Salt is everywhere. It’s buried underground, floating in our oceans and packed into many of the foods that we buy at the grocery store. And it’s essential for human health. “Sodium is a mineral our body needs to function properly,” explains Mary Lindsey Jackson, a clinical nutritionist educator at Mission Weight Management Center. “It plays a role in maintaining our blood pressure. It’s also used for muscle contractions and nerves. We definitely need sodium to survive.”
But sodium is a tricky element. Too much, and we could face high blood pressure, heart disease, strokes and a host of other problems. Too little can lead to nausea, feelings of weakness and, in the case of elite athletes or others facing tremendous physical exertion, even death.
Dietary guidelines recommend that adults consume no more than 2,300 milligrams of salt per day. But according to the latest findings by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 90 percent of children and 89 percent of adults eat more than the recommended daily allowance.
“A lot of people don’t realize that one teaspoon of salt is 2,300 milligrams,” says Jackson. “For most Americans, the problem is getting too much salt.”
But is eating more than the recommended amount of salt really as serious as we’re led to believe? Jackson says yes. “Over time, having too much sodium in your diet can put you at risk for developing high blood pressure, heart disease and having strokes,” she says. When we have too much sodium in our bodies, our kidneys have a hard time processing it. As a result, the body holds on to extra water in order to dilute that sodium in our blood. The extra water increases our blood volume, and our heart has to work a lot harder. “It puts a lot of pressure on your blood vessels,” says Jackson. “Over time, that pressure can stiffen your blood vessels and lead to serious conditions.”
The opposite alternative is having too little salt in your diet. “When a person doesn’t have enough salt, they can’t retain the fluid they need, and they can’t hydrate their cells,” says dietitian Denise Barratt, owner of Vine Ripe Nutrition in Asheville. “Their electrolytes are out of balance, basically.” Barratt says that one should aim for at least 500 milligrams of sodium a day, and an athlete that exercises for more than an hour a day may need to shoot for a higher number. “Those are the people you most often hear about with too low sodium,” she says. “It usually happens when they drink too much water and don’t pay attention to electrolytes like salt and potassium.”
Simple ways to avoid excess salt
Though low salt intake is a problem that shouldn’t be ignored, the focus for most of us should be on reducing the amount of sodium we consume. And according to the CDC, more than three-quarters of sodium in the American diet is estimated to come from processed and restaurant food.
“I never recommend restricting sodium intake,” says Clara Norfleet, a registered dietitian in Asheville. “I recommend restricting or eliminating processed or packaged foods. By doing that you’re inherently restricting sodium intake.”
Processed foods are high in sodium partly because manufacturers put a lot of salt in them to extend shelf life and partly because salt enhances the natural flavor of foods.
Restaurants are heavy handed with salt because Americans have a high craving for it, says Barratt. And while chain restaurants are required to publicly share the sodium content in their food, small restaurants don’t have the same requirement. One good way to avoid salt overload is to try to limit how many meals you eat out.
“Eat more whole foods, fresh fruits, vegetables, shop around the perimeter of the grocery store — those items are going to be naturally lower in sodium because they’re not processed,” advises Jackson. And if you do buy processed items like bread and canned vegetables, choosing the low sodium or no-salt-added options will help you cut salt from your diet, Jackson says.
Reading food labels can also assist in keeping your sodium levels in check. “A good rule of thumb on a food label is: if 5 to 8 percent of the label is sodium, that’s a lower source of salt,” explains Barratt. “If the label has more like 20 percent sodium, that’s a higher source.”
Cutting out or cutting back on fast food, frozen meals, frozen pizza, chips, crackers and things that are typically packaged will go a long way in reducing your salt intake, says Jackson. Some other common grocery items that have high levels of hidden salt include salad dressings, soups, premade spaghetti sauces and even canned tomatoes. The good news is that many of these items are easy to make at home without high levels of salt. Take salad dressing, for example. “An easy way to lower salt in the diet is to make your own salad dressing,” says Barratt. “You can even add a little salt at the table or a little salt while you’re cooking, and it’s not as significant as the amount of salt in processed foods.”
Alternative types of salt no better for our health
Pink salt is all the rage right now, but how does it stack up against sea salt, kosher salt or regular old table salt? “There’s no difference in terms of sodium,” says Jackson. “If you compare it by weight, a gram of Himalayan salt is the same as a gram of table salt.”
Because of the way that Himalayan salt and sea salt are processed, she explains, they do retain some trace minerals. But you should think twice before running out to the store to replace your table salt with a “healthier” alternative. “It’s a really tiny amount of potassium or phosphorous or calcium,” she says. “The minerals are in such tiny amounts that they’re not going to have an impact on your overall nutrient intake.”
Stephanie Romine, an ACE (American Council -certified health coach and co-author of The No Meat Athlete Cookbook, says, “To my knowledge, there are no clinical studies that support using pink salt over table salt. At the end of the day, salt is salt. Sea salt, kosher salt, Himalayan pink salt, fancy artisanal French salt and table salt is all just sodium chloride.”
Keeping the flavor but losing the salt
Luckily, salt isn’t the only option when it comes to flavoring our food. “Vinegar is a great seasoning and flavorful,” says Barratt. She also recommends flavoring food with fruity olive or walnut oils, and some citrus juices like lemon or lime, instead of salt.
Jackson recommends using herbs or salt-free spice blends as well as things like onion and garlic. “They add flavor without having to rely heavily on the salt shaker,” she says.
Barratt reminds us that no matter what kind of salt we choose, it’s the amount of salt we use that matters. “If someone treats salt cautiously and eats more fresh foods and tries to flavor with herbs and spices and fruit juices and peppers, then whatever salt they choose, they should just use it with a slight hand.”
And, like most things in life, Romine adds, “All salt needs to be consumed in moderation.”