SHOULD WE BE SCARED OF SALT/SODIUM?

Updated: Aug 1

You've probably heard bad things about salt and sodium before. Have you ever asked yourself if pink salt is really healthier than table salt, or if sea salt is better than Celtic salt? Is salt bad for you and are there really healthier versions? Why should you even care about salt or sodium consumption? How about salt mined from the Himalayas? How about salt baths? I'll answer all these salty questions here by using the best scientific evidence available. Turns out that salt can really cause problems for some people and you might be surprised to find out some of my salty secrets.

What is salt?


The word "salt" can have many meanings. If we're talking about table salt, then we are talking about sodium chloride, the white crystalline substance that gives seawater its characteristic taste. We use it to season or preserve food. The chemists in the room will also use the word salt to describe any chemical compound formed from the reaction of an acid with a base, with all or part of the hydrogen of the acid replaced by a metal or other cation. Sounds complicated right? From now on, when I talk about salt, I'll be specifically be talking about table salt. If I'm referring to other types of salts, like Epsom salts for example, I'll make sure to specify, since these salts are very different from the ones we consume regularly.



Salt For Survival


Sodium and chloride that make up salt are two essential electrolytes and minerals that are needed for normal bodily functions. Our bodies have intricate chemical processes whose purpose is to maintain sodium and chlorine concentrations in a very narrow range. Too much or too little of each and our body can be in grave danger. Hypo or hypernatremia, aka too little or too much sodium in the blood, can give symptoms that can range from muscle cramps, to low blood pressure all the way to seizures and death. If you have healthy kidneys, then you need not worry, they'll be working hard behind the scenes to keep sodium and chloride concentrations in that normal narrow range. Sodium from salt helps us maintain proper blood volumes and if you remember osmosis from grade 9 biology, you'll know that water will cross semi-permeable membranes in order to dilute high concentrations of sodium. So sodium concentrations play a crucial role in maintaining blood volume and perfusion of vital organs, as well as neuromuscular function, meaning the proper functioning of our nervous system and muscles.


The main issue with salt consumption is that we simply consume way too much. There are special circumstances, like malnutrition, where some would consume too little salt, but in modern society, excessive consumption is the primary root of its many evils.


How Much Is Too Much?


The WHO recommends less than about 2000 mg of sodium per day, which represents about 5 grams of table salt, or a little more that 3/4 of a teaspoon. Health Canada recommends between 1500-2300 mg, with their daily limit at one teaspoon. The problem is that studies published by Health Canada in 2018 show that the average consumption of sodium is closer to 3000 mg, well above the recommended intakes. A closer look shows that 58% of Canadians aged 1 year and older, and 72% of children between the ages of 4 and 13 years still exceed recommended limits of sodium intake. If you want to purposefully consume excessive amounts of salts, then by all means go for it, but I'm worried about young children growing up while consuming super excessive amounts.


Now if you think this statistic doesn't apply to you, you may be surprised to find out that our main source of sodium isn't your salt shaker. In fact, studies show that up to 70% of our sodium is consumed directly through processed foods. We'll get back to these shocking numbers later, but first, check out this disturbing chart reviewing sodium intakes in Canada. The AI represents the adequate intake levels, whereas the UL shows the upper limit. You'll quickly notice how fast all age groups, including the 1-3 year old group, blow by the upper recommended limit.



Sodium And Health


Most people think that table salt is bad, further reinforcing their belief that other types of salt must be better. First, we must recognize that salt isn't inherently bad. Quite the opposite actually. We need salt to survive. We have evolved with a tongue that has the ability to detect the presence of salt through taste, so we can more easily seek out foods that contain it. Salt isn't the devil. The problem is simple, through food processing, we are now exposed to exponentially more salt than ever before during our evolution and the increase in salt intake happened super quickly, over the span of the last 5000 years. Our bodies have evolved over millions of years in a way to spot, seek out and store salt, but in the era of excess, our bodies aren't yet adapted to cope with the insanely increased amounts we consume.


Studies show that ancestral salt consumption rates were much lower than our modern day intakes. In fact, studies of paleolithic nutrition, an era spanning millions of years, suggest that amounts of less than 500 mg per day were consumed. No wonder our bodies aren't yet equipped to cope with the taxing amount we feed it daily.


