Let’s be honest, salt makes everything taste better. But, we are often told that too much salt in our diet is bad. A high-salt diet is linked to hypertension, a major risk factor for heart disease and stroke. A report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says more than 90 percent of children and adults eat more sodium than is recommended for a healthy diet. Men tend to consume more sodium than women.
If you search online for information about salt, you will find conflicting information about its positives and negatives.
So, what’s the truth? Is eating too much salt bad for your health or do you need more salt? How much is too much? The answers to those questions are maybe and it depends.
If you are a reasonably healthy adult and you have normal blood pressure (less than 120/80), reducing salt in your diet will probably not provide any health benefits for you.
May need more salt
If you have too little salt in your diet – less than about 500 mg. per day – it can lead to hyponatremia or too much water in the blood. Symptoms include confusion, lethargy, convulsions or even coma without medical treatment.
Other behaviors may indicate the need for a higher amount of salt to remain healthy include:
- Athletes or people who sweat a lot (due to heavy exercising or living in a hot climate) and drink a lot of water may not be getting enough salt to balance out the extra water they’re drinking.
- If you are a super-healthy eater who eats little or no salt, you may be getting less than the minimum amount of 500 mg. a day.
- If you take diuretics, prescribed or natural supplements like dandelion root, it can cause your body to lose sodium through peeing.
- If you have a little-known disorder of the nervous system called postural orthostatic tachycardia syndrome (POTS) – a fast heart rate when you stand up – you may need more salt than most people. Because your nervous system regulates heart rate, digestion, breathing, urinating and other key bodily functions, POTS is a serious condition that needs medical monitoring.
Discuss these situations with your doctor if you have concerns or symptoms.
Probably need less salt
Most of us are in the too-much-salt category and the rest of this article is for us.
If you have hypertension (high blood pressure of 140/90 and above) or are at risk for high blood pressure (between 120/80 and 139/89), a lot of research shows that reducing salt in your diet may help bring down your blood pressure (BP) and can help some BP medications work better. It’s definitely worth a try. Talk to your doctor about this if he or she hasn’t already discussed it with you.
The health concerns with salt are due to its sodium content. Salt is made up of 40 percent sodium and 60 percent chloride. Basic dietary guidelines recommend that American adults consume less than 2,300 milligrams of sodium each day, or about 1 teaspoon of salt. Sodium is a necessary part of everyone’s diet. It is an electrolyte that your body uses to maintain the balance of water in and around your cells. It helps ensure your BP remains stable, and your nerves and muscles function properly.
Too much sodium can cause the kidneys to retain water, which increases blood volume and BP and puts a strain on the heart. If you have high blood pressure or are at risk for high blood pressure, the increase can push you into the red zone and cause damage to many organs, including the heart, kidneys, brain and even your eyes. High blood pressure also puts you at risk for things like stroke, heart disease and death.
You should regularly check your BP. If you don’t know your BP numbers, you don’t know if you should be concerned. Don’t rely on outward symptoms to know if you have high BP or are at risk for high BP. There are no outward symptoms. That’s why checking BP regularly is essential.
Too much sodium is not the only cause of high BP. Lack of exercise, poor diet and inherited risk can also contribute. Reducing salt in your diet is one strategy that may help reduce your risk. It should be part of a comprehensive plan that includes a healthy diet, plenty of exercise and taking any medication your doctor prescribes.
Sodium is naturally occurring in most foods we eat. You will find it in meat, dairy, whole grains and fresh fruit and vegetables. Some vegetables like artichokes, celery, carrots or beets, beans such as mung or chickpeas, and a variety of greens such as beet, collard, dandelion, mustard and turnip greens have enough sodium that they naturally have a salty taste and can add loads of flavor to a low-sodium diet. None of these foods are naturally considered high in sodium. Eating more of these foods will not contribute significantly to the amount of sodium in your diet.
Canned and prepackaged foods, breads, cold cuts and cured or preserved meats are notoriously high in sodium. Some “diet” foods are also high in salt to improve flavor, so read the label before buying. Also, food ordered from a restaurant often packs a high sodium punch.
Sodium is everywhere. It’s no surprise that on average, Americans eat more than 3,400 milligrams of sodium per day. It may seem like a daunting task to control the amount of sodium in your diet, but it’s really pretty simple. Check out these strategies that have worked well for me.
