Lots of people begin their weight loss journeys because of unpleasant visits to the doctor.
Something along the lines of, “[mumble mumble] high blood pressure, [mumble mumble] stroke or – even worse – a heart attack, [mumble mumble] are you eating a lot of salt? [mumble mumble] you really should consider losing weight. That would really clear up some of these problems you’re experiencing.” And the “mumbles” aren’t unimportant information – it’s all essential – but, most people tend to dissolve into a puddle of shame or embarrassment when it comes to being chided (even when done lovingly) about their health. They can’t hear much beyond the key “worry phrases” – “high blood pressure,” “stroke,” and “you really should lose weight.”
And, for that matter, it’s true – under the right circumstances. Losing weight, when done through cleaning up the diet and becoming more active, can absolutely reverse most maladies, but it’s not the weight loss that’s doing it. It’s the diet.
The salts, the sugars, and the fats get us every time. And it’s a beast to win that battle, but it’s definitely doable.
When the doctor tells us about our high blood pressure, they often follow up with “you need to cut your salt intake.” But why? And does this mean I should consume no salt?
Below, I have five key pointers you need to know about salt intake, and what role salt should play in your healthy living journey.
1) Quiet as it’s kept, you actually do need salt, and the amount you need is dependent upon how active you are. Salt is one of the key active electrolytes in sports drinks. It’s an essential mineral. And, as you increase your activity levels, you’ll want to keep a light, yet steady, consumption of salt flowing.
Salt works in conjunction with potassium to keep your body stabilized, as the two have opposing effects on the body.
From a study covered by the LA Times:
Focusing on the ratio between sodium and potassium makes biological sense because the minerals are known to have opposite effects on blood pressure, [Dr. Elena Kuklina, a nutritional epidemiologist at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta] said. Sodium generally increases blood pressure and signals the body to retain fluids. Potassium, however, relaxes blood vessels, lowers blood pressure and helps rid the body of excess fluids.
The U.S. dietary guidelines recommend limiting sodium intake to 2,300 milligrams per day and even lower — 1,500 mg — for those 51 and older and people of any age who are African American or have high blood pressure, kidney disease or diabetes. (The American Heart Assn. recently switched to a target of 1,500 mg per day for everyone.)
The average daily intake of sodium by Americans is much higher than that — more than 3,400 mg per day, according to CDC estimates.
Recommended potassium intake is 4,700 mg per day, but average U.S. intake is in the range of only 2,000-2,500 mg per day, [study coauthor Nancy Cook, a researcher in preventative medicine at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston] said. [source]
In short you need salt, but you need it’s sister, potassium, too. The salt, in appropriate portions, helps keep you hydrated in intense exercise. The potassium ensures that you’re able to get rid of it when the intense activity is done, and keeps your blood pressure in check while you do it.
2) The vast majority of your salt consumption comes from processed food. If the recommended daily intake for a 5’4″ 154lb woman is one teaspoon – 2,300mg – and the amount of sodium in a single solitary prepared pack of ramen noodles is 2,061mg, you’re consuming almost 90% of your daily sodium intake in one meal (provided that you consume the entire package like the rest of the country…as much ramen as I ate in undergrad, I never – not once – split the package.) (To be fair, the vast majority of the salt comes from the spice packet. If you were a ramen wizard who didn’t need the packet, you won.)
Lots of processed food products contain tons of salt, yet they shrink the portions down so that it’s less offensive.
This nutrition label for Sapporo Ichiban Ramen shows, under the listing for salt (better known as “Sodium”), that there is only 687mg per serving… until you look up and see that this means you split the prepared meal into three parts.
See what I mean? 687mg is far less offensive than the 2,061mg they probably should be listing there.
3) Outside of processed food, too much salt contributes to bloating and visceral fat, the kind that surrounds your organs and prevents them from being able to function accordingly. Salt draws water out of the places its needed most – like muscle and organs – and causes it to pile up in areas where it’s unwanted. Too much salt contributes to lots of acidity in the body, which causes your insides – as a form of protection – to begin using fat cells as protection. Fatty hearts, fatty livers, kidneys, and more soon become an issue.
Incorporating more produce – especially dark, leafy greens – combined with, yes, fat loss, can make a huge difference here. Dark and leafy greens, like collard greens, mustard greens, turnip greens, beet greens, kale, and broccoli, all have tons of potassium as well as other antioxidants and minerals that your body needs to repair and release whatever havoc your body once felt.
4) While conventional medicine says that high blood pressure and heart disease are linked to high salt consumption, I actually think it could be sugar that’s the culprit, here. And, I don’t say that as a way of saying “Pour the whole salt shaker on that steak, boo!” but as a way of saying, “While you’re keeping your left eye on the salt, keep your right eye on the sugar content of the foods you choose.”
In National Geographic, the following excerpt appeared:
“If you eat too much in quickly digested forms like soft drinks and candy, your liver breaks down the fructose and produces fats called triglycerides. Some of these fats stay in the liver, which over long exposure can turn fatty and dysfunctional. But a lot of the triglycerides are pushed out into the blood too.”
and, in response, I wrote:
Pardon me if I’m wrong, but is this not the definition of what causes high blood pressure? It’s not merely a coincidental thing, like this might imply…it’s the actual cause, no? An excess of triglycerides in the blood?
It’s highly likely that the excessive amount of sugar in the current American diet is the major contributor to the high triglycerides in the blood many are experiencing, with salt being pegged because, as we all know, with high amounts of sugar comes high amounts of salt and fat.
5) You do need salt, but how much? Salt brings out flavor, salt can change the texture of meat and make it juicier, and salt can transform an otherwise sweet dish and make it savory with a few swaps. How much should you use? This is where it gets tricky, and only you will know for yourself.
When you cook your meals yourself – in bulk or otherwise, be smart about it. Anything that feels like you’re using more than a quarter of a teaspoon per portion to get the job done is either a bad recipe, or a rare event.
With many kinds of meals, you can get away with sprinkling a loving pinch of salt across the top of the plate. With others, it’ll call for a rub that requires you to cover the piece of meat or fish in salt in a brine or a bake. Don’t be afraid of these! They’re delicious when done well, and they’re often the best way to experience good quality protein.
If you eat a little more salt some days than you do others, that’s okay, too. It won’t be the exact same number every single day, and you don’t need that kind of precision to move towards better health. Just know, that cutting down the processed food, cooking more meals, and keeping your sugar consumption low will naturally get you in the right direction on your journey! As I always say, your body will thank you for it!