What about Salt?
Monday, June 23, 2014
LifeTime WeightLoss in Becca Hurt, Nutrition, healthy way of eating, high blood pressure, nutrition recommendations, salt, sodium

For years we've been told that high salt intake leads to high blood pressure, heart disease and stroke. Lately, however, new research has muddied the water a bit with more nuanced findings around the impact of sodium on overall health, particularly in certain populations. Do we really need to cut out as much salt as possible? Should we simply throw out our salt shakers altogether? Is it really a question of "how low can you go," or do we need to maintain a certain level? Is sodium simply a flavoring, or does the body have a legitimate use for it? Read on to learn more about the role sodium plays in our functioning, and what considerations should influence how salt fits into our Healthy Way of Eating plan.

What IS salt?

First things first… What is salt, and what is sodium? Are they the same? (I also hear them used interchangeably.) “Salt” is made when a mineral combines with chloride (another mineral). Sodium chloride, the most common salt, occurs naturally and is found in sea water and underground salt deposits. It is what we use as table salt. “Sodium” is a beneficial mineral classified as an electrolyte because it carries an electrical charge (similar to potassium, magnesium, and calcium) that helps transmit nerve impulses in your body and is found in every cell. Sodium is one of two minerals found in table salt but comprises about 40% of it (chloride 60%). It is the balance between sodium and other ions that help regulate your blood pressure and heart muscle contraction.

If it’s from natural substances, why does it get a bad rap?

Salty foods are a weakness for many people, as are sweets. It's one of the flavors that we are naturally inclined to like and crave, especially during times when we’re very physically active or under a lot of stress. As many of us can attest to, these salty foods (often highly processed) are easily overconsumed. It’s one of the main reasons why health experts suggest limiting salt intake. Popcorn at the movies, a hot dog at a baseball game, chips and salsa while entertaining friends - the endless list of salt-filled foods that we are innately drawn to could go on for days. “Only” having a few chips easily turns into polishing off the bag without much effort, and that one slice of pizza soon becomes half the pizza if we’re not being mindful of how much we’re eating. Although these foods have very high sodium content and overconsumption can potentially rack up a few days’ worth of recommended sodium allowance, it’s not just the sodium that we should be watching. Unfortunately, however, that’s usually the loudest media message we hear at times. Not only are those processed foods high in sodium, which could be harmful to our health, they may also be higher in refined carbohydrates, high fructose corn syrup, artificial ingredients, trans-fats, and numerous other arguably more detrimental ingredients.

How do I know if I need to watch my salt intake?

The USDA urges Americans to consume less than 2300 mg of sodium per day (equivalent to 1 teaspoon). The American Heart Association recommends even stricter guidelines of less than 1500 mg for individuals with high blood pressure and/or heart disease. Before jumping on the bandwagon and thinking you need to switch to a low-sodium diet, however, be sure to analyze your food intake and consult a health care professional. Increasing research suggests that sodium isn’t necessarily the cause for everyone’s off-the-chart labs. Many recent studies demonstrate that those who are salt-sensitive may be more likely to develop high blood pressure and that the general public may not run the same level of risk if sodium consumption is on the higher side.

Also, other research has found that one’s genetic predisposition to inflammation could be more of a primary risk factor in comparison to high salt intake. In fact, there’s increasing evidence that a low-salt diet may actually be detrimental to some people’s health and may lead to serious health consequences, including an overall higher mortality risk. Low salt diets have been found to contribute to an increase in hormones and lipids in the blood and to poor outcomes for those with type 2 diabetes. Athletes in particular have to be especially careful to ensure adequate salt intake, as much of it is lost through perspiration.

A key question to consider when assessing your sodium intake is how is my overall nutritional intake? The more whole-food based your diet is, the less you have to think about sodium intake - or fat or sugar intake for that matter! If you follow the Healthy Way of Eating even 80% of the time, you can rest assured that your intake of processed foods, artificial ingredients, and overall sodium is minimal. Not only that, but this is when you can afford to actually add butter and/or salt to those veggies and meat entrees, since it hasn’t been added previously. As with the issue of dietary fat, we too often hear misleading messages about salt intake in the media instead of the more nuanced perspectives we should hear about sodium intake. Take control of your health, but make it easy! Think less about cutting back on specific things (i.e. salt, sugar, carbohydrates), and instead plan for the healthy, whole foods (e.g. vegetables, quality protein and healthy fats) you are going to add to your day!

What concerns have you had about salt in your diet? Share your questions and comments, and thanks for reading, everyone!

Written by Becca Hurt, MS, RD, Program Manager of Life Time WeightLoss

This article is not intended for the treatment or prevention of disease, nor as a substitute for medical treatment, nor as an alternative to medical advice. Use of recommendations in this and other articles is at the choice and risk of the reader.

 

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