How much of the white stuff do you really need? We seek expert advice…
We all know where we are at with sugar – it offers very little in terms of nutrition, so experts say we should cut it out if we can, and at the very least, try to limit the amount we have. But what about the other white stuff on the table, salt? It’s not so clear cut, unfortunately, because we need salt for our basic bodily functions and we’d die without it. Let’s look at the good things about salt first.
No one should tell you salt is ‘bad’ for you. It isn’t – it’s vital for so many of your body’s functions. “Salt is important for a number reasons, including proper brain and nerve functions, and skeletal tissues,” says Riccardo Di Cuffa, founder and GP at Your Doctor (your-doctor.co.uk ). “It is an essential component in blood. Moderate salt consumption is important for fluid balance and blood function, bone health, sleep, blood sugar regulation, heart and vascular health, and increased energy and aiding nutrient digestion. Salt also enables respiratory function, promotes sinus health and supports your libido. The symptoms of not having enough salt in your diet include weakness, fatigue, muscle cramps, headaches, confusion and irritability.”
We all need a bit of salt for our bodies to function properly, but the problem is some of us are eating far too much of it.
The answer, it seems, is a resounding yes. But how? “Your kidneys do an amazing job of maintaining the delicate balance of fluids and salts (like sodium and potassium) in your bloodstream. If this balance is disrupted it can lead to a host of symptoms and medical problems – from dizziness and muscle cramps to high blood pressure, strokes and fatal abnormal heart rhythms,” says Dr Sarah Jarvis, GP and medical advisor to reduced sodium salt brand, LoSalt (losalt.com). “Your kidneys filter out excess fluid and use a process called osmosis to pull the right amount of water back into your system. This relies on the right concentration of sodium and potassium. If you have too much sodium (from salt) in your bodily system, it prevents your kidneys from filtering enough fluid out in your urine. This in turn leads to a build-up of fluid in your bloodstream.
“Like turning on the taps harder, this extra fluid circulating in your system increases the pressure inside your arteries – the ‘pipes’ which carry blood round your body to supply vital oxygen. The result can be high blood pressure.” The excess pressure in your system from too much salt can lead to a fatty plaque in one of your arteries bursting. Clot is laid down on top of this ruptured plaque, blocking the blood supply, sometimes completely. “If the blockage is in one of your coronary arteries (the blood vessels which supply your heart muscle with oxygen), the result may be a heart attack,” explains Dr Sarah. “If the blockage is in your brain, it will lead to a stroke.
“Another knock-on effect of high blood pressure due to excess salt in your system is damage to your kidneys, which can lead to chronic kidney disease. This makes them less efficient at filtering toxins and waste products out of your system.
“And completely separately, excess sa
lt (particularly in salt-preserved foods such as bacon, salted fish and pickled vegetables) may increase your risk of stomach cancer by damaging the stomach lining.”
You might not be sprinkling lots of salt on your meals, but that’s only half the story. “Public Health England recommends that we should limit salt from all sources in our diet to a maximum of six grams a day – that’s about a teaspoonful,” says Dr Sarah. “On average, the UK population has about 25 percent more than that. Up to three quarters of our salt comes from ready-made foods, including unlikely sources such as stock cubes and gravies, as well as obviously salty foods such as pickles, salami, bacon and salted crisps.
“The real damage from salt comes from the sodium it contains – we should be sticking to no more than 2.4 grams a day of that. Modern fads for rock salt, Himalayan and other expensive salts often mean people underestimate their intake. These ‘designer’ salts contain just as much sodium, and are therefore just as bad for your health, as traditional table salt.”
“The best way to control your salt intake is to cook from scratch,” says Dr Sarah. “If you are buying prepared foods, check the salt or sodium content. To boost flavour, add spices, herbs or lemon juice to dishes rather than salt. Reduced sodium alternatives, such as LoSalt, can provide a similar flavour with much lower sodium levels.”
And think about whether seemingly innocent foods you eat every day might be causing a problem. “Foods don’t necessarily have to taste salty to be salty, which is why it might be surprising to find salt in products such as breakfast cereals and biscuits,” says Mhairi Brown, nutritionist at Action on Salt (actiononsalt.org.uk). “Although these products are not high in salt, we tend to eat more than the recommended portion size – a typical portion of breakfast cereal is just 30g for example – which is adding salt to our diet. Savoury sauces, such as tomato ketchup or mayonnaise, pickles and gravies, also contain a lot of salt and, similar to breakfast cereals, we tend to eat more than the recommended 10-15g portion.
“However, not all food products are as salty as each other, and different brands have different recipes with varying levels of salt,” she says. “It’s therefore important that we read food labels to make sure we are choosing the lower salt option. The free FoodSwitch UK app is a great tool to make the switch to a healthier product: it scans the barcodes of food and drink products searches the database for similar but healthier alternative products, making it easier than ever to switch to healthier options.”
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