Public health officials have absolutely vilified salt, stating that reducing salt in the diet will improve health and will prevent cardiovascular disease and stroke. Unfortunately, the data doesn’t pan out. This article will provide ten myths and facts about how salt impacts your health with tips for getting just the right amount of salt in your diet.
Myth: Sodium Has No Health Benefits—It’s Just Bad For You!
Due to the rampant public health message that EVERYONE should limit sodium consumption, it’s not surprising if you don’t know that sodium is actually essential for human health. Not only does sodium enable hydration, it is also necessary for regulating sympathetic nervous system activity, avoiding insulin resistance, and managing blood sugar levels (1).
Fact: Your Body Needs Sodium EVERY DAY
Experts vary on exactly how much salt you need daily for health, but one thing we know for sure is that sodium plays an essential role in maintaining homeostasis in the body.
Myth: Cutting Salt Reduces Risk of Heart Attacks
Unfortunately, passing on the salt shaker doesn’t appear to be effective for lowering your risk of heart attack or stroke. A study published in JAMA reported that subjects with lower levels of urinary sodium excretion (an excellent measure of prior consumption) had a greater risk of dying from heart disease (2). Additionally, a 2011 review found that there was not enough evidence to say definitively that a low-salt diet will reduce heart attacks and strokes (3).
Fact: Humans Are Hardwired to Seek Out Salt
Because sodium is essential for human health, we have developed a behavioral drive to consume salt that is stimulated by the brain. A 2013 study from UC Davis found that sodium intake is controlled by networks in the brain and that the “normal” range as defined by the body’s biological need is 2,600 to 4,800 mg per day with the average intake being 3,650 mg (which just happens to be slightly higher than the average American’s sodium intake) (4).
Myth: Salt Makes You Bloated
Feeling bloated is generally caused by excess gas production, which is most impacted by diet, assuming you don’t have a health condition that is causing it. A high sodium intake can lead to water retention, which is not the same thing as bloating.
Fact: The Increase In Total Body Water Is Temporary & Will Dissipate
In your cells, sodium acts like a sponge. Wherever sodium is, water follows. When you increase sodium intake, your body holds onto more water. However, this increase is temporary, which means that if you are currently eating a low sodium diet and decide to increase your sodium intake in a quest for better health, you’re unlikely to feel bloated. Rather, your cells will have the hydration they require, physical performance will improve, and you’ll feel more energetic.
Myth: Sea Salt Contains Less Sodium & Is Healthier Than Regular Salt
Sea salt and table salt contain about the same amount of sodium—40 percent. The other 60 percent is chloride. The main difference between the two is that sea salt is obtained through the evaporation of seawater. It only undergoes minimal processing and therefore retains trace levels of minerals like magnesium, potassium, calcium and other nutrients. This is why many people say it is healthier than table salt, which is mined from salt deposits in the earth and processed in order to create a uniform texture for cooking. It also has additives to prevent caking.
Fact: Too Much Water Is More Dangerous Than Too Much Salt
Few people think of water as dangerous, but drinking excessive amounts can lead to the condition of hyponatremia, which causes weakness, confusion, seizures or even death (5). Why would someone drink too much water? It’s common in endurance athletes who are attempting to avoid dehydration. When excessive water is consumed the sodium in the blood is diluted, causing abnormally low sodium levels and putting the individual at risk of death.
Myth: You Need To Restrict Salt To Lower Diabetes Risk
Restricting sodium intake increases the cells resistance to insulin, which is associated with increased diabetes risk over time. The mechanism has to do with how salt intake affects hormone balance: When you limit sodium, hydration is reduced, which the body compensates for by increasing release of epinephrine, renin and angiotensin, all of which inhibit the action of insulin (6). As insulin sensitivity is reduced it means your body must produce more insulin in order to store carbohydrates, which can increase fat storage and compromise metabolic health in the long run.
Fact: You Need More Sodium If You’re Under Chronic Stress
When you’re under chronic stress, the adrenal glands continually secrete the stress hormone cortisol. Levels of aldosterone, another stress hormone that retains sodium and helps the body regulate fluid levels, is often reduced, leading to excess salt excretion by the kidneys. The result is electrolyte imbalance (often potassium is elevated while sodium is low) and dehydration. People often crave salt and suffer from fatigue, lightheadedness and cognitive fuzziness (7).
In addition to bumping up your sodium intake, solving the root of the problem is essential. Adopting strategies to cope with stress, get adequate sleep, and eat a healthy high-protein, whole food diet are all methods of getting your stress hormones under control.
Five Tips For Getting The Right Amount Of Sodium In Your Diet
#1: Eat Whole Foods Instead of Processed Foods
The main reason public health organizations are so obsessed with having you restrict your salt intake is that processed foods, which make up the majority of the average American’s diet, are packed with sodium. Of course, sodium is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to what’s wrong with processed foods: Added sugar, processed unhealthy fats, excessive amounts of soy and corn, and artificial additives and flavorings are all ubiquitous in processed and packaged foods.
#2: Assess Sweat & Physical Activity Levels
Even if you’re not sweating a lot, active people have higher sodium needs than sedentary individuals due to the role of sodium in muscle contraction and vascularity. If you sweat a lot during training, sodium needs increase significantly. Some people are “salty” sweaters, losing a large amount of sodium in sweat, whereas others lose only a little. In one study of tennis players, sodium loss from sweat ranged from 1.375 to 4.77 grams per hour. Average loss was 2.715 g/hour.
#3: Consider Health Factors
In certain cases a lower sodium intake may be warranted. For example, in the case of severe acne, restricting sodium can help reduce symptoms (8). Or, in someone with diagnosed high blood pressure, moderating sodium intake is a smart move even if it’s not necessary to go below the 1,500 mg recommended by the USDA. If you have kidney disease, a lower sodium intake may be ideal, whereas insulin resistance might indicate a higher sodium intake (with a healthy diet of course!).
#4: Account For Meat Intake
Historically, societies that eat red meat do not require much additional sodium in their diets, whereas vegetarian based societies seek out salt due to a lower natural sodium intake. Additionally, processed meats use sodium to enhance flavor and as a preservative. Your average 3-ounce portion of turkey deli meat has about 1,000 mg of sodium and 3 ounces of pork sausage has about 621 mg.
#5: Consider Stress Levels
Higher stress levels deplete sodium and increase overall nutrient needs, particularly of magnesium. Consuming high quality, unprocessed sea salt is recommended because it provides a range of micronutrients including magnesium, calcium, and potassium.
Calculate Daily Water & Sodium Needs
A general recommendation is to get 2 grams of sodium for each liter of water you drink. For the average person who trains regularly but does not sweat excessively, recommended water intake is 0.6 to 0.7 ounces per pound of body weight.
If you weigh 160 pounds, drink between 96 and 112 ounces of water, which is 3 to 3.5 liters. That equals out to 3 to 3.5 grams of sodium daily, which is right in the sweet spot for “hardwired” sodium intake that was identified in the UC Davis study.
Naturally, if you’re a heavy sweater or are training twice a day, water and sodium needs will increase. Remember that salt is only about 40 percent sodium, so if your goal is 3 to 3.5 grams of sodium daily, you need to consume between 7.5 and 8.8 grams of salt daily.