Salt is made of sodium (40% by weight) and chloride (60% by weight). Sodium is an essential mineral that our bodies need to perform a variety of functions. It helps maintain the balance of water in and around our cells and maintain stable blood pressure levels. It is also important for proper muscle and nerve function. However, the amount of sodium most adults need to function properly is very low, less than 500 milligrams per day (that’s a mere dash, less than ¼ teaspoon of salt).
The problem is that most people today are eating way too much salt. The average intake of sodium is about 3400 milligrams per day (or 1.5 teaspoon or 8.5 grams of salt), most of it coming from processed foods.
High-sodium (high-salt) intake can adversely affect the kidneys, arteries, heart and brain. This can lead to heart attacks, strokes, dementia and kidney disease.
Our kidneys filter our blood and remove unwanted fluids. Any extra fluid is transferred into our bladder to be removed as urine. This process requires a delicate balance of sodium and potassium to pull the water across a wall of cells from the bloodstream into a collecting channel that leads to the bladder.
Eating food high in salt raises the amount of sodium in our bloodstream and disrupts the delicate balance, reducing the ability of our kidneys to remove the excess water. The result is a higher blood pressure due to the extra fluid and extra strain on the delicate blood vessels leading to the kidneys.
Over time, this extra strain can damage the kidneys leading to kidney disease. It reduces the kidneys’ ability to filter out unwanted and toxic waste products and the body slowly becomes self-poisoned.
A high salt diet can also cause existing kidney disease to progress faster.
The extra blood pressure caused by eating too much salt puts additional strain on the insides of our arteries. To cope with the extra strain, the tiny muscles in the artery walls become thicker. This only makes the space inside the arteries smaller and raises your blood pressure.
This vicious cycle which occurs slowly, over a number of years can ultimately lead to the arteries bursting or becoming so narrow that they then clog up entirely.
When this happens, the organs of the body that were receiving the blood from the arteries become starved of the oxygen and nutrients they need. This can result in the organs being damaged and can be fatal.
The raised blood pressure caused by eating too much salt may damage the arteries leading to the heart.
At first, it may cause a slight reduction in the amount of blood reaching the heart. This may lead to angina (sharp pains in the chest when being active).
With this condition the cells in the heart don’t work as well as they should because they are not receiving enough oxygen and nutrients. However, lowering blood pressure may help to alleviate some of the problems and reduce the risk of greater damage.
If we continue to eat too much salt, over time, the damage caused by the extra blood pressure may become so severe that the arteries burst or become completely clogged. If this happens, then the part of the heart that was receiving the blood no longer gets the oxygen and nutrients it needs and dies. The result is a heart attack.
The best way to prevent a heart attack is to stop the arteries becoming damaged, and one of the best ways of doing this is to keep your blood pressure down by eating less salt.
Just like our hearts, our brains depend on a nourishing blood supply to work properly and survive. But the raised blood pressure caused by eating too much salt may damage the arteries leading to the brain.
At first, this may cause a slight reduction in the amount of blood reaching the brain. With this condition, the cells in the brain don’t work as well as they should because they are not receiving enough oxygen and nutrients. This may lead to dementia (known as vascular dementia), a brain disease resulting in problems with thinking, speaking, reasoning, memory, vision and movement.
If no steps are being taken to control the high blood pressure, the damage may become so severe that a blood vessel leading to the brain becomes narrow, ruptures or leaks. Or it can also cause blood clots to form and block the blood flow to the brain. The result is a stroke, a leading cause of severe adult disability.
Suffering from a stroke is not an inevitable part of aging and can be prevented by keeping blood pressure under control, through salt reduction, exercise and healthy eating.
There is also increasing evidence that excess sodium causes osteoporosis, water retention, weight gain and depletion of cellular potassium which in turn may result in mucus formation and encourage the growth of cancerous cells.
A high-salt diet can cause calcium to be leached out of our bones and excreted in the urine, making bones brittle and prone to breaking—a bone-thinning disease known as osteoporosis.
High salt intake may also cause cells to retain excess water, up to 1.5 litres of it, until balance can be restored to cellular fluid levels. Thus, this is why after consuming a large amount of sodium, the face puffs up, the rings on our fingers are tighter, the ankles and feet swell, etc. These are symptoms of water retention (also known as oedema). People who suffer from bloating may see a benefit from salt reduction.
Depletion of cellular potassium
Potassium plays a vital role in regulating the water and acid-base balance within the cells of the body. Sodium sucks water into cells, whilst potassium pumps it out.
A healthy body will naturally balance the potassium levels. Excess sodium depletes potassium. Potassium depletion can cause problems within our bodies and lead to:
- Dry skin
- Muscle weakness
- Slow reflexes
- Mucus formation
- Encouraged growth of cancerous cells
Too much sodium increases water retention, which can trigger water weight gain and bloating. An order of large fries at a fast food restaurant has about 400 milligrams of sodium, enough to trigger almost 4 cups of water retention.
Salt makes us thirsty, causing us to drink more fluids. If the fluids are sugary drinks, they also contribute to weight gain because they are high in calories. This is a major problem for children and teenagers as a third of the fluids they drink tend to be sugary soft drinks.
While salt itself won’t make us gain body fat, salty foods definitely can. This is because almost all salty foods are also loaded with calories and fat. A double cheeseburger and fries contains 1,500 milligrams of sodium with a whopping 865 calories. Eating one double cheeseburger and fries in addition to our regular diet once a week, is enough extra calories to gain almost 6 kilograms of fat over the course of a year. And unlike water weight, which will go away quickly when we adjust our salt intake, 6 kilograms of fat will take weeks, or even months, to lose — or it could stay with us forever.
So, being aware of these risks, it is important to watch your salt intake and keep it low.
How much is too much?
Major health organizations recommend that we should aim for less than 1500 milligrams of sodium per day, and definitely not more than 2300 milligrams – that’s about 1 teaspoon or 6 grams of salt. The latter is an upper safe limit, not a recommended daily allowance. Even active people who lose lots of sodium through sweating require no more than 1500 milligrams of sodium per day (that’s ¾ teaspoon or 3.75 grams of salt). This includes the salt that’s contained in the food itself, as well as the salt added during cooking and at the table.
For most people, that’s quite a big chunk to cut down from an average sodium intake of about 3400 milligrams per day (1.5 teaspoon or 8.5 grams of salt).
Children should eat less salt than adults, according to their age.
|AGE||MAX. SALT PER
| MAX. SODIUM PER
|11Y & older||6g||2.3g|
Many natural foods contain sodium organically, however, in much lower amounts in comparison to processed foods. Processed and restaurant foods are the culprits for the high level of sodium in today’s diet. Around three quarters of the salt we eat has already been added to our food before we buy it.
Not only crisps or dry roasted nuts are high in salt, foods like canned soups, tinned food, packet sauces and ready-made meals, every day foods like bread and breakfast cereals, even baby food often have added salt too. Because we eat these foods so often, the amount of salt can really add up.
To work out how much salt is in a food, read the nutrition labels on the food packaging and multiply the sodium figure by 2.5. For example, if a food has one gram of sodium per 100 grams – that means it has 2.5 grams of salt per 100 grams. Remember, you should aim to eat less than 4 grams of salt a day.
Tips to cut down on salt:
Shop smart. Buy packaged foods that specify lower sodium content.
Cutting back on added salt is only a small part of the solution. To really cut down, we need to become aware of the salt that is already in the everyday foods we buy, and choose lower-salt options.
When shopping for food, we can take steps to cut our salt intake:
- Cured or smoked meats and fish can be very high in salt, so avoid these or only eat them on rare occasions.
- Watch out for the salt content in ready-made pasta sauces, pizza, stock etc.
- Some food companies are developing products with less sodium, so keep an eye out for sodium listed on food labels.
- Buying and eating mostly natural, whole foods will help keep levels of sodium down while providing more nutrients for the body.
- Go easy on soy sauce, mustard, pickles, mayonnaise and other table sauces, as these are usually high in salt.
- Cook at home with less (or no) salt.
Cook at home as much as possible. We can control how much salt we use when we cook and eat meals at home. Many people add salt to food when they’re cooking, but there are lots of ways to add flavour to our cooking without using any salt.
Check out these healthier alternatives:
- Use black pepper as seasoning instead of salt. Try it on pasta, scrambled egg, pizza, fish or soup.
- Add fresh herbs and spices to pasta dishes, vegetables and meat. Try garlic, ginger, chilli and onion in stir fries. Freshly squeezed lemon and lime juice can also enhance the flavour of food.
- Make your own stock and gravy instead of using cubes or granules.
- Try baking or roasting vegetables such as red peppers, tomatoes, parsnips and squash to bring out their flavour.
- Make sauces using ripe tomatoes and garlic.
Eating out tips:
When eating in a restaurant or cafe, or ordering a takeaway, we can still eat less salt by making smart choices of lower-salt foods.
Pizza: choose vegetable or chicken toppings instead of pepperoni, bacon or extra cheese.
Pasta: choose a tomato sauce base with vegetables or chicken, rather than bacon, cheese or sausage.
Sandwiches: instead of ham or cheddar cheese, go for fillings such as chicken, egg, mozzarella, or vegetables like avocado or roasted peppers.
Breakfast: instead of a full English breakfast, go for a poached egg on toast with mushrooms and grilled tomatoes.
Salad: ask for dressings on the side, and only use what is needed. Or ask for lemon/lime juice to sprinkle over the salad instead.