Low Salt Diet? Think Again!

sea salt

Since the 1970s doctors have advocated a low salt diet for just about everyone in an attempt to combat what they believed to be a major cause of skyrocketing rates of coronary heart disease, high blood pressure and strokes. Now, nearly 40 years later, scientists are not so sure that lowering salt intake is the answer. A study published in May 2011 in The Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) concluded that not only do low salt diets not prevent high blood pressure, but they actually increase the risk of death from a stroke or heart attack [1].

A 2006 study published in The American Journal of Medicine [2] had found similar results, with a low-salt diet being associated with a significantly greater increase in the rate of heart attack. Another interesting finding that scientists made was that restricting sodium may increase insulin resistance, a condition that is known to lead to diabetes. So not only are we possibly at greater risk of heart disease from following a low salt diet, we could also be increasing our risk for diabetes, which now affects 27% of the US population.

The studies cited above suggest that giving a blanket recommendation to the population as a whole to eat a low salt diet is probably not a good idea. However, some people, such as children or the elderly, or those who already suffer from hypertension or heart disease, should keep their sodium intake down to the level of about 1500mg per day.

According to the Centers for Disease Control, the average American consumes an average of 3436mg of sodium per day, which is far more than necessary. This unfortunately comes mainly in the form of pure sodium chloride, a substance that has been stripped of the important trace minerals that allow our bodies to optimally assimilate sodium.

Most people are surprised to learn that only about 10% of our sodium intake comes from what we use in cooking and the amount we sprinkle on at the table. The greatest percentage of sodium that we eat today comes from processed and restaurant food. Manufacturers add sodium to processed food in order to extend shelf life and to make it more palatable, as without it (along with added fat, usually in the form of hydrogenated oils or trans-fats), processed food would taste like cardboard.

sodium chloride

This type of highly refined salt has had all trace elements removed, leaving only pure sodium chloride. It is this lack of important trace minerals that makes it unhealthy, along with the toxic substances used in the refining process, such as aluminum silicate, ammonium citrate, sodium ferrocyanide and bleaching agents.

Salt was once a rare and precious substance, unless you were lucky enough to live by the sea. Roman soldiers received a special allowance to pay for salt (thus the term salary) and important people sat "above the salt" at medieval tables. Our bodies can't function without salt. It gets our muscles moving, keeps our heart beating, maintains fluid balance and influences our ability to think clearly.

Unrefined sea salt, such as gray salt, Atlantic salt, celtic sea salt and Himalayan sea salt, retains those all-important trace elements. Unrefined salt contains potassium, magnesium and calcium, which work together with sodium in order for the body to process it effectively, along with up to 90 different trace elements. Because of soil depletion, vegetables are lacking in many of the trace minerals they used to contain, so adding unrefined salt to your cooking helps you get the trace elements you need.

In addition, unrefined salt contains less sodium (84% as opposed to 98%) and the taste is considerably better than that of table salt. You don't need to use as much on your food to adequately bring out the flavor of what you are eating. And while some are concerned that they will become iodine deficient if they do not use iodized salt, most people who eat a reasonably balanced diet get sufficient iodine from seafood, dairy products and eggs.

So if you just eliminate processed foods and add some salt as you cook to bring out the flavors of your food, you can enjoy the taste of salt without worrying that you are compromising your health by giving up a low salt diet. Your heart and your taste buds will both thank you!

[1] http://jama.ama-assn.org/content/305/17/1777
[2] http://www.amjmed.com/article/S0002-9343%2805%2901046-6/fulltext


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