6 Strategies for success
1. Eat more whole foods
Whole foods are simply foods that are as close to their natural form as possible, without additives, preservatives and a lot of processing.
- Whole grain breads, cereals, pasta
- Fruits, vegetables (especially raw ones) and beans
- Fresh eggs, meats and seafood
- Dairy products like milk, unsweetened yogurt and cheese are also considered whole foods (watch the sodium content, though – read the labels)
2. Cook at home
The only way to know how much salt is going into your food is to prepare the food yourself. When a recipe calls for salt, experiment with reducing the amount or omitting it entirely (except baked goods). If it’s too bland, add a little salt at the table after you taste it. Never salt before you taste because you’ll usually add more than you need.
Fresh fruits and vegetables are naturally low is sodium. Steaming, roasting or sautéing veggies will be lower in sodium than frying.
3. Use herbs and spices
Before adding salt to your food, try adding herbs and spices to enhance the flavor. If you’re not used to cooking with herbs and spices, it’s a tasty way to take your cooking to the next level. It’s a learning process to find what you and your family like. Start with smaller amounts to avoid a big flavoring mistake. If you like the flavor, add a little more herb or spice next time you make that dish.
I found that pepper is a good way to increase taste when salt is reduced. Other popular options are fresh lemon juice, fresh or roasted garlic, fresh onion or chives, parsley, ginger, dry mustard, vinegar, basil, thyme, oregano, sage and marjoram.
The Mrs. Dash brand of spice mixtures are all salt-free and a tasty place to start. Check your grocery store’s spice aisle for other salt-free spice mixes. Use the guides below to choose your own herbs and spices or create your own mixes.
4. Read labels
Even though it is best to eat whole foods prepared at home, sometimes we need convenience foods that can be heated up and eaten in a hurry. It is possible to occasionally eat processed foods and still maintain a low-sodium lifestyle. The most important thing to do at the grocery store is read the labels.
For best results, look for:
- Salt/Sodium-Free – less than 5 mg. of sodium per serving
- No-Salt-Added or Unsalted – no salt is added during processing, but may still have sodium because some foods contain sodium naturally
- Very Low Sodium – 35 mg. or less per serving
- Low Sodium – 140 mg. or less per serving
Be cautious when you see “reduced sodium,” “light in sodium” or “lightly salted” on the label. These products have less sodium, but they may still be high in sodium. Read the labels.
Salt substitutes usually substitute potassium for the sodium. Check with your doctor before using them if you are taking BP medications. Potassium can interact negatively with some BP meds.
5. Limit eating out
The CDC reports that more than 75 percent of the excess sodium in American diets comes from restaurant and processed foods. It’s best for any healthy diet to limit how much you eat in restaurants, especially fast foods.
When you do eat out:
- Avoid high sodium foods, including soups, bread, pasta, pizza, cheese, butter, and smoked or cured meats.
- Choose poached, broiled, baked or roasted menu items because these cooking methods typically use less salt.
- Skip the condiments and get sauces and dressings on the side. Pickles, olives, ketchup, salsa, salad dressings and most sauces are typically packed with sodium. If you must have a sauce or dressing, get it on the side. Consider asking for balsamic vinegar on your salad instead of a dressing. It’s a tasty substitution.
- Ask them to prepare your food without added salt. Most restaurants can accommodate this request.
- Order healthy sides. Steamed, grilled or sautéed vegetables can all be prepared without salt (make sure you request this). Skip the mashed potatoes, fries or macaroni and cheese.
- Taste your food before adding salt. Avoid using the salt shaker altogether if you can.
- Take your own dressings and spice mixes made at home. Most restaurants won’t care if you bring them with you. Spice things up your way and skip the salt.
6. Reduce salt slowly
Eating a lot of salt causes your taste buds to become desensitized so you tend to use even more salt to make food taste good. The good news is, it only takes about three weeks for your taste buds to change. You will begin to prefer the taste of reduced-salt or salt-free foods. I found that I enjoyed the flavors in foods that had been hidden by salt.
Think of reducing salt as a challenge, a game, to find the best combinations of herbs, spices and whole foods to excite your palate without piling on the salt.