There’s a high chance that growing up you were forever reminded to reduce your salt intake; it appeared to be the only health message the government were putting out (oh and the low fat one – but that’s for another time). Health companies were pressured into reducing the salt in their products and we were bombarded with the reminder of not adding it to our food so it’s no wonder that we’ve black-marked it. However, is the message really as simple as “reduce your salt intake”? Not quite and here’s why…
WHAT IS SALT?
You may remember from your chemistry class that salt is sodium chloride (its made up of about 60% sodium and 40% chloride). The key component from salt required in the body is the sodium (the chloride is also important but again, that’s for another time).
WHY IS SODIUM ESSENTIAL?
The sodium found in salt is an electrolyte which is a type of mineral involved in fluid regulation, muscle conduction and blood pressure regulation. Sodium works specifically with potassium in order to maintain fluid balance inside and outside the cells as well as maintaining nerve contractions and regular muscle activity.
WHAT HAPPENS IF WE DON’T GET ENOUGH?
Low sodium intake can contribute to an increased risk in hyponatremia. This is a condition where fluid sodium is low which can result in a fluid imbalance, consequently leading to too much water being held inside the cells and a high risk of the cells swelling. This can also occur when too much liquid has been taken on. You might often over hear the person in the gym talking about how they drink 4L of water a day but it’s not necessarily such a good thing… Some symptoms of hyponatremia may include: headaches, fatigue, lethargy, confusion, nausea and in severe cases even seizures or a coma.
…AND IF WE HAVE TOO MUCH?
The health messages which started in the 80s weren’t completely irresponsible, as just as too little sodium can be dangerous, so can too much (of which you’re most likely aware of the effects). It’s well documented that too much salt can contribute to high blood pressure which consequently increases the pressure on your other organs including the heart.
Research has also suggested that a high sodium intake may contribute to inflammation and increased adiposity (however, this could be due to the fact that salt makes you thirsty and the participants were more likely to consume sugar-sweetened beverages as a result).
The majority of people in the UK are still consuming too much salt through pre-packaged foods such as cereals, biscuits and ready meals as well as from fast food outlets. However, for those who are more health conscious and cook most of their meals from scratch this may not be the case. High salt foods include: pickles, soy sauce, olives, cheese, bacon, crisps and processed meats; these foods should be consumed in small amounts.
HOW CAN WE MAINTAIN SODIUM BALANCE?
It’s important to be aware that sodium can be lost through sweating, urine, faeces and vomiting. Hyponatremia may also develop as a side effect of a medical condition such as liver cirrhosis and hypothyroidism although you should speak to a medical professional in this case.
Consequently it is essential to replace the sodium lost after a heavy session in the gym or even a hot day. You can do this through ensuring that if you’re cooking your food from scratch you add salt to it, alternatively you can take sports drinks post exercise (although it might be best to make your own using oranges, water, salt and honey as prepackaged ones are often packed with sugar).
Here’s the important message: Opt for a high quality, less refined-salt such as Himalayan rock salt or sea salt as these are the less refined versions and are packed with a high mineral content. Often cheaper salts contain additives to add bulk.
There you have the low down on salt and why it might not be the devil. It’s important to note though that too much may contribute to high blood pressure and other medical conditions so do watch if you’re consuming lots of processed foods or close or more than 6g a day.
Whelton, P. K. (2016). Hyponatremia in the general population. What does it mean?. Nutrition,
Hurley, S. W., & Johnson, A. K. (2015). The biopsychology of salt hunger and sodium deficiency. Pflügers Archiv-European Journal of Physiology, 467(3), 445-456.Metabolism and Cardiovascular Diseases, 26(1), 9-11.
Zhu, H., Pollock, N. K., Kotak, I., Gutin, B., Wang, X., Bhagatwala, J., … & Dong, Y. (2014). Dietary sodium, adiposity, and inflammation in healthy adolescents. Pediatrics, 133(3), e635-e642.