Have you asked someone to pass the salt lately? If you are like most North Americans, you consume double the recommended intake of sodium each day. Much of this excess sodium comes from our reliance on processed convenience foods that easily put you well above the recommended daily intake. So while you may be aware of the fat, protein, or sugar in the foods you eat—have you thought about your sodium intake lately?
Let's talk about salt.
So let’s talk about salt: what it is, why you actually need it, and how you can make sure your overall intake of sodium is enough to support your body without putting it at risk.
Salt is sodium chloride and regardless of whether you grab a refined table salt or a lovely rocky sea salt, both are derived from the sea. Table salt is mined from salt deposits left behind when older bodies of seawater have dried and sea salt is gathered directly from the sea, both are processed to remove impurities. Culinary-minded people will pick up on the taste differences between the two and some sea salts contain extra minerals (such as Himalayan salt).
What's the deal with adding iodine to salt?
Since 1924 most salt has been supplemented with iodine—an essential micronutrient (especially important for thyroid function) that the body cannot produce on its own. Salt has become one of our major sources of iodine because while it is found in the soil used to grow our vegetables, the soil is usually not rich in this micronutrient and it's not always absorbed by plants as they grow. Therefore, most salt in North America is supplemented with iodine to make sure we are getting enough in our diets.
Our bodies need salt in small quantities.
Our bodies do need a small amount of sodium to function properly; sodium helps maintain the body's fluid balances, works to transmit nerve impulses, helps people with low blood pressure, and influences the contraction and relaxation of our muscles. Salt is also excreted from the body in sweat so those who live very active lives—or engage in high intensity workouts—will need more salt than those who don’t.
When is it too much of a good thing?
Your kidneys work to maintain the right amount of sodium in your body and excess sodium builds up in your blood. Because sodium attracts and holds water, your blood volume increases and your heart muscles must work harder when you have too much. High sodium intake is associated with an increased risk of cardiovascular disease, high blood pressure, and an increased risk of cancer and stroke. Excessive sodium in the body can also worsen asthma symptoms and have consequences on calcium and bone metabolism.
Here is how to get just enough sodium.
In general, those who follow a diet full of whole foods prepared at home are within the healthy limits of sodium intake. Where we get off track is when we rely on processed foods. These convenience foods can provide us with quick nourishment, but they often rely heavily on salt for preservation and flavor. You may not even be aware of how much salt is in your favorite packaged food. The good news is that controlling your sodium intake is fairly simple if you make small changes to the way you eat.
- Minimize consumption of processed foods. Make meals and snacks from scratch. Meal planning and setting aside time to prep foods in advance will help you reduce your salt intake.
- Pay attention to food labels. Avoid foods with high sodium content and check foods that you might not even think have salt. You will always be surprised!
- Replace table salt with other seasonings. Try cumin, chili powder, or oregano to add flavor to soups and sauces.
- Make your own broth from leftover meat bones. This way, you can control the sodium and add other flavors as alternatives. Store-bought broths are high in sodium, so even a homemade soup made from these will have too much salt.
- Reduce your intake of table salt slowly. Soon your taste buds will adjust and foods you once enjoyed will taste too salty.
- Avoid snack foods like chips. In addition to providing empty calories, these foods are high in salt. If you do indulge, try low-sodium organic versions and limit your consumption to the serving size listed.
- Choose fresh vegetables when you can. Check labels on frozen foods to be sure they are freshly packed without added seasoning.
- Choose fresh meats. You can also make your own spice rubs using salt alternatives. It's also wise to avoid sauces like ketchup and BBQ sauce, which can be high in sodium and sugar.
- Take a cooking class or invest in a few great cookbooks. Knowing how to combine fresh flavors at home will help you avoid adding packaged sauces (which can be very high in sodium) to your meals.
Making incremental changes to your diet is a good strategy to slowly reduce your sodium intake. You’ll also reduce your risk for life-threatening diseases—a change worth its weight in salt-alternatives.