Excess sodium has many proven negative effects on our health. It has been shown to increase heart disease by promoting elevations in blood pressure. Remember our old friend osmosis from your high-school biology class? Turns out that excessive dietary salt makes it hard for our kidneys to do their job and excrete water and sodium correctly and where salt goes, water follows. Excess sodium in your blood will lead to excess water and this contributes directly to elevations blood pressure. Higher blood pressures will lead to excess stress on a blood vessel's lining. This leads to added stress on almost all organs in which excessive blood pressure is dangerous, which is pretty much all of them. Hypertension is well recognized as a major risk factor for heart disease, strokes and chronic kidney disease. In Canada, almost 1 in 4 adults are hypertensive and this ramps up to almost 1 in 2 over 50 years old. Annually, straight from the GOC website, hypertension is the most common reason to visit a doctor and in 2007, 21.1 million visits to community physicians in Canada were made for high blood pressure, meaning that it's likely way-worst today. It is estimated that minor reductions in daily sodium intake down to recommended levels could result in over one million fewer Canadians with hypertension.


More fun facts about salt and hypertension:

  • More than 30% of cases of hypertension could be directly attributed to excessive sodium intake alone

  • Hypertension is the number one reason for taking medication; over 4 million anti-hypertensive medication prescriptions are written every month; 46% of women and 38% of men aged 60 or over are on drug therapy

  • The lifetime risk for developing hypertension among adults aged 55 to 65 years with normal blood pressure is 90%

  • Over $2.3 billion was spent for hypertension on physician, medication and laboratory costs in 2003

High dietary sodium intake is also directly associated with increased rates of stomach cancer and countries with the highest salt consumption rates have the highest stomach cancer rates as well. No one seems to talk about this, but excessive salt consumption is causally associated to stomach cancer.


Salt Addiction


Are salt and sodium addictive? Yes. We naturally evolved to seek out salty foods. Our tongue has a specific area dedicated to tasting salt, which reflects how important it is for our survival. Over the course of human history, finding salt was relatively hard and so we evolved with salt cravings as a normal survival mechanism. It's only been for the past few thousand years that we've learned to mine, harvest and isolate salt. It has been estimated that for millions of years, we evolved while consuming less than 500 mg of salt per day. Fast forward to modern times, where we consume more than 5-6 times that amount. Salt cravings often signal dehydration and hunger and motivate us to seek out such foods. The taste of salt then sends reward signals to our brains that trigger the release of dopamine, a brain neurotransmitter that we associate with feelings of joy or euphoria. In today's world of excess, our taste buds get down regulated (or dumbed down) and normal concentrations of salt don't taste good anymore, much in the same way that sugar from apples tastes disgusting after chugging down a liter of cola. To achieve the desired reward sensation with salt, we end up needing more and the cycle never stops.


Hiding In Plain Sight

When people hear sodium, or salt, they automatically think about their salt shaker. So much so that when questioned about their lifestyle during my hypertension questionnaire, most reply that they don't understand the diagnosis since they "don't salt their food". Most people don't recognize that up to 75% of daily sodium intake doesn't even come from added salt from a salt shaker, but from sodium added to commercially processed foods and animal products, either for taste or preservation. Processed meats contain enormous amounts of sodium and other meats are often injected with salt water to increase weight, improve taste and preservation of food by fighting pathogens they might contain. For the average person, table salt and salt shakers only account for less than 10% of our daily intakes.



In Canada, the top contributors of salt intake were bread, processed meats and pasta dishes. Note that some foods are high in sodium but consumed in lower amounts, like processed meats and gravies and sauces, while others are lower in sodium but are eaten in higher amounts, like breads. The issue is not necessarily that bread is too high in sodium, but more that we eat way too much bread, but that's another article altogether. Here's a pie chart from a Canadian study illustrating how sodium sneaks its way into our diets.


Here’s a quick glance at how big corporations with rake in much more profits by investing small amounts of money to add sodium to foods, knowing that it will incite consumers to consume more. Salt is added to increase taste and thirst, as well as weight and bulk, as is the case for meats sold by the pound. Pepsi and Frito-Lay are the same company, and it’s no coincidence that the company that sells salty potato chips also sells thirst quenching cola.


The Sexy Kinds of Salt


Pink Himalayan rock salts, salt lamps, Epsom salts and many other different types of salts have been cashing in on our tendency to villainize table salt. Is this hype or is there actual scientific studies and evidence suggesting that we should use other salts than the table salt we used to know and love?

