I am conflicted about salt. The doctor half of me is concerned about salt and your health. The part of me that cooks – and I like to cook – can’t imagine doing it without salt, rosemary, basil, and a little wine.
I doubt either the cooking or the eating would ever be the same without salt.
The salt story goes back as far as oceans, and that’s a while. As humans, we carry around our own portable oceans that our heart pushes out to every cell in our bodies; all 100 trillion.
Blood is made up of red cells, white cells, platelets, and salt water, quite like ocean water. We rid ourselves of excess salt when we sweat or urinate. The main salt in the body is sodium chloride (NaCl) – yes, just like the Morton Salt container in your cupboard. Why the girl with the umbrella? Salt used to clump from humidity. Morton added magnesium carbonate to the salt to absorb water. That’s why when it rains, it pours.
Your body is designed to work properly in a narrow range of parameters. The blood pressure, acidity (pH), specific gravity, and many other things must be just right; including salinity.
The recommended sodium intake for a single day is 1,500 mg to 2,300 mg, depending on who you believe. The average American takes in 3,400 mg, which is not too surprising in our somewhat excess-prone society. Where does all this sodium come from? Processed foods account for the lion’s share of it.
So, can we experience health problems from taking roughly twice as much sodium as we need every day? Population studies have connected higher average sodium intake with higher average blood pressure. This is a consistent finding in studies using thousands of people.
We tend to assume this finding would carry through to individual patients. However, it turns out that sodium only modestly affects the blood pressure in about 20% of people with hypertension. That means one-in-five people would see a significant reduction in blood pressure by restricting sodium to 2,300 mg or less. The other 80% don’t have any significant change in blood pressure or the problems that come with hypertension, such as strokes and heart disease.
Once again, written health advice overwhelms the details. That is not to suggest errors in research studies, but rather to point out the considerable variation in the human gene pool. Hypertension, like many other diseases, is complicated and depends on multiple genes and organs.
Everyone has heard or said – “they retain sodium”. That is a euphemism for a problem with excess body weight. Salt does make the body hang on to more water to keep the salt concentration stable. This will explain at most a pound or two of water weight. That is not really visible. To maintain a healthy weight, you need calorie restriction much more desperately than sodium restriction.
A practical approach to salt intake starts with checking your blood pressure. If it’s a little high, try getting some of the salt out of your diet. Doing that involves food selection rather than eliminating the salt shaker.
Prepared foods have large amounts of salt (check the labels) for both taste and to act as a preservative. A little fresh food cooking is preferable. The produce aisle is a good place to start when shopping. It may surprise you what you can make with a frying pan, the vegetable of your choice, and a liberal application of rosemary, sweet basal, and wine.
We welcome your comments and we can always swap recipes.
Donald Bucklin, MD (Dr. B) is a Regional Medical Director for U.S. HealthWorks and has been practicing clinical occupational medicine for more than 25 years. Dr. B. works in our Scottsdale, Arizona clinic.
Featured photo by HandmadePictures/Shutterstock. Salt and pepper shakers photo by artists of Unsplash.