Salt. There is much to say about this oldtimer on the dinner table. It was once a highly valuable item. Sometimes it was even traded for gold 1:1 and often used as a method of payment. Roman soldiers received salt as their salary. The word ‘salary’ thanks its name to salt. Our ancestors used salt as a way to preserve foods for longer periods of time. These days it is a lot easier to get and a lot cheaper as well. This comes with new challenges. Is eating too much salt bad for you? And how much salt should we really eat? And what about the health benefits and/or dangers of salt? Here is a somewhat sciency post about salt.
First a short introduction. Salt comes from sea water. When the water evaporates, salt is what is left behind. Adults need (under ‘normal’ circumstances, meaning not too warm and not too cold) about 6 grams of salt per day. For young children that’s from 2 grams per day for 1 to 3 year olds, to 5 for 7-10 year olds. In between, 3 grams per day is enough.
Salt is made up of two elements, of which one is chloride. Chloride is needed to make hydrochloric acid in the stomach and for a good balance of electrolytes and water in the body. There hasn’t been done a lot of research to the effects of high (too much) chloride intake, but there seems to be a link with potassium. The two of them together seem to have an interesting effect on the effects of high intake of sodium.
The other element in salt is sodium (natrium). Sodium is essential for us and daily we need about 115 mg of it for several very important processes in our bodies. Think about adrenal function, absorption of nutrients, cellular functions, it regulates the pH of your blood and the amount of water your body and cardiac health. These are just a few examples.
Too much sodium is said to be dangerous because it raises blood pressure, but high blood pressure in itself is not dangerous per se. It is merely a risk factor. Besides that, studies have shown that restricting sodium has no significant effects on disease. Too little potassium on the other hand, seems to have a much greater effect on blood pressure when you also take too much sodium. In general, therefor it is important to eat more potassium.
So, too much sodium doesn’t seem to have too big of effects. Too little, on the other hand, can be very harmful. In short, too little sodium is found to increase the ‘bad’ cholesterol LDL and triglycerides, it has shown to increase insulin resistance, cause the potentially very dangerous hyponatremia in athletes (a sodium deficiency). In type II diabetes patients it is associated with an increased risk in death.
Naturally there is no iodine in salt, but because we need it and tend to eat to little of it, it is often added to table salts and usually also in bread and other products that you can buy in the store. But, because most people buy a lot of processed foods, we tend to eat too much of it. Therefor it is recommended to limit your intake of foods where salt is added.
Instead of buying a microwave meal, buy the natural ingredients and make it yourself. Always keep natural sea salt in the kitchen. I have been using pink himalayan salt (the pink stuff) for a long time now and I love it. The natural stuff is not only healthier, but also stronger in flavour so you need less of it. However, there is also a chance that you might be getting too little iodine, according to this article by Discover Magazine, which states that iodine deficiency is the ‘leading cause of preventable mental redartation in the world.’ This does not only happen in developing countries, but in all countries where iodized salt is not commonly used.
Risks of eating too much or too little salt
Eating too much salt will stimulate your immune system, which can cause a lot of other issues inside your body. Research has shown that it can increase inflammation, and also the risk of (stomach) cancer is higher. It seems that it increases the risk of kidney disease and worsen it. Besides that, a salt intake that is too high increases the risk of death. But this doesn’t mean that you should cut back on salt drastically. On the contrary: eating too little salt comes with similar – even life threathening – risk: it can also increase the risk of death.
Symptoms of eating too little salt
It is important to recognize when you’re not eating enough salt. If you eat too little salt, and therefor have too little sodium in your blood, what you have is hyponatremia. The symptoms are for example muscle weakness, fainting, headaches, dizzyness, nausea and vomiting and fatigue. It can even cause constipation. Hyponatremia can also be caused by sickness (diarrhea), exercizing a lot (excessive sweating), if your thyroid isn’t function well (underactive thyroid) or if you’re using certain antidepressants or diuretics. Hyponatremia can be extremely dangerous!
Salt is crucial
We need salt to function well. And animals know this, as they are able to remember exactly where to find salt in nature (salt licks). It is even said that salt is a natural antidepressant. It gives us pleasure and therefor it is addictive. That’s probably why we tend to eat so much of it.
So how much salt should I eat?
1 to 2.5 teaspoons of salt is good for you, this is 3-7 grams of sodium. No more, no less. When reading labels, it is important that you look at the sodium content and not necessarily at the amount of salt in the product you buy. But they aren’t always listed separately. Just remember that 2,5 grams of salt equals about 1 gram of sodium.
So, if you want to figure out the amount of sodium, just divide the grams of salt by 2.5. Or if you can only see the amount of sodium and you want to figure out the amount of salt: multiply this by 2.5. For example: a product contains 2 grams of salt per 100 grams. 2/2.5=0.8 grams of sodium.
If the label says that, per 100 grams, there is about 1.5 grams of salt (or 0.6 grams of sodium), this is considered to be a high salt content food. The medium would be between 1,5 (or 0,6) and 0,3 (or 0,1) grams. Lower would be a low salt food. Always be aware of how much of a food you eat and figure out how much sodium you are actually taking in.
Like I said before: natural, unrefined sea salts are better to use. This is because they naturally contain a lot of trace minerals and you can benefit from this a lot more than from ‘normal’ table salt. Pink Himalayan salt, for example, naturally contains 84 minerals. Can’t really beat a multi vitamine, can it?!
How do you use salt? Share your tips in the comments!