To salt or not to salt? – That is the question!

I have recently  started putting some conscious effort into reducing the amount of salt I eat. Even though my diet could look fairly healthy, I realized I am still eating too much salt. Salted nuts and halloumi cheese are my weakness that I am continuously fighting with. I lose this battle more often than I win though 😀

Salt (or sodium chloride) is one of the most important minerals and primary electrolytes in our bodies that regulate hydration, blood PH and is also very important for nerve and muscle function.

135 – 144 milliequivalents per liter (mEq/L) of sodium in our blood is considered to be a normal range and  if it drops much below it can be quite a dangerous situation resulting in muscle cramps, nausea, dizziness. Exercise-induced hyponatremia is also a common condition especially among endurance athletes – think of an ultramarathoner or Ironman athlete racing for 5-10 hours in extreme heat and not an average gym-goer working out for 45 min even if sweating buckets.

Out bodies excrete sodium through sweat and urination and daily intake of salt is definitely necessary. But how much is too much?

Dietary Guidelines for Americans  recommend the upper limit of 2,300 mg of sodium per day with an average intake of 1,500 mg for a vast majority of population. There is a lot of argument about these figures but I suggest let us stick with the official position for the sake of this post. How much is 2300 mg of salt?  – Its roughly a teaspoon. If you think you are eating less than that – think twice. 

Majority of people out there consume way more sodium that their body needs mostly because of the extremely high sodium content in the processed and prepacked foods that have become a staple of today’s diet. Many vegetables naturally contain a little bit of sodium as well, for example there is around 35 gm in a carrot and 50 gm in a cup of kale however this is not a problem as it is really hard to overload on sodium from veggies.

Now let us have a look at an average sodium content of some other foods:

Sodium content table

These values are quite indicative, aren’t they? Canned and processed foods contain extremely high levels of sodium as it is being used as a preservative and a taste booster. As a matter of fact, on average we get more salt from processed foods than we add when cooking at home. And if something doesn’t taste salty it does not necessarily mean it does not have any sodium in it!

Diagram below is showing the actual sodium consumption by American population as compared to the prescribed norm of 1,500 mg. Excess sodium consumption is associated both directly and indirectly with high blood pressure, heart disease, stroke, kidney failure, osteoporosis and a bunch of other rather unpleasant things. Usually the problem is two-fold: as a rule those consuming too much salt in their diets will also be eating a lot of highly processed foods containing saturated fats, trans fats, sugars and preservatives. .

Source: Dietary guidelines for Americans, 2010

Source: Dietary guidelines for Americans, 2010

So whats the take – to salt or not to salt?

  • First of all, optimum salt intake really depends on each individual. If you are eating a lot of canned and processed food – you most likely will benefit from reduction of salt intake. On the other hand someone who is eating a generally healthy diet of lean meat, vegetables and fruit need not worry too much and can be sure that an occasional bag of chips or a cheeseburger will not kill them. As far as athletes are concerned, they might require a little more than an average person especially post long workout sessions to restore the electrolyte balance. 
  • By reducing the amount of processed food you are eating on daily basis you will not only cut down the salt, but also other harmful stuff mentioned earlier. And really, it is hard to reduce sodium intake and keep processed foods as your main diet, so better get down to cleaning your pantry and fridge!
  • Try using sea salt when cooking and ditch the white table varieties. White table salt is just like sugar – highly refined and processed and does not contain any other minerals except for Sodium Chloride while natural sea salt can contains other minerals as well, so it is marginally better.
  • Another important thing to do is to read food labels. A lot of people do pay attention to caloric value of food and how much fat or carbs they get but hardly anyone looks at the sodium content. Try to pick those foods that have less than 5% of daily sodium intake in them.
  • No not add unnecessary salt to your food and use herbs, spices and lemon juice to enhance the taste of your dish. Lots of people love the taste of salted food and cannot imagine their life without putting a pinch of salt in everything. All you need to do is just try eating without salt for a week or two and it will literally train your taste buds to love the taste of unsalted food and you will not crave it that much any more.

Just give it a try for a week and chances are you will even lose some water weight since high salt intake normally causes retention of fluid. I am sure many of you heard that bodybuilders manipulate salt in the diets before the contest to flush water out and help achieve that chiseled look? I am not saying you should follow this or that this practice is healthy, but it is a good example of how extra salt can retain water in our bodies. Another good example will be how yours truly, in her stupid teenage years, tried a salt intestinal flush and got swollen like a baloon, but that is too personal and embarassing 😀

5 thoughts on “To salt or not to salt? – That is the question!

    1. Tania_tc Post author

      Long runs are the worst! After the last one I could not stop eating my favorite holloumi and my BF had to literally rip the packet out of my hands to stop me 😀

      Reply
  1. leannenalani

    Thanks for the sodium info. I looked up my sodium intake this past week and was pleasantly surprised to be under 1200mg a day! It must be because I avoid processed foods most of the time.

    Reply
  2. fitin52

    Drinking a lot of water also helps to flush out any excess sodium. I remember once hearing there’s an actual ratio for it (like for every certain amount of salt, drink and extra certain amount of water) but I don’t remember what it is now. I just drink water like a camel anyway 🙂

    Reply

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