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Salt is perhaps the most widely used flavoring ingredient of different cuisines around the world. It not only makes the dish salty and savory, but it also enhances the natural taste of the other ingredients used. Salt can even make tasteless foods palatable.
Besides seasoning, salt serves other culinary purposes as well. It helps tenderize and bind meats. Adding salt to foods can keep them fresh for longer because it inhibits the growth of bacteria, thus making salt an excellent preservative.
Sodium is also essential for various important biological functions, but consuming too much of it can harm the body and trigger a number of health problems. It is mainly needed for maintaining a proper fluid balance inside the body and enhancing the uptake of other nutrients by the cells. (1)
You meet your sodium needs through the foods you eat. Current medical guidelines recommend enforcing strict salt restriction.
Salt is made up of 40% sodium and 60% chloride. (2) It is recommended to consume 2 grams of sodium (the equivalent of 5 grams of sodium chloride or salt) per day. (3) Even though 5 grams of salt sounds like a lot, it is actually less than a pinch and should last you all day.
Food products generally don’t mention their salt content but their sodium content, so you need to keep that in mind while monitoring your salt intake.
Benefits of Consuming Salt
Here’s why you need salt in your diet:
1. Regulates volume and water balance
Salt is a compound formed from the combination of a cation and anion. There are many salts found in nature. Calcium chloride is a form of salt that is used in the winter to melt ice.
The salts that are consumed by humans include the common table salt, which is sodium chloride, and salt substitute, which is potassium chloride. (4)
For purposes of this discussion, the word salt will be used to refer to sodium chloride or table salt. The most important physiological function of sodium chloride is to maintain fluid balance in the body. This can be a double-edged sword since it is very easy for the body to become depleted of fluid (dehydration) or overloaded with fluid (edema).
2. Maintains membrane potential
The basic unit of all organs of the human body is the cell, which is a set of organelles contained within a cell membrane. Electrolytes can be relegated to the inside of the cell (the intracellular compartment) or outside of the cell (the extracellular compartment).
Sodium is primarily an extracellular cation. It is maintained in the extracellular compartment by passive diffusion and by active cellular transport.
By maintaining electrochemical gradients, the cell can carry out important metabolic functions including molecular transport, membrane receptor activity, and maintenance of cell volume that is conducive to life.
3. Participates in the acid-base balance
Electrolytes play a role in chemical reactions at the molecular level that can produce or consume hydrogen ions and therefore alter the pH of a solution. At the level of the human body, sodium has a direct impact on the ability of the kidneys to excrete or retain bicarbonate.
Also, sodium is the principal electrolyte that regulates the level of a hormone called aldosterone in the human body. (5)(6) Aldosterone is also important in acid and/or bicarbonate excretion or retention.
Maintenance of a physiological pH is important for proper cellular and organ function and, ultimately, for maintenance of life. (6)
4. Plays a role in nerve conduction
All cells in the human body maintain a voltage difference across the cell’s plasma membrane. By compartmentalizing electrolytes and passively or actively moving electrolytes across the plasma membrane, action potentials can be created in a controlled manner.
Voltage-gated sodium channels are used to drive the functions of neurons, muscle cells, and endocrine cells. (7)
5. Facilitates potassium excretion
Sodium is delivered to the distal tubules of the nephron, the basic unit of every kidney, and is used by the nephron to excrete potassium. Therefore, abnormalities in sodium homeostasis can lead to too much (hyperkalemia) or too little potassium (hypokalemia) in the body. (8)
Both hyperkalemia and hypokalemia are associated with dangerous metabolic conditions such as atrial fibrillation and cardiac arrest.
6. Boosts brain function
Sodium plays a critical role in brain development and functioning, which is another reason for you to be mindful about its intake.
A sudden drop or hike in sodium levels disturbs the electrolyte balance within the body, which has a negative bearing on your overall physiology, including the working of the brain.
When you don’t have enough sodium in your blood (hyponatremia), extra water tends to pool inside your body cells and cause inflammation. The buildup of water inside neurons or brain cells gives rise to a number of neurological symptoms, including irritability, confusion, light-headedness, and lethargy.
Severely low sodium levels can disrupt brain function to the extent of inducing a stroke, coma, or even death. However, this does not mean that you should consume liberal amounts of sodium, which is bad for your brain as well. High sodium levels not only induce hypertension but can even trigger memory loss.
