As a nutritionist, I spend a lot of my time busting myths. For instance: Are grains fabulous for you? No. Is a low-fat diet the best way to lose weight? No. Is soy a wonder food? No.
And today, I’m here to bust another myth: The myth that you should slash the salt in your diet to nearly zero.
For years, we’ve heard that SALT EQUALS DEATH—at least if you use enough to make your food taste good. As a result, many people suffer through meals so bland that they hardly qualify as food. But guess what: All that suffering may be for nothing.
Now, right off the bat, I want to say that a salt overload is bad for you. If you eat a steady diet of packaged foods—which manufacturers frequently cram full of unnecessary salt—you’re getting way, way more salt than you need. Over time, that can make you sick or even kill you. A new study from Finland, for instance, indicates that adding large amounts of salt to your diet can double your risk for heart failure.
However, other research is revealing that you aren’t doing yourself any favors if you short your salt, either. In fact, you may be putting yourself at serious risