Next to sugar, salt might be one of the most vilified ingredients in our diet. Doctors and health experts warn that if we eat too much salty stuff, it will lead us straight down the road to heart disease or stroke. But while some people may need to cut back on salt, our bodies still need it to function.
Though the words “salt” and “sodium” are often used interchangeably, they don’t refer to exactly the same thing. Sodium is a mineral, and table salt is made from a type of sodium called sodium chloride. Foods like milk, beets, and celery naturally contain small amounts of sodium. Sodium is also added — often in large amounts — to packaged foods for flavor and as a preservative.
Here’s the real deal on salt and sodium, including how much is too much.
Bad rap aside, sodium is essential.
“It’s an electrolyte that helps transmit nerve impulses and maintains fluid balance. It also affects muscle’s ability to contract and relax,” explains Becky Kerkenbush, RD-AP, media representative of the Wisconsin Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
In other words, if you cut salt out of your diet completely, you’d be a nerve-less wreck.
The problem comes when you get too much salt (which can be easy to do, because, hey, salt makes food taste good!).
The most recent Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend adults keep their sodium to 2,300 mg daily. Some people should eat even less. If you have high blood pressure, aim for less than 1,500 mg daily or follow your doctor’s recommendations.
A supersize burrito might taste great on the way down, but it and other salt-heavy foods can stick with you in a not-so-delicious way.
Your kidneys have to get rid of all the extra sodium you eat by diluting it with water and filtering it into your urine. When you eat more salty foods, your body has to hold onto extra water just to flush out the extra salt.
All that fluid boosts the volume of your blood, and your heart has to work overtime to pump all that extra blood around your body. Eventually, your heart, blood vessels, kidneys, and even bones can get damaged.
All these health conditions are linked to excess salt consumption:
Whether you’re trying to prevent these conditions or you already have serious health problems like heart failure, kidney disease, or heart disease, you have good reason to curb your salt consumption, Kerkenbush says.
Your doctor or a registered dietitian can help you crunch the numbers and find out how much sodium is safe for you.
Some people might need extra salt — sometimes
Yes, some people can get away with extra sodium, especially the sweatiest among us. Your body releases sodium when you sweat. So if you work out to the point that you’re drenched, you might need a little more salt than usual.
But that’s the exception, not the rule.
“Most recreational exercisers get plenty of salt in their diet, so sticking with the 2,300 mg recommendation is sufficient,” says Allison Childress, PhD, RDN, chief clinical dietitian at the Nutrition and Metabolic Health Institute of Texas Tech University.
In other words, no need to chug a sports drink after a 30-minute jog or a 40-minute bike ride.
If you’re an elite athlete, you work out for hours at a time, or you’re in the habit of exercising in super hot temps, some extra sodium might be warranted, Childress says. How much depends on the length and intensity of your workout, but a sports dietitian can help you find your sweet (or salty) spot.
Giving your salt shaker fewer shakes and finding salt-free flavor alternatives when you cook can help you cut back. But remember that processed and restaurant foods make up a whopping 70 percent of our sodium intake. You’ll automatically trim a ton of excess sodium from your diet if you limit boxed and bagged foods and cook at home.
It’s def important to pay attention to the “salty 10.” These foods make up about 40 percent of our daily sodium count, and you might not expect some of them to be very salty:
- breads and rolls
- cold cuts and cured meats
- burritos and tacos
- chips and other snack foods
- eggs and omelets
Are some types of salt better than others?
How does plain old table salt stack up against kosher salt, sea salt, and trendy options like pink Himalayan salt? From a health perspective, there’s not much difference.
“They contain similar amounts of sodium by weight,” Kerkenbush says. And while it’s true that some sea salts may contain more trace minerals than table salt does, the amounts are pretty negligible.
That’s not to say fancier salts aren’t worth using. When sprinkled on top of a finished dish, flaky sea salt adds a crunchy texture that table salt can’t replicate. And some people simply prefer the flavor of certain salts to others.
Your body can’t tell much difference between types of salt. So go ahead and use your favorite salt — just in moderation.
Salt isn’t the only seasoning on the spice rack. Swapping it for these salt alternatives can help you trim back your daily sodium without sacrificing any flavor:
If you crave the taste of salt, you don’t need to banish it from your diet. Just use it with a bit more restraint.
Spend a few extra minutes at the store reading labels. It’s best to avoid foods with a daily value of 20 percent or more of sodium most of the time. And when you order at restaurants, ask if the chef can take it easy with the salt.
Even if you were a sodium fanatic before, you can find new ways to spice up your food. A splash of lemon or a teaspoon of garlic can add so much flavor that you might not even realize the salt is missing.