Nutrient Database and Center for Science in the Public Interest

The American Public Health Association, American Medical Association, and others have called for a national cutback on sodium. They want the FDA to revoke salt’s status as a “generally recognized as safe” ingredient. Doing that would let the agency regulate salt content in food. The organizations also want the food industry to reduce sodium in processed and restaurant food by at least 50% over the next decade.

Such measures face an uphill battle. The food industry has substantial clout on Capitol Hill. And consumers haven’t shown much interest in buying lower-salt foods.

For the foreseeable future, you are on your own if you want to “” or need to “” cut back on salt. Here are a few basic tips:

  • Read food labels and choose foods low in sodium.

  • Limit the use of canned, processed, and frozen foods.

  • When eating out, ask if items are prepared with salt; in fast food restaurants, ask for a nutrition information sheet.

  • Cook with herbs and spices instead of salt.

What about salt substitutes? Some are good, others can be tricky for some people.

Keep in mind that sodium is just one of many factors that influence your blood pressure and cardiovascular health. For the greatest gains in both, a broader focus on healthful eating, exercise, weight control, and stress reduction will have a bigger payoff.

Disclaimer:
As a service to our readers, Harvard Health Publishing provides access to our library of archived content. Please note the date of last review on all articles. No content on this site, regardless of date, should ever be used as a substitute for direct medical advice from your doctor or other qualified clinician.

Is Salt Good for You or Not?

Everyone loves sprinkling some salt over their fries. And salt seems to be a requirement in nearly every recipe, from baked goods to seasoned steaks to homemade sauces. Salt is about 40% sodium, which is an electrolyte the body needs to function properly, yet we always hear that sodium causes serious health issues like high blood pressure and heart disease. So, what’s the deal with salt — is it good or bad? The answer lies in the amount.

Is salt good for you or not? | Sebalos/iStock/Getty Images

Your body needs sodium to function

The primary source for sodium is salt, and your body needs sodium to function. Sodium is an electrolyte. It controls the flow of water in and out of our cells and sparks nerve impulses, both of which are necessary for us to live. Without sodium, the cells would either shrivel up and die or burst from being too full, since they wouldn’t have anything to control their water intake.

You might notice electrolytes when you sweat — they’re the reason your body feels like it has a salty coating on it when the sweat dries. When you sweat, electrolytes get deposited into your sweat glands, which has to do with your hydration levels. Once you’re done with a sweaty workout, you need to replenish your body with water and electrolytes.

Too much salt turns a good thing into a bad thing

It’s no secret that some added salt can make anything taste better. But Americans tend to add way too much to their food, and too much of a good thing can quickly become a bad thing. Although salt is necessary, too much of it can have adverse effects on your body. Since sodium is responsible for regulating water in and out of your cells, too much of it can mean that it pulls too much moisture out of your cells and holds excess fluid in your body. This makes the heart work harder, which can lead to problems like high blood pressure and eventually a heart attack.

The United States has a serious sodium problem

The reason you often hear salt is bad is because the U.S. eats far, far too much of it. According to the American Heart Association, your body only needs 500 milligrams of salt each day to sustain normal bodily functions. However, the average American eats 3,400 milligrams per day — that’s nearly seven times what your body needs. The AHA recommends no more than 1,500 milligrams per day, but it’s extremely hard to limit your salt intake with the American diet.

To put into perspective how much sodium you eat, here are a few ingredients and foods that might contain more sodium than you realized:

White bread: 150 milligrams per slice
Buffalo wing sauce: 460 milligrams per tablespoon
American cheese: 470 milligrams per slice
Soy sauce: 875 milligrams per tablespoon

If you pull out two slices of white bread from your pantry, you’ve already met 60% of the day’s sodium intake before any sandwich toppings. Indulge in one or two buffalo wings, and that’s more than 90%. And add one tablespoon of soy sauce to a recipe, and you’re at 175%. It’s incredibly easy to fill your diet with sodium, but it’s so important that you start keeping track of how much sodium your foods contain.

Indulging can happen once in a while, but try to keep your diet at no more than 1,500 milligrams per day. Fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and fresh meats (not cold cuts) are great low-sodium foods. And be careful with certain fish — lox, for example, often has around 700 milligrams of sodium per serving. And imitation crab meat, often used in sushi, can have more than 1,000 milligrams per serving. Sodium in moderation is good for you, but in excess, it can cause serious health problems.

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