“You should have seen the look she gave me, it was so salty!”
“There’s no need to get so salty about it!”
Despite being a crucial ingredient in some of our fave guilty pleasure foods (hot chips, anything salted caramel) salt has copped a bit of a bad rap lately. So much so, that the term ‘salty’ is now defined by Urban Dictionary as “someone who is mean, annoying and repulsive.” Harsh, right?
But it’s hardly surprising that the word has attracted negative connotations, considering it’s long been the villain of the condiment world. Many people associate eating too much of it with weight gain, high blood pressure and excessive bloating. But is it really the diet saboteur it’s made out to be, or just misunderstood? There’s no doubt it makes our meals taste way better, but should we be avoiding it altogether? Here’s what research tells us.
We’ve said it once, we’ll say it again: too much of anything is never a good thing (with the possible exception of sneakers.) Even protein, which has long been considered the golden child of nutrients, should be consumed in moderation. Of course, the same goes for salt. There are decades of studies that link excess consumption to high blood pressure, kidney problems, and stomach cancer. For this reason, the Heart Foundation recommends consuming less than 2400 mg of sodium (6g of salt).
It’s easy to assume, then, that the less salt we eat the better. However, this is actually not the case. Studies show that a low-salt diet is more likely to lead to fatal heart conditions than a high-salt diet. So, eating too little may actually be worse for your health than too much! Why? Nutritionist Kate Skinner explains.
Salt is part sodium, part chloride, elements which both have important roles in the body. Sodium is essential for maintaining blood volume that is required for adequate nourishment and oxygenation of all cells and tissues. We need sodium for proper cardiovascular health and nervous system function. Chloride is necessary for the formation of hydrochloric acid in the stomach, for proper digestive ability and destruction of food-borne pathogens.
Whilst sodium restriction is regularly prescribed even to non-hypertensive individuals, what’s not commonly known is that low-salt diets can have plenty of detrimental effects. A low sodium status encourages higher plasma levels of renin, aldosterone and angiotensin (which actually raise blood pressure), can increase cholesterol and triglycerides, contribute to insulin resistance, type II diabetes, vascular stiffness and atherosclerosis—it’s a little ironic that low-salt diets are suggested in the interest of preserving cardiovascular health.
Not only that, not eating enough of it can actually lead to weight gain by triggering stress hormones.
Salt restriction actually causes an increase in stress hormones adrenalin and cortisol. Dietary salt lowers the pituitary stress response, reduces cortisol and adrenalin and helps to stabilise blood sugar.
-Nutritionist Kate Skinner via Nutrition By Nature
We know, it’s a bit of a confusing Goldilocks scenario. You can’t have too little or too much, it has to be just right. New findings show that beneficial sodium intake is actually much higher than those found in traditional dietary guidelines: the equivalent of around 10-13g of actual salt (sodium chloride), or about 2 tablespoons.
However, there’s no cut and dry answer as to exactly how much you need to eat. As with most things health-related, it depends on the individual. In individuals with hypertension, cutting down on salt has actually been proven to reduce blood pressure. So if that’s you, it’s wise to follow your doctor’s orders and monitor your sodium intake. But if you have normal blood pressure, restricting sodium may actually do you more harm than good.
Even if you did want to completely avoid salt, it’s pretty much impossible. It’s found naturally in meat, dairy sources and most vegetables. So, in a well-rounded diet, sodium consumption is inevitable. Of course, takeaway and restaurant meals tend to be loaded with excess sodium—which is why you feel so bloated and thirsty afterwards! Too many of these kinds of meals obviously aren’t great for you, for reasons other than the salt intake. However, if you follow your natural appetite for salt and stick mainly to those natural sources and the odd dash in your homemade meals, chances are you’ll be pretty spot on.