Contemplating foods such as pizza, French fries or sausage can make our tongues do a little jig as we anticipate satisfying our salty cravings.
There’s just one tiny winy problem: The amount of sodium we consume from these and other processed foods is more than what is recommended and is considered healthy. Moreover, reducing the salt in the processed food we consume could help us extend our longevity – even if we are already considered healthy.
The Western diet is way too high in sodium, people eat way too much salt, and it increases the risk for cardiovascular disease, stroke and stomach cancer. Research also suggests that too much salt can negatively affect bone health in young girls and postmenopausal women.
Excess salt is harmful to the cardiovascular system in two ways. First of all, though its effects vary between different people, too much sodium can raise blood pressure. Some people are more sodium-sensitive than others and shouldn’t consume more than 1,500 milligrams per day (equivalent to less than three-quarters teaspoon of salt), or their blood pressure will climb up.
But even those who are not sensitive to sodium and are generally considered to be healthy, may still be putting their health at risk by consuming excess salt because a high sodium intake can damage the natural ability of blood vessels to dilate and increase blood flow to tissues.
It essentially boils down to having a healthy endothelial lining— a one-cell-lined-thick layer that lines the arteries. Too much sodium stiffens cells that line the arteries and keeps them from releasing nitric oxide, which gives the arteries their desired flexibility.
In real terms, the more sodium we eat, the risk of heart disease increases. According to one recent study, for every 1,000-milligram increase in sodium intake, the risk of cardiovascular disease increases by 17%.
Some people may experience certain bloating when having too much salt, which can be witnessed as larger bags under the eyes, puffiness in the face and swelling in the fingers. Therefore, if you consume a lot of sodium, your rings might feel tighter because sodium acts like a sponge in the body, absorbing fluid. The more salt in the diet, the more fluid and the more volume of blood the heart has to pump through the arteries.
How Much Sodium Is Safe?
In order to function properly our bodies need only a small amount of sodium — less than 500 milligrams per day, about the equivalent of the sodium in a half-cup of chicken broth — Yet most western people consume about seven times that of the guideline: more than 3,400 milligrams of daily sodium, the equivalent of more than 1.5 teaspoons of salt per day, or the amount in almost four tablespoons of regular soy sauce.
The most recent dietaryguidelines recommend that everybody limit their sodium intake to 2,300 milligrams per day, or the amount equivalent to about one teaspoon of salt.
However, a limit of 1,500 milligrams per day is no longer recommended for high-risk groups including those with heart disease, kidney disease and diabetes. Another recent study found a progressive decline in cardiovascular disease events among those with lowered sodium levels — even as low as 1,500 milligrams
Interestingly, the American Heart Association still recommends a limit of no more than 1,500 milligrams of sodium per day for most adults. Several trials clearly demonstrated that lowering sodium consumption down to 1,500 milligrams decreases blood pressure more than lowering sodium to 2,500 to 3,000 milligrams. This is especially important in people who have higher risk of heart attacks and strokes, those who are over 60 years old and those with hypertension.
Some research has suggested that very low levels of sodium might cause harm, however, those studies which purport harm at low levels of intake are fundamentally flawed because most of these papers use single ‘spot’ collections of urine from a single void, which do not represent usual intake over the long-term. So, the jury is still out on this one.
Adherence to the guidelines would prevent many cardiovascular disease cases and therefore reduce consequential morbidity. Unfortunately, this doesn’t seem adequate incentive to the food industry.
Now let’s talk about how to reduce sodium intake, especially when it’s hidden in many of the foods we love.
When cutting back on sodium, it’s important not to exaggerate, because going cold turkey can shock the taste buds. For example, if you try to make soup with no salt, you will notice the difference, instead, start with half of the amount of salt you would normally use.
You can also look for low- or reduced-sodium versions of your favourite foods, or make your own recipe, like homemade pasta sauce. For example, canned pasta sauce can have 1,000 milligrams of sodium per serving, however, canned tomatoes have about 300 milligrams, and tomato paste has very little sodium — alternatively you can just add water or low-sodium chicken broth to make a sauce, and if you want the bonus points, make it from scratch.
Using herbs and spices can help bring out the flavour in foods without salt. Spice blends without salt can come in handy during cooking. You might consider a Mexican blend with cumin, chili pepper and smoked paprika for chili, while blends containing rosemary, thyme and oregano might be well suited for Italian dishes.
When at a restaurant, ask for steamed vegetables and fish, and skip the sauces. And when food shopping, compare the sodium values of similar foods. Breads and buns are top sources of sodium in the Western diet along with cold cuts and cured meats, pizza, soup, sandwiches and poultry.
Be sure to look for hidden sources of sodium. This might take some detective work. Code words for sodium on food labels include fleur de sel, monosodium glutamate and disodium guanylate. And don’t be fooled by different forms of salt, which may appear healthier than they are. For example, Himalayan pink salt or kosher salt or sea salt all have the same amount of sodium.
Most importantly, reduce the amount of processed food you eat.
Salt vs. sodium and the issue with processed foods
Sodium is a mineral that occurs naturally in foods and enters our diets through processed foods. White salt crystals are technically a combination of sodium and chloride. In fact, by weight, salt is about 40% sodium and 60% chloride.
If you regularly sprinkle a teaspoon of salt on your food, eliminating the habit will cut out a day’s worth of sodium. But that’s just skimming sodium’s surface, because only 11% of the sodium in our diets comes from the salt shaker, which we may reach out to during preparing food or eating.
About 15% of sodium in a typical Western diet occurs naturally in foods. But the rest — more than 70% — comes from sodium in packaged, prepared and restaurant foods, including canned soups, frozen foods and lunch meats. The top 25 foods that add the most sodium to our diet include foods we love such as pizza, cold cuts, burritos, soup, cheese, milk, eggs, rice and cake.
Manufacturers add sodium to help preserve food and enhance the flavour and texture. In addition, in most cases salt (and sugar) are the cheapest ingredients and are used at ‘volumizers’. In other words, add mass at a fractional cost. But they are contributing to the increasingly high sodium intake. If less sodium is added to foods during processing, it’s much easier for consumers to cut back.
Potassium-rich foods: An essential part of a salt detox
In addition to restricting sodium, experts say that focusing on increasing potassiam rich foods is an important part of a salt detox because sodium stiffens the arteries, but potassiumdoes the opposite.
To maximize salt detox, it is recommended avoiding or limiting overtly processed foods which contain a lot of sodium and replacing them with more potassium-rich produce, such as unsalted nuts, beans and legumes.
By eating less salty, processed foods and instead simpler fresh foods, you are going to automatically consume less sodium and more potassium. Finally, when you choose to consume salty snacks and foods, be sure to savour them. If you are going to have salt, have it in something that for you is really worth it, but remember that the key words are moderation and balance.
Written by Udi Gon-Paz wellness coach, clinical nutritionist and stress management consultant (licensed in Monaco and the UK).