Right off the bat, I’m gonna break it to you, no studies has ever specifically pinned the different types of salts head to head in trials to then measure health outcomes. So for now, the purported health claims are simply that, claims. Even if millions were spent to attempt to answer that question, it is highly unlikely that it would show any benefit at all from consuming certain specific types of salt. Let’s start by describing each salt individually and then I’ll summarize their differences and similarities.

Table Salt


Like I stated before, table salt is mostly sodium and chloride. This salt is the most refined of them all and comes from the evaporation of sea water or from salt mines. By highly processing it, it becomes heavily ground into a finer powder. Most of its impurities are removed as well as most of the trace elements and minerals it used to contain in its purest form. Some might see this as a bad thing, but these trace minerals are easily obtained from other food sources in much higher quantities and by no means do you need salt to obtain them. On top of removing minerals, microplastics floating in our oceans are also removed. Other things are also added to it. Anti-caking agents keeps finely ground sea salt from clumping together. Our salt in Canada is also iodized. Believe me, that’s a good thing. Goiter and thyroid dysfunction affected up to 25% of people 100 years ago. Our soils used to contain reliable sources of iodine, which means our plants used to carry some, but the poor management of our soils have made then unreliable as an iodine source. Very smart people figured out that we could iodize salt, and with the signing of a contract, thyroid goiter was almost eradicated. This is one of the rare cases where food processing is actually beneficial. You see, people assume negative things as soon as the words “refined” or “processed” are used. There’s often more to the story. The issue isn’t table salt as a food, but simply the excessive amounts we use.

Pink Himalayan Salt


This much sought after commodity is mined from salt mines in Pakistan. Like any other salt, it’s mainly composed of sodium chloride, but at a slightly lower concentration, since it also has small amounts of calcium, iron, potassium and magnesium. The iron it contains reacts with oxygen, forming iron oxide. If this chemical compound sounds familiar, it’s because it’s the same as the rust that forms on your car. It’s this process that gives the salt its pink color. Aside from looking better in your culinary creations, it has no additional benefits from table salt. Make sure to remember that this salt isn’t iodized, so your iodine must be found elsewhere.


Sea Salt


Obviously, this version comes from evaporated seawater. It contains mainly sodium chloride, but also contains trace minerals like potassium, iron and zinc. Sea salt quality is also highly variable, and although people love the concept of minimally processed salt, the lack of processing creates ignorance towards the fact that this type of salt frequently contains microplastics and heavy metals, which are not a good thing. Heavy metals, like lead, are bad news and microplastics, the microscopic remains of plastic waste, are currently under investigation for their negative health impacts. This is another one of the examples where food processing isn't necessarily a bad thing. Sea salt comes in larger coarse grains, which are boasted as being easier to pinch and sprinkle on recipes, which makes this version more popular with chefs and amateurs alike. Sea salt isn’t always iodized so make sure to find other iodine containing foods.


Celtic Salt


This is also a type of sea salt. The trace minerals and water it contains gives it its moistness and grayish colour. It has basically the same properties and characteristics as sea salt.


Their Main Differences


The main differences between all of these types of salts are personal preference. Grain size can affect taste and texture. Colours are merely a reflection of mineral content, but variations are very small and should not affect your choice significantly. Studies have actually looked at the differences in mineral contents between different types of salt. Comparing their concentrations in sodium reveals differences of only 5-6%. Their mineral content differences are even much smaller. Calcium, potassium, magnesium and iron concentrations rarely vary by more than a fraction of a percent between the different salt types. Remember that salt contains trace amounts of these minerals, which are negligible amounts in comparison to what you would obtain through actual food. Choosing salt types based on their mineral content is not only a waste of time or money, but is highly unlikely to affect your health in any significant way. Salt is salt. Use it to add flavor, not as a health food. Having a millionth of a gram of magnesium more than the other salt isn't going to give you any super powers.


Epsom Salts


Epsom salt is very different from table salt. It's a chemical compound containing magnesium, oxygen and sulfur, also called magnesium sulfate and doesn't contain sodium or chloride at all. It gets its name from the town of Epsom, in London, where it was discovered. Although similar in appearance, this salt is very different from the table salt we consume. It is often used in its dissolved form in baths, which is why many people refer to it as bath salts. It tastes bitter and quite gross to be honest, but some still consume it by drinking it dissolved in water.


Once dissolved, it releases magnesium and sulfate. Magnesium, found in many whole foods, is widely under consumed in the modern day meal. The idea with drinking Epsom Salt is that the magnesium can be used as a supplement when taken by mouth, or used as a laxative. There are also many claims that magnesium can be absorbed through the skin, which is why many people use it as bath salts. No well-done or peer reviewed studies have proven beyond a doubt that magnesium is efficiently absorbed through the skin, but no reported side effects exist either. The absence of good evidence isn't synonymous with evidence of zero effect, but no good studies have succeeded in demonstrating that magnesium is absorbed through the skin in any significant amount. Epsom salt baths are used to provide relaxation, reduce pain or muscle soreness. These claims are simply anecdotal, but if you find salt baths helpful, by all means, go for it!


TIPS FOR LOWERING SALT CONSUMPTION


Although I've been rambling on about the different types of salt, remember this: salt is salt, and the issue is that we simply consume too much unknowingly through processed foods. Our goal should be to reduce considerably the amount we consume everyday, knowing that our health could improve after doing so.


Seasoning your food with other spices like garlic or onion powders, paprika, peppers, nutritional yeast or whichever you prefer is a surefire way to reduce salt and increase your antioxidant intake at the same time. Remember that herbs and spices are, pound for pound, the most concentrated forms of antioxidants and a little goes a long way in assisting you on your health journey.


Cutting down slowly on the amount of processed foods and replacing them with whole food versions will drastically reduce your daily intake of sodium. Including more fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, whole grains and legumes to your diet will help also. Look for products with labels indicating lower sodium content than the original package. Don't forget that our taste buds get dumbed down from repeated exposure to excessive salt intake and it will take a good month or two before they get used to tasting normal salt content in your food. Take your time, reduce slowly and progressively and in no time, whole foods will taste good again. Personally, I still use the salt shaker since I don't eat much processed foods at all. This way, I never eat salt in excess and I don't have to worry about getting adequate iodine, since the salt I use is always iodized table salt.


If you suffer from hypertension, chronic kidney disease or other medical conditions, you should likely aim for less than 1500-2000 mg per day. Remember that the average intake is north of 3000 mg! Talk to your doctor if you think this may apply to you.


In a perfect world, you'd learn how to read nutrition labels! I'm confident that I'll get to writing an article about this soon! For now, a good rule of thumb is that if a food has more sodium per serving than calories per serving, then you may want to look for lower sodium alternatives. Don't be afraid of salt. Be afraid of highly processed foods because these are the main culprits, not your salt shaker. After years of consuming these foods, you may not even recognize their high sodium content, since your taste buds are so used the being bombarded with high sodium foods. Also remember that salt cravings are often a sign of dehydration and drinking some water might quench this craving for unhealthy food. If you're cooking for yourself, while using mostly whole foods, then you likely will never have to worry about sodium at all.


My Sweet and Salty Conclusion


Salt and sodium aren't evil. We need them to survive. We evolved with intricate mechanisms to ensure that we get enough, since our ancestral diets were so low in salt. Nowadays, we consume so much that it's making our maladapted modern bodies sick. It's not completely your fault though. Big food corporation hide the sodium very well, in order to exploit your reward centers and keep you begging for more. No wonder normal whole foods don't taste like anything anymore. Honestly, you'd still be better off using a salt shaker to season whole food, especially if it's gonna help you eat more! So keep sodium down by keeping processed foods low and focusing on whole plant foods as much as possible!


Check out my website plantbaseddrjules.com and look for the “How To” section in the menu. There, you’ll find tips and tricks that helped me on my journey towards a plant-predominant diet. Everything there is completely free, no catches! If you're looking for quick, easy and healthy plant-based recipes, check out plantbaseddrjules.com and download my free recipe eBook!


Look for me on the socials, @plantbased_dr_jules on Instagram and go like my Facebook Page, Plant-based Dr. Jules. If you’re looking for some fitness motivation and are curious to see what a plant-based athlete can accomplish, follow me, @maritimeninja, on my fitness account on Instagram or check out my fitness group on Facebook, called Maritime Ninja Warrior.


Thanks so much for reading!

Plant-Based Dr. Jules 💚🌱

plantbaseddrjules.com

@plantbased_dr_jules

@maritimeninja



Thanks so much for reading!

Plant-based Dr Jules 🌱💚

plantbaseddrjules.com





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