Salt and Health

How much salt we should or shouldn’t eat is a continuing cause of debate and confusion. What we commonly refer to as salt is a crystal compound comprised mainly of sodium chloride. In its natural rock form, it can also contain many other beneficial mineral elements, usually in minute quantities. Our bodies contain and use the elements contained in salt for many of its critical processes.

Sodium is a major component of salt and is necessary for maintaining the right balance of fluids and electrolytes in our bodies. Sodium is also important because it is needed for the transmission of nerve impulses. Additionally, it plays a key role in influencing the relaxation and contraction of the different muscle groups in our body.

The fact that our tongues have specific taste receptors to discern salt is a fair indication that we evolved with a need for it. When salt was only obtainable from within the foods humans ate and not as an optional extra, those taste buds were a survival mechanism.

Unfortunately, our taste buds are not very good at telling us we have had too much. A big question of course is whether we get enough salt from foods without adding any during cooking or at the table. An even bigger question is whether or not this added salt is harmful or beneficial to our health. This is made more difficult when we look at nutrition labels and realize just how much salt is added to processed foods before it even gets to our table.

Most people in western societies consume more sodium than they require on a daily basis. However, even though there are warnings about excess consumption, it can be hard to resist. Firstly, it is deeply ingrained in many cultures to use salt in cooking and to offer it at the table. Secondly, it undoubtedly makes many foods taste even better.

Too Much Salt Can Be Dangerous

An excessive sodium intake can increase a person’s risk of many serious diseases. The major areas of concern relate to increased blood pressure leading to greater risk of both heart attack and stroke.

How Much Sodium Do We Really Need?

The American Heart Association suggests that an adult should limit their salt intake so they are not consuming more than 2,000 mg per day. For those people over 51 years of age, their sodium intake should be no more than 1, 500mg a day.

One teaspoon of table salt contains about 2,300mg of sodium. You may be thinking, well I don’t consume a tablespoon of salt a day! Actually, you probably consume more. Most westerners average about two teaspoons per day.

This will largely be due to the sodium content found in many packaged foods. Salt is added to so many foods today which is why you have to read nutrition labels to be aware of your total sodium intake.

It is also important to note that these are the maximum recommended limits, so consuming less is preferable and advised, especially if you have been diagnosed with high blood pressure, chronic kidney disease or diabetes.

Making Changes

Like so many of our dietary preferences, the desire for salty foods is a developed or habitual taste. Giving up or reducing table and cooking salt is achievable and a healthy choice. Those who have done so claim their food tastes bland at first, but after a period they actually start to taste the food itself rather than the masking salt taste. The excess salt is a taste addiction rather than a body need.

If you have any doubts and especially if you suffer from low blood pressure, it is wise to consult your healthcare provider or your dietitian regarding your specific sodium intake limits or requirements.