Salt Awareness Week is 12th-18th March 2018, and I’ll be talking all things salty to raise awareness about hidden salt in your diet and its relationship to health and disease.
Before I jump into some myth-busting, let’s just review a few key facts about salt and sodium.
Salt is the chemical compound sodium chloride, added to foods to preserve them, extend shelf-life and of course, enhance flavour. The mineral sodium, is the problematic (and essential) component of salt.
Sodium is an essential mineral for our body as it’s responsible for nerve function, appropriate urine output, cell function and fills all the fluid surrounding all of our cells.
In Australia, 3 in 4 males and 2 in 5 females exceed the Upper Limit of sodium of 2300 mg/day, that’s a whole lotta salt! Plus, there’s likely to be a lot of under-reporting going on there, making the picture look even more grim.
Excessive sodium in the diet is related to high blood pressure (hypertension) which increases the risk of both heart disease and stroke, among many other serious conditions you’d rather not have (osteoporosis, kidney disease, stomach cancer). This may be because water follows salt, with more water in the blood, blood volume increases, greater blood volume puts more pressure on the arteries, subsequently increasing blood pressure. Other ideas include hardening arteries, but the mechanism itself is yet to be confirmed (hence why there’s always a need for more nutrition research!).
So let’s bust some myths about these white crystals.
“I don’t add salt to my food, so I must be meeting recommendations”
Most salt that we consume does not come from the salt being added during cooking or at the table. 75% of salt that we consume comes from packaged and processed foods. Healthful foods contain salt too! Including bread and cereals. Condiments, sauces and processed meats contain very high amounts of sodium and are not considered essential in the diet.
Choose reduced-salt varieties of products such as sauces and condiments. Also, consider eating more unprocessed versions within the breads and cereals and dairy food groups. For example, swapping processed cereal for breakfast for oats and focusing on milk and yoghurt as your primary sources of dairy, if you’re looking to reduce your sodium intake.
“Food tastes awful without salt”
Whilst salt enhances the naturally occurring flavours in food, it is possible for food to taste good without added salt! Start slowly by reducing the salt you’re adding to your meals (both during cooking and at the table) and switching to reduced-sodium products. Gradually decrease it and after about 2 – 4 weeks your taste buds will fully adapt, and food will be flavoursome all on its own! Plus, use herbs and spices to jazz up your meals or use infused olive-oils!
“We need salt!”
Sodium (not salt) is an essential mineral for nerve and cell signalling and functions, and is part of the fluid that surrounds our cells, ensuring that the fluid balance between inside and outside our cells is correct. However, our physiological need for salt being about 1 gram/day (or 400 mg/day sodium), and recommendations being roughly 5 grams/day (or 2000 mg/day sodium), on average we globally consume about 10 grams/day! That’s 2 teaspoons of salt!
In some conditions, sodium requirements are actually higher such as in cystic fibrosis or for some athletes. You should consult a dietitian if you think your needs for sodium may be higher than the general population.
“Is it true that salty foods make you thirsty?”
As I said, water follows salt. So when you eat a salty pack of chips or too much fetta (we’ve all been there… haven’t we?), your thirst response kicks in to dilute that excess salt. And the reverse also applies, when we drink too much water (i.e. more than recommended for your age and activity levels), it can dilute electrolytes (including sodium), which can cause a “salt thirst” of sorts.
This occurs in the case of undiagnosed type 1 diabetes, where excessive thirst is a classic symptom (to dilute the high levels of glucose in the blood) and causes dilution of electrolytes to the point where it can be critical to cell function and requires intravenous supplementation in a hospital setting.
“If I have a workout, I should drink a sports drink or something salty to replace my electrolytes”
Mmmm… on the fence with this one
If you’re the average Joe hitting the gym for a 1 hour session, you probably don’t need to guzzling a Gatorade afterwards to “replace the salt lost from your sweat”. Sports drinks are designed for people you undertake endurance sports for more than 60-90 minutes at high intensity (such as running a marathon and excludes team sports). However, if you ARE an athlete with such rehydration needs, including some sodium and sugars with your water in a formulated drink can be critical to prevent dilution of electrolytes from rehydration from just plain water. If you’re an athlete, see a sports dietitian if you think you need help with rehydration in your sport.
What else can I do to reduce my sodium intake?
- Use herbs and spices, instead of salt – this has the benefit of more diverse flavours AND boosts the anti-oxidant and phenol content of your meals!
- Eat mostly fresh foods – such as fruit and veggies. They are naturally low in sodium and high in potassium, which undoes the work of sodium (but it’s a 2:1 ratio, 2 potassium for the work of every 1 sodium – so eat your veggies!)
- Read food labels – look for sodium content <120 mg/100 g, and for products that are known to be high in salt (such as popcorn) look for <400 mg/100 g
- Choose reduced-salt varieties – or make the sauce yourself!
- Use the FoodSwitch App run by The George Institute, and use salt switch filter to scan different products in your pantry or the supermarket. The app will recommend you lower salt alternatives in the same category.
Credits: Once again, to my good friend Emalie Sparks, fellow dietitian, pointing me in the right direction in terms of sources for this blog post for Salt Awareness Week. Emalie is my go-to for all things food allergy & intolerance as well as salt reduction and other public health nutrition matters.