Q&A: Is too much salt bad for you?
Is too much salt bad for you?
In true Vinka style I could not answer this question quickly!! This is because salt can be a tricky issue to talk about as there is so much conflicting information circulating. To find the truth we need to understand a few things.
Firstly….Sodium, one half of salt, is an essential nutrient. It’s vital for cellular function, nutrient absorption in the digestive tract, kidney health, adrenal function, and cardiac health. Sodium is an electrolyte, it plays a role in maintaining a normal blood pH, regulating the amount of water in your body, conducting nerve impulses, and controlling muscle contractions including your heart muscle.
If salt is so important then why are we told to reduce it? The usual criticism against salt is that too much of it causes hypertension (raised blood pressure), in turn elevating the risk of a heart attack or stroke. But recent research has shown that there is a “J-shaped relationship” between cardiovascular risk and sodium. This means that low-sodium diets and very high-sodium diets both carry a higher risk of heart disease.
So what does this mean for the humble salt? Well, for starters, not all salts are the same and choosing the right one is key.
How to pick the right salt
The refined table and cooking salt we use is almost completely devoid of nutrition: it is a chemical substance which can contribute to oedema, excess weight, high blood pressure, kidney disease, liver congestion and arteriosclerosis, as well as muscle weakness and calcium store depletion.
During the refining process, up to eighty-two trace minerals and essential nutrients are destroyed by the 1200-degree heating process, leaving only one compound – sodium chloride.
But it’s not only what the manufacturers take out during the refining process; it’s what they put in. The additives are bleaches and anti-caking agents, such as calcium phosphate monabasic (341), sodium aluminosilicate (554), and aluminium calcium silicate (556).
But you don’t have to eat refined salt. Instead you can pick up some unrefined sea salt or Himalayan rock salt at your local supermarket. It’s not sparkling white like refined salt, but it’s better for you. These unrefined salts retain more nutrients, such as magnesium, potassium and calcium. And in my humble opinion it tastes soooo much better!
How to identify hidden salt
Apart from the obvious salt names on the ingredient list here are other refined salts to be aware of; Disodium guanylate, disodium inosinate, sodium bicarbonate, sodium nitrate, sodium citrate, sodium chloride, sodium diacetate, sodium erythorbate, sodium glutamate, sodium lactate, sodium lauryl sulfate, sodium metabisulfite, sodium phosphate trisodium phosphate. As you can see the current theme is sodium.
Some other important factors...the relationship between sodium and potassium
Sodium and potassium are both what are known as ‘ions.’ Ions are electrically charged chemicals that help to power your cells and are used by neurons to communicate.
Your body needs the right balance of sodium and potassium to function properly and they exist in a sort of balance – your body pulls potassium into your cells and pushes sodium out to generate an electrical charge that powers your neurons. Your body also relies on both nutrients for proper fluid balance and to maintain healthy kidney function.
If you have too much sodium (AKA salt) and not enough potassium it can lead to problems with your blood pressure. Sodium can cause your body to retain water – the higher your fluid levels, the higher your blood pressure which is why your kidneys try to lend a hand by filtering your blood and excreting excess fluid as urine.
The problem is, your kidneys need the right balance of potassium and sodium for this to be possible and if you have too much sodium and not enough potassium it throws things out of balance. On the same note though, too much potassium and not enough sodium can cause health problems such as muscle weakness or in some cases, hyperkalemia which can affect your heart health!
How much salt is enough?
How much sodium you need and how it affects you will vary from individual to individual. If you suffer from high blood pressure or have a history of hypertension then yes, keeping an eye on your intake is probably a sensible idea. However, at the same time, some of us may need more sodium than others.
If you exercise regularly, for example, the chances are you’re going to be working up a sweat, which means that you’ll be losing essential electrolytes such as potassium and sodium. That’s why some athletes are likely to need slightly more sodium in their diets in comparison to those that lead a more sedentary lifestyle.
My advice would be to try and walk a line between the two extremes – make sure you’re not consuming too much salt but more importantly, be aware of where your salt intake is coming from. If it’s primarily from processed foods and the stuff that sits on your dinner table, it may be time to shake things up a bit. Replace your table salt with a healthier alternative and cut down on refined carbohydrates and processed meats to ensure that you’re not exceeding the recommended daily amount and try to include more potassium-friendly foods in your diet!
Take it with a pinch of salt!