Salt is an omnipresent condiment widely used to in preparing food to make it more tasty. In fact, you probably sprinkled or will probably sprinkle a little on your food today. But have you stopped to think about the good, the bad & the ugly of salt — perhaps its history or health benefits, or maybe the reasons behind your cravings? There’s way more to salt than meets the eye. Read on to learn more about this simple but widely used ingredient.
Health Benefits: Why We Need Salt in Our Diet — But Not Too Much
Often, doctors suggest eating less salt to lower sodium intake because most adults get too much without even trying.
While it’s a good idea to keep an eye on the amount of salt in your diet, as recommended, you don’t avoid it entirely, as this mineral plays an important role in how your body functions. Here’s a look at why you need salt in your diet:
Helps Thyroid Function Properly
Your thyroid plays an important role in metabolism. But for your thyroid to work properly, your body needs the mineral iodine, which is found in many foods. An iodine deficiency prevents your body from producing enough of the thyroid hormone.
Symptoms of a deficiency include an enlarged thyroid, constipation, difficulty thinking, fatigue, and sensitivity to cold. Because iodine is also added to most salts (they are labeled “iodized”), having some iodized salt in your diet can help your thyroid function properly.
Keeps the Body Hydrated
Salt also promotes healthy hydration levels and electrolyte balance, which is necessary for organs to function properly. Your cells, muscles, and tissues need water, and salt helps these parts of your body maintain the right amount of fluid. Inadequate hydration can cause dehydration, making you more susceptible to muscle cramps, dizziness, and fatigue.
Prevents Low Blood Pressure
An inadequate amount of sodium in your diet can also lead to low blood pressure (hypotension), which is a reading below 90/60 millimeters of mercury (mmHg). if either number is low, blood pressure is considered low. Signs of low blood pressure include dizziness, nausea, fainting, and blurry vision.
How Much Salt a Day Is Okay, and How Much Is Too Much?
Most people eat about 3,400 mg of sodium per day on average. A single teaspoon of table salt contains about 2,325 mg of sodium, according to the Mayo Clinic, which interestingly is more than the recommended daily limit of 2,300 for adults and children.
Keep in mind that some people should reduce their sodium intake even further, perhaps consuming no more than 1,500 mg per day. This limit is recommended especially for anyone who has diabetes, high blood pressure (hypertension), or chronic kidney disease.
What Are the Health Risks of Eating Too Much Salt?
Increases Water Retention
If you eat too much salt, your kidneys may not be able to filter excess sodium from your bloodstream. Sodium builds up in your system, and your body holds onto extra water in an attempt to dilute the sodium. This can cause water retention and bloating.
Damages Cardiovascular Health
Excess water in your body can put added pressure on your heart and blood vessels, triggering high blood pressure. This is a leading cause of heart attack and stroke. The risk for heart disease is higher when a high-sodium diet is accompanied by a low-potassium diet.
Potassium helps excrete sodium from your body and help to relax blood vessels.
Why You Might Crave Salt if You Eat a High-Salt Diet
Even if you know the importance of cutting back to reduce your sodium intake, this is easier said than done when you constantly crave a salty treat.
It might come as a shock, but salt is addictive. In fact, some studies have found that salt stimulates the brain in the same way that cigarettes and drugs do, such as one published in the journal Psychological Behavior. So the more you eat salty foods, the more you may crave it. This can explain why it’s hard to just eat one chip.
Keep in mind that salt cravings can also be a sign of a medical problem. You could have an adrenal insufficiency caused by Addison’s disease, or a rare kidney problem called Bartter syndrome. Consult your doctor if cravings persist or intensify.
Tips for Following a Low-Salt Diet
Eat more fresh fruits and vegetables. Skip processed foods, like cured meats, canned goods, bagged items, and frozen foods, and spend more time in the produce aisle.
Read labels. Don’t purchase canned goods or processed items with more than 200 mg of sodium per serving. Bear in mind that a product labeled “no salt” may have other ingredients that contain sodium. (9)
Cook without salt. Experiment with herbs and spices for flavoring, such as oregano, garlic, thyme, chili powder, rosemary, and any other seasoning in your cupboard. Also avoid adding salt at the table.
Prepare your own food. Restaurant items contain higher amounts of sodium to keep the food fresh. Cook your own food to control the sodium. Before eating out, check a restaurant’s nutritional menu online to find low-sodium selections.
Be mindful of natural sources of sodium. Meat, dairy products, bread, and shellfish all contain sodium, so be sure to regulate your intake of these foods if you’re watching your salt intake.
Smart Ways to Add Salt Into Your Home-Cooked Dishes
Salt vegetables before cooking to draw out the juices (as with caramelized onions) but after cooking for a firmer texture.
Saltwater takes longer to boil. Add salt to water after it starts boiling.
Some sauces contain a high amount of sodium. Don’t immediately add extra salt during cooking. Allow the sauce to simmer first. Taste the food after the dish finishes cooking, and then add extra salt if necessary. The saltiness of food can change as it cooks.
Salt food at a distance of about 10 to 12 inches so you’re able to see the amount you’re adding more clearly.
Some meats are naturally high in salt — such as seafood and pork. Use salt sparingly when preparing these items.
If you oversalt a liquid dish, add water to the dish and a quartered potato to reduce the saltiness.
Healthy Food Choices When You’re Craving Salt
In the mood for something salty? There’s nothing wrong with satisfying the occasional craving. Just make sure you choose snacks that are healthier or contain less salt, and limit the portion size of healthy foods that are higher in salt. For example:
- Popcorn with no salt or butter
- Hummus and carrots (or another vegetable)
- Unsalted peanuts, cashews, or almonds
- Apples and peanut butter
- Vegetable chips