Consult your doctor about the appropriate sodium intake for you.
7. Keeps sunstroke at bay
As discussed earlier, severely low sodium concentration in the blood can trigger dizziness, fainting spells, or even a stroke by disrupting the electrolyte balance within your body. This generally happens in the case of dehydration or sunstroke.
The first-line treatment to rehydrate your body and quickly fix your electrolyte balance is by administering a saline solution, either orally or intravenously. The sooner you replenish your sodium levels, the lesser is the risk of stroke.
8. Promotes skin health
Free radicals are unstable molecules that damage healthy cells and trigger several illnesses. They break down collagen, which is the most important structural protein found in skin cells.
Collagen loss makes your skin saggy and more prone to wrinkles and fine lines. Thus, free radical damage can make your skin age faster.
Many commercially available antiaging creams repair this skin damage, and most of them contain sodium for its deep-moisturizing properties. (9) Thus, sodium can help reduce the appearance of premature signs of skin aging to keep you looking young for longer.
Detriments of Excessive Salt Intake
Here are some of the main disadvantages of excessive salt intake:
1. Persistence thirst
Salt is used liberally in commercial foods and restaurant dishes because it markedly enhances the taste of food. However, salt inherently increases thirst and causes humans to drink more water (referred to as polydipsia).
If polydipsia is accompanied by polyuria (frequent urination), then water balance can be maintained. However, humans frequently find polyuria to be problematic in terms of lifestyle and behavior.
Due to abnormalities in the hormonal axes (such as antidiuretic hormone and the aforementioned aldosterone), water balance is frequently not maintained, leading to worrisome conditions such as hyponatremia or hypernatremia. (10)
In addition, salt is closely associated with dehydration or swelling, which are also both detrimental conditions (see below).
2. Fluid retention
Salt is hydrophilic and is always followed by water. Too much salt in the body will therefore cause accumulation of water in the tissues, leading to edema or swelling. (11)
In addition, conditions that cause loss of salt from the body usually cause loss of water from the tissues and the body. Most people are aware that a deficit of water (typically characteristic of dehydration) is an ominous condition.
What most people don’t realize is that an excess of water (typically characterized by edema) is equally bad, if not worse. Research studies have demonstrated that volume excess is associated with increased mortality.
Genetic predisposition to salt retention via abnormalities in the renin-angiotensin-aldosterone axis and certain sodium channels (such as the ENaC channels) are common in humans. Therefore, essential hypertension commonly results from a genetic predisposition to salt retention. (12)
As humans age (especially as you cross the 40-year threshold), blood vessels become more rigid due to many factors, including atherosclerosis. Therefore, salt-sensitive essential hypertension is almost universal in older individuals.
In previously hypertensive individuals, salt consumption makes it very difficult to control blood pressure.
4. Organ failure
Salt is a direct cause of injury to almost every organ in the body but, most importantly, the heart and the kidneys. Excessive salt predisposes you to the development of hypertension and leads to fluid retention, increase in the size of the chambers of the heart, and, ultimately, heart failure.
Hypertension is the most common cause of blood vessel wall injury, incorporation of fat-filled macrophages in the blood vessel wall, atherosclerosis, and vascular disease such as coronary heart disease, heart attacks, (4) blood vessel aneurysms, and peripheral vascular disease/amputations.
Hypertension is the second most common cause of chronic kidney disease and end-stage renal disease or the need for dialysis.
In addition, salt is ultimately injurious to every other organ including the brain (strokes, dementia, carotid artery blockage), liver (fatty liver, cirrhosis), and lungs (pulmonary edema).
Salt is associated with pregnancy complications such as preeclampsia, eclampsia, and preterm deliveries.
5. Fatal for the bones
Your bones derive their strength and density from calcium, which is the most important building block for your skeletal frame.
Insufficient calcium in the body leads to thinner bones, which are more prone to fractures. The sustained lack of calcium triggers the onset of osteoporosis, especially in postmenopausal and elderly women.
Excessive sodium intake can damage your bone health by stimulating calcium excretion. The extra sodium in your blood is excreted via urine, but it also pulls calcium from your bones in the process.
Thus, when your body gets rid of the excess sodium, it also excretes some amount of calcium along with it. This leads to a gradual depletion of calcium stores, which weakens your bone mineral density.
Excessive salt intake is one of the leading causes of shortened lifespan and mortality in acute illness and, especially, in critical illness.
Controlling Your Salt Intake
As discussed earlier, sodium is essential for various biological functions and cannot be given up completely. Like any other food item, salt has its merits and demerits, and consuming it in moderation will help you optimize the former while minimizing the latter.
The American Heart Association (AHA) stipulates 1,500–2,300 mg as the recommended daily intake of sodium for everyone, but most people tend to exceed this limit in their regular diet.
Processed foods, even the seemingly healthy ones such as soup, contain copious amounts of salt along with other harmful ingredients, including unhealthy fats and preservatives. The growing reliance on processed foods in everyday meals is mainly responsible for excessive salt intake these days. So, cutting out processed foods from your diet is the first step towards controlling your salt intake. (13)
When you make your own meals with fresh, good-quality ingredients, you can control how much salt you add to them. Prefer eating whole foods such as fruits, meats, vegetables, grains, lentils, nuts, dairy, and poultry with limited amounts of added salt.
If you find it hard to make a sudden switch from a salty to a low-salt diet, you can gradually reduce the amount of added salt instead of minimizing it at once. This will allow you to slowly build your taste for low-sodium foods.
As your taste buds get more used to the low sodium content, you will no longer find yourself craving salty snacks.
Here are a few additional tips to reduce salt in your diet:
- Herbs such as thyme, oregano, basil, parsley, cilantro, dill, and rosemary carry their own distinctive flavor, which can enhance the taste of your dish without the need for added salt. You can get them as fresh herbs or dry herb mix.
- Make your low-sodium dishes savory by adding garlic, chili, and other spices.
- Use lemon or lime juice to impart a tangy zest to your dish, which will cover up the lack of salt. Its citrusy flavor goes well with vegetables and fish. Lime juice can also be used as a meat tenderizer instead of salt.
- When dining out, specifically ask for your dish to be prepared without extra salt and have the sauce or dressing be served separately. This way you can add the salt or dressing according to your liking.
- When buying breads and breakfast cereals, look for those with low salt content.
- Avoid tinned vegetables or fruits that generally contain a lot of sodium and preservatives, and go for fresh produce instead. When you do buy canned items, go through their content list to buy the low-sodium varieties.
- Always wash your canned products with cold water before consuming them to get rid of the excess salt in them. This can help reduce their added salt content by half.
- Drink enough water throughout the day to maintain proper electrolyte balance within the body and keep it sufficiently hydrated.
Myths Related to Salt Consumption
Unlike table salt, sea salt is natural, and so you can consume it as much as you want.
This a common misconception that many people take very seriously. While it’s true that natural sea salt is relatively healthier than table salt as it contains various trace minerals that can benefit your body, the sodium content of sea salt is still pretty much the same as that of table salt.
The idea is to choose a salt with adequate sodium content, be it sea salt or table salt, and consume it in moderation.
High sodium in the body is solely the result of the diet.
People wrongly assume that foods alone are responsible for their high sodium intake when certain over-the-counter medications also contribute to it. Thus, it is important to check the ingredient list of your meds before consuming them.
If your drug has too much sodium, you can ask the pharmacist or physician to recommend a low-sodium alternative.
You get most of your sodium intake through the loose salt that is added to your cooking or used as seasoning.
This is not true for a lot of people around the world who derive nearly 80% of their salt intake from processed, prepackaged, and packaged foods rather than the salt to their cooked dishes.
Food tastes bland without salt.
This may be true for those who are used to eating high-sodium foods, but this is a matter of conditioning rather than a fact. Your taste buds are so accustomed to high-sodium meals that they equate the overbearing taste of salt with flavor.
But you can condition your palate for a low-sodium diet by gradually reducing your salt intake to a point when you don’t need it to flavor your meals so much. In fact, the processed and salty foods that you once liked will seem too salty once you become accustomed to a low-sodium diet.
You can also replace salt with other flavoring agents such as herbs, spices, and lime juice in your recipes.
Although sodium is important in the physiology of life processes, you don’t need to eat salt. Salt is inherently present in bland foods and the human body is not dependent on oral salt consumption for metabolic or physiological processes.
Salt makes food taste very good. However, taste doesn’t have to be dependent on salt, nor does unsalted food have to taste bland. Appropriate use of spice or flavoring can make food taste just as good, if not better, than salted food.
You can consult with a dietitian or nutritionist for advice on which spices or flavorings are most appropriate for and conducive toward taste enhancement.