Salt, which is composed of sodium and chloride, often gets a nasty rap. But sodium is critical to take care of the body’s fluid balance, nerve transmission, muscle contraction and other key functions. And though it hasn’t been definitively shown that a low-salt diet positively impacts heart disease or death (unless you already have hypertension or cardiac disease), many health agencies still recommend limiting sodium.
The story of salt isn’t as black and white as you may think. Some health professionals even say that salt restriction causes adverse effects on health. So what’s the story? Listed below are 10 of the most typical myths about salt and sodium and what all of it means for your health:
1. The one reason to worry about salt intake is blood pressure.
False. Actually, studies show that excess sodium has been related to other health issues reminiscent of gastric cancer, stomach ulcers, osteoporosis, muscle cramping and brain function. Salt intake doesn’t cause, but can contribute, to high blood pressure, specifically in salt-sensitive individuals.
2. Nothing about salt is good for you.
False. Salt is important for all times. It is a serious component of your blood, it helps carry nutrients into and out of your cells, regulates blood pressure and plays a role in nervous-system function. We’d like salt—just not an excessive amount of or too little. The quantity of salt that is right for you depends in your salt sensitivity (see #3).
3. Everyone responds to salt in the identical way.
False. Most of us are either salt sensitive or salt resistant. Your level of salt sensitivity or resistance is determined by many factors, including genetics, race/ethnicity, age, body size and general diet. Salt sensitivity is defined as when a person’s blood pressure changes significantly from increasing or decreasing salt within the diet. Older people, overweight people, women, African-Americans and South Asians are examples of groups which might be known to have greater salt sensitivity.
The difficulty of salt sensitivity underlies the rationale that many studies show conflicting results concerning the impact of sodium on health for the general population. Some people don’t experience changes in blood pressure or water retention when eating salt and others do, depending on their salt sensitivity. Most studies tend to report averages but ultimately it’s the salt-sensitive people who needs to be most concerned about sodium intake.
How can you tell if you’re salt sensitive? There’s no easy medical test for salt sensitivity, but when you can, watch out for certain symptoms. Typically, eating a healthy diet low in processed foods, high in fruits and vegetables, and lots of home-cooked meals, is a safe bet for everyone.
4. Should you don’t add salt in cooking or on the table, your diet might be low salt.
False. The vast majority of sodium intake comes from processed foods, not the amount of salt you add in cooking or at the table. And nobody needs a number of processed foods in their diet! Processed meats, canned soups, tomato and pasta sauces, bouillon, breads, crackers with salted toppings, and just about anything that comes prepared is high in sodium. Should you do eat processed foods, search for lower-sodium soups and sauces available in lots of stores.
5. Watching my salt intake means eating bland food. Life’s just not worth it!
False. Herbs, spices, garlic, onion, lemon and lime juice, red and black pepper can all add flavor to your dishes so that you just don’t need to depend totally on salt for flavor. Actually, adding salt into your own home-cooked meals has a much smaller impact than eating lots of processed and prepared foods, that are much higher in sodium.
6. Hot sauce is a good replacement for added salt in dishes.
True. Some people like to add hot sauce to their food instead of salt on the premise that they ingesting less sodium that way. Hot sauces, salsa, ketchup and other similar sauces can add a peppery flavor to your foods, but many of these still contain excess salt. Some brands that are lower on the sodium scale are Tabasco, Cholula, and “no-salt addedlabeled products.
7. I’m young, so I don’t have to fret about my salt intake.
False. When you eat excessive salt, your body holds onto extra fluid. This extra water volume puts pressure on organs like your heart and kidneys, as well as in your arteries. This increases your risk of heart disease and high blood pressure later in life. While young people don’t should be super restrictive, it’s not a good suggestion for anyone to eat foods with excessive amounts of salt.
8. Working out offsets salt intake.
True. Exercise does affect salt sensitivity. A recent study shows that physical activity was shown to significantly lower salt sensitivity of blood pressure, especially in salt-sensitive individuals. Eating excess salt can still cause fluid retention, which puts pressure in your organs and arteries, but may not increase blood pressure.
9. The effect of salt on my body is separate from the effect of sugar.
False. Certainly one of the principle mechanisms behind a lower carb diet is a reduction in insulin levels. This is helpful not only for diabetes, but for weight loss because insulin tells fat cells to store fat. But another thing that insulin does is to cause the kidneys to carry onto sodium. That’s why you lose excess water, and together with it sodium, whenever you reduce carbs (and therefore insulin).
10. Fancy salts like Himalayan, kosher and sea salts have less sodium than regular table salt.
False. All salt contains the same amount of sodium and there are no studies that prove that one is healthier than another. Opponents of regular table salt argue that these “fancy saltscontain less sodium and contain trace minerals akin to calcium, potassium, iron and phosphorus, but there’s little evidence to prove this. These salts may, however, taste better and be less processed, so it really is a matter of personal preference.
Lea Basch, M.S., RD, is the registered dietitian for The Tasteful Pantry. Lea has been in the nutrition industry for more than 30 years and was one of many founders of Longmont United Hospital’s nutrition program in Boulder, Colorado. She is a diabetes educator and focuses now on gluten-free diets and food intolerances. Lea’s passion is combining the science of nutrition with the heart that it takes to alter lifelong habits.