If you’re confused about salt and the role it plays in health, you are not alone. I’ve gotten a number of e-mails recently asking for some clarification on salt, which is not surprising. Anyone with high blood pressure has probably been told to “watch salt intake.” But what does that mean? And why is salt bad? Don’t we need salt to be healthy?
Let’s take those questions one at a time. First of all, salt is an absolute necessity for our bodies to function properly. But that said, there are two things you need to know. One, moderation is the key. Too much or too little salt (also known by its chemical name, sodium) can both be damaging to your health. A heavy hand with the salt shaker can contribute to serious conditions, including high blood pressure, which can lead to increased likelihood of heart attack, stroke, ulcers, stomach cancer, osteoporosis, as well as autoimmune disorders, such as rheumatoid arthritis, Type 1 diabetes, and multiple sclerosis. Excessive salt intake is a worldwide problem, one that has prompted the World Health Organization (WHO) to list reducing salt intake as one of its top 10 “best buys” for lowering the rates of chronic diseases.
Why Balanced Sodium is So Important
Conversely, too little salt may create a condition known as hyponatremia. If both too much and too little salt are risky, clearly we have a situation where balance is important. Here’s why:
Salt, or sodium, is an electrolyte that helps manage water supplies in and around your cells. Certain medical conditions, as well as drinking excessive amounts of water during intense workouts, can disturb the delicate balance. If that balance is disturbed, water levels in the body may increase, and cells can swell. This is especially hard on the brain, because there’s very little room inside our skulls for the cells to expand.
Symptoms of hyponatremia include:
- Abdominal cramps
- Heart palpitations
- Low blood pressure
- Fatigue or feelings of exhaustion
- Muscle cramps, spasms, or weakness
- Feelings of irritability or restlessness
Please don’t stress over these symptoms, though. Hyponatremia is a rare condition. For most people, too much of the wrong type of salt is a much greater problem.
How Much Salt is Right for You?
The highly respected Institute of Medicine (IoM) recommends most Americans limit salt intake to between 1,500 mg and 2,300 mg of sodium daily. If you are in any of the following groups, though, you should stay as close to the 1,500 mg mark as possible to maintain good health. These groups include:
- Individuals age 51 or older
- Those of African American descent
- People with high blood pressure
- Individuals with diabetes or chronic kidney disease
Meanwhile, the IoM also recommends eating more fruits and vegetables. These foods, which are rich in potassium, can help reduce the impact of excessive sodium intake. Aim for 4,700 mg of potassium from food daily.
Potassium and sodium must be balanced within the body to ensure healthy blood pressure and cardiovascular function. Our ancestors ate a diet with a sodium to potassium ratio of 1:2. Today, the ratio is 5:1. Fixing that imbalance can make a major difference in blood pressure.
Potassium is found in nearly all fruits and vegetables. Increasing your intake of these foods should make it fairly easy to get the recommended 4,700 mg of potassium daily. Supplements are available, but the government has limited the amount of potassium they may contain to 99 mg. As a result, eating more produce is a much easier way to meet the target.
This list of potassium-rich foods may help. Serving sizes are for one cup, unless otherwise noted:
Potassium Content (mg)
Baked potato (one whole with skin) 1081 Lima beans 955 Sweet potato, cooked 950 Canned tomato sauce 900 Winter squash 896 Cooked spinach 840 Papaya (one medium) 781 Prune juice 707 Halibut (4 oz.) 653 Canned white beans (1/2 cup) 600 Banana 594 Plain, low-fat yogurt 579 Raisins (1/2 cup) 544 Avocado (3 oz.) 540 Cooked beets 519 Broccoli, cooked 505 Brussels sprouts, cooked 504 Trout (4 oz.) 500 Orange juice 496 Cantaloupe 494 Chick peas, cooked 477 Honeydew melon 461 Salmon (4 oz.) 425 Almonds (4 oz.) 412 Dried apricots (10 halves) 407 Milk, skim or fat-free 407 Canned kidney beans (1/2 cup) 400 Canned pinto beans (1/2 cup) 400 Cooked lentils 400
On days when it’s difficult to consume the 7 to 9 servings of fruits and veggies, you can use a green food supplement to make up for it. Green food supplements also help reduce acidity, and patients tell me that simple change makes a big difference in how they feel.
How Modern Salt Has Changed the Game
The second thing you need to know about salt is this: As with so many other foods today, salt is not what it used to be. The salt we need is not the refined white powdery substance typically stocked by supermarkets. Conventional salt is devoid of minerals and has been treated with chemicals to create the snowy white powder most of us consider salt. Not surprisingly, this chemically whitened, mineral-free salt is what’s used in prepared, processed foods and conventional seasoning mixes.
Unfortunately, the minerals that are missing from ordinary salt – potassium and magnesium, in particular — help maintain healthy blood pressure and reduce your body’s acidity. Healthy salt, on the other hand, can be found in unrefined products labeled sea salt, Himalayan salt, or Celtic salt, to name a few of the better choices. These types of natural salt may contain more than 90 different trace minerals that assist in various bodily functions.
There are also enhanced salt products available. Sometimes called “lite” salt, these include added minerals, like potassium or magnesium. These products all cost a little more than conventional refined salt, but they are well worth it, in my opinion.
How Too Much Salt Harms Your Health
High blood pressure may be the best-known consequence of eating a salty diet. High blood pressure is a serious concern, linked to stroke and heart disease. In addition, eating a diet high in salt can cause liver and/or kidney disease, edema (swelling in various parts of the body), and potassium deficiency.
Recently, scientists have discovered another, equally serious consequence of consuming too much salt — autoimmune disorders, such as Type 1 diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis, and multiple sclerosis. This does not mean that cutting back on salt can cure these diseases. But the researchers did note that excessive amounts of salt appear to make the conditions worse.
The Top Ten Saltiest Foods
Not surprisingly, many of the Top Ten are processed or prepared foods that not only raise blood pressure but also contribute to weight gain, heart disease, and cancer.
- Potato chips and similar salted snacks
- Burgers and meatloaf
- Canned soups
- Commercial pizza
- Cured meats, like hot dogs, bacon, and cold cuts
- Breads and rolls
- Chicken, fresh and prepared
- Most frozen prepared meals and side dishes
If you bake, please be aware that baking soda contains substantial amounts of sodium, as much as 150 mg in just 1/8th of a teaspoon! There are salt-free alternatives that work just as well, though. Try searching for “sodium-free baking soda” to learn more.
Why Nutrition Labels Are Your Friends
Anyone eating the Standard American Diet (SAD) of processed and prepared food is getting far too much sodium. But you have to read nutrition labels to know that, because, as you’ll see in the list below, some of the most serious offenders are not foods that we typically think of as being particularly salty.
SODIUM PER SERVING
|Packaged macaroni and cheese||2,000 mg in one cup|
|Frozen turkey TV dinner||1,230 mg|
|Soy sauce (“liquid salt”)||914 mg in one tbsp|
|Popular soups such as Campbell’s or Progresso||900 mg in 1 cup|
|Canned corn||475 mg in one cup|
|“Heart Healthy” reduced sodium soup||470 mg in 1 cup|
|Canned beans||433 mg in 1 cup|
|Frozen vegetables||430 mg in one cup|
|Cherry pie||400 mg in one slice|
|Canned chicken breast||320 mg in ¼ cup|
|Corn flakes||320 mg in one ounce|
|Salsa||230 mg in one tbsp|
|Canned fruit||178 mg in one cup|
|Yogurt||125 mg in one cup|
If you’re in the over-50 age category and should be limiting sodium intake to 1,500 mg daily, that means no more than 500 mg of sodium per meal. Yet clearly, even one cup of packaged macaroni and cheese puts you over the limit for the entire day!
A few products offer “reduced sodium” or “no salt added” versions. Check the labels carefully, though. Some of these foods still contain fairly high levels of sodium. Even supposedly healthy foods can be loaded with sodium.
And don’t overlook the power of supplemental greens when it comes to balancing sodium intake. Let’s face it – no one’s perfect – and there will be days when even the most well-intentioned person just isn’t able to get all the right foods into his or her diet. A green food supplement can provide you with the nutrients that help counteract too much salt, as well as a long list of other beneficial substances.
Considering the potentially serious downsides of overdoing it with the salt, I do hope you’ll take some time this coming week to look at the sodium content of packaged and prepared foods, especially those in your own cupboards. When dining out, get in the habit of asking your server about low-salt dishes. Just becoming aware of salt’s impact on your body and making small changes to avoid excesses are essential steps for anyone who wants to stay healthy.