When it comes to being inquisitive and demanding about our food choices, the amount of salt in our foods draws as much attention as its notorious buddies: fats and sugars. Overwhelming statistics on detrimental effects of excess salt intake, a slew of studies linking salt with hypertension risk, and emphasis on benefits of salt restrictive diets by health professionals surely presents a strong premise against the consumption of this culinary must have. It’s time that we unravel the truth behind the sodium story with a pinch of salt.
Sodium vs Salt
Types of salts may vary as per their source and chemical constitution, but they all contain sodium. Sodium is an essential mineral, needed by our body for a broad spectrum of vital functions. Sodium derived from foods or dietary sodium works synergistically with other minerals to regulate our body’s fluid balance, transmit nerve impulses, and control blood volume and muscular activity. The most common route of entry for dietary sodium is in the form of sodium chloride or table salt: 1 teaspoon of table salt contains 2300 mg of sodium. Sodium is also found in natural foods such as milk, celery, beets, additives like sodium benzoate, MSG (mono sodium glutamate), baking soda (sodium bi carbonate), and an entire gamut of processed foods.
The lion’s share of research on sodium and health has focused on high blood pressure, stroke, heart disease, and heart failure. According to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, too much sodium can increase your blood pressure and your risk for a heart attack and stroke. The message from American Heart Association is even more severe: “Americans of all ages, regardless of individual risk factors, can improve their heart health and reduce their risk of cardiovascular disease by restricting their daily consumption of sodium to less than 1500mg.” USDA guidelines are more liberal and regard 2300mg of sodium per day (or one tsp of salt) as safe limit for healthy, non-African American individuals below 51 years of age. Whatever be the healthy cut off level, trying to tame the sodium intake is going to be a challenge - especially since the majority of the sodium in the American diet comes from the jarred sauces, pre-packaged soups, cured meats, salad dressings, and restaurant food. Knowing the good salt from the bad and ugly ones is the recipe to keeping your sodium in check.
The Ugly Ones
Though shoving the salt shaker off the dinner table may serve as a first step towards sodium restriction, it is the hidden sources of sodium which we must watch out for. Harvard Medical School study points out that almost two thirds of our sodium come from food bought in stores and a quarter from restaurant foods, including fast food and pizza. Soy sauce, cheese, cold meats, french fries, breads, and rolls and pretzels top the list. As evident, it is incredibly tough to stay below the recommended levels, even if we are indulging in a fast food only occasionally. An average American consumes approx 3430mg of sodium a day which is already double the allowed limit.
Table salt can be spared the label of ‘ugly salt’ only because it doesn’t sneak into our diets without our knowledge and contains added iodine (needed for healthy thyroid function). Although salt helps regulate the body's fluids, too much salt will cause your body to retain water, leaving you looking bloated and puffy. Table salt isn't necessarily harmful, but using too much in our food can lead to the same adverse effects as "hidden" salt - cancer, osteoporosis, diabetes, dementia, sleep apnea, and kidney disease.
We need approx 500mg of sodium per day for the normal functioning of our body. Experts agree that the best way to add sodium in our diet is through natural sources. Fresh fruits and vegetables, milk, fresh meats, fish, eggs, and beans are all relatively low in sodium and definitely a better choice over canned vegetables and processed meats. Unrefined salts such as sea salt and rock salt contain the same amount of sodium as in regular iodized salts but often serve as a better choice, owing that to presence of trace minerals such as potassium, magnesium, and manganese.
If you suffer from high blood pressure, are on a sodium-restricted diet, or are just looking to really show off your new fit body, you may want to follow these guidelines in order to keep your salt intake to a minimum:
Plan menus around fresh foods.
Learn to cook creatively using flavorful herbs and spices. Vinegar, lime juice, citrus zest, basil, and oregano usually do the trick.
Get in the habit of reading food labels before buying.
Increase consumption of potassium rich foods such as bananas, dark greens, and dried apricots to balance the sodium in your diet.
When buying food packages, look for sodium free, low sodium or unsalted versions. Avoiding products with more than 200mg of sodium per serving.
The Bottom Line
There is no doubt that we consume salt in quantities much higher than considered safe, but luckily the fix for this is easy. Cutting down on convenience foods and choosing fresh foods today is a tiny price to pay now as opposed to suffering disease and complications later.
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