Are we eating too much salt? Is salt bad for our health, and what can we do to reduce our salt intake?
What is Salt
Salt is basically sodium chloride (NaCl) and consists of approximately 40 per cent sodium and 60 per cent chloride. Salt is commonly used to season food and to preserve food.
The taste of salt is highly addictive and we are programmed to enjoy the taste of salt as its intake was always important for our survival. The problem today is that most of us consume too much salt in our diets and this could put us at risk of some serious health issues.
Salt is often present naturally in many of our foods but is often added quite generously in many of our processed and restaurant foods.
Sodium itself is an important mineral which is essential for optimal functioning of the muscles and nerves. Sodium is one of our bodies electrolytes, creating electrically charged ions for our muscles and nerves. It also helps your body maintain adequate water and mineral balance along with chloride.
The kidneys help regulate our sodium levels by increasing and decreasing the amount excreted when we urinate. We also lose sodium when we sweat.
Eating too much salt can have unpleasant effects.
How much salt should I consume every day?
We should try and consume up to no more than 1 teaspoon or 6 grams of salt each day.
Increasing your salt intake Increasing your salt intake, may make you feel swollen or bloated. This is because your kidneys are determined to maintain a specific amount of sodium to water balance in your body. To do this, your kidneys hold on to more water in your body, to balance the extra salt you are eating.
This increased water retention can cause swelling, especially in the hands and feet, and can make you weigh more than average.
Increase in Blood Pressure
Eating more salt in your food may increase the amount of water your body retains, therefore your blood vessels will be carrying more volume around your body. This may lead to an increase in blood pressure. Different people have different levels of salt sensitivity, and this affected by genetics and hormones, but also how rich in potassium their diet is (potassium can help change your sensitivity to salt). Conversely eating a low salt diet can help lower your blood pressure level.
High salt diets can also lead to an increased risk of obesity.
Other ways to decrease blood pressure include exercising and eating healthy fresh and whole foods which are rich in potassium and magnesium, which can also reduce our salt sensitivity. Reducing Alcohol Consumption will also help to reduce blood pressure.
Increase in Thirst Levels
If you don’t drink enough water, you may actually start to crave salt. Salt in turn makes your mouth feel dry and will make you feel more thirsty. This is your body trying to encourage you to drink more so it can hold onto more water and better balance the sodium to water ratio. Drinking more will then make you urinate more.
If you don’t drink more whilst consuming a high salt containing diet, can cause a high level of sodium in the blood and a condition known as hypernatremia. Symptoms of this condition include sleeping problems and restlessness.
If you are dehydrated, you may start to feel these symptoms:
- Headaches and feeling dizzy
- Feeling irritable
- Increase in heart rate
- Skin loses elasticity (try pinching the skin on the back of your hand and see if it goes back to normal quickly or not)
- Cramps and muscle spasms
Craving salt could be one way your body is trying to cope with stress levels. Eating more salt causing lower levels of cortisol, a hormone produced by the adrenal glans that helps control stress levels.
Stomach cancer risk
Salt rich diets can increase the risk of developing stomach cancer. This might be because the salt increases the risk of damaging the stomach linking and therefore developing stomach ulcers and inflammation in the stomach lining, which could then develop into a stomach cancer. Eating salty foods can increase the amount of bacteria Helicobacter pylori, which can lead to inflammation and gastric ulcers.
High salt diets can cause high blood pressure and a hardening of the arteries, which can cause heart disease. Other factors that may cause heart disease are weight, salt sensitivity and other conditions the person may have.
Reducing the Effect of a high salt diet
If your diet includes regular salt rich foods, you can add foods which are rich in potassium. Potassium helps your body maintain a good body fluid balance. These foods include:
Which foods to avoid
Processed foods and restaurant meals tend to contain a lot of salt. It is estimated that 75% of the salt in our diet comes from these sources. If you focus on increasing your fresh food intake, you can help control your salt consumption. Foods to avoid include;
- Instant soups
- Processed meats
- Pickled foods
- Salted snacks (crisps, chips, popcorn)
- Restaurant food
Foods to help replace the taste of salt in your food
Adding garlic to your food, whether fresh or roasted, adds a lot of flavour to your meal and can therefore help you reduce the salt you add to your food.
Adding freshly ground black pepper to your food can give you that flavour which you lose from reducing the salt intake.
These are full of flavour and can copy the flavour we get from salt, these include;
- apple cider vinegar
- red wine vinegar
- rice wine vinegar
- balsamic vinegar
Lemon, Lime and oranges
A slice of lemon added to your chicken can trick your taste buds into thinking they are tasting salt.
Eating Fewer Calories
Eating Fewer Calories is often a good way to reduce your salt intake. Through reducing the amount of calories we take in, we will reduce the amount of sodium. Eating less will also help us lose weight and reduce blood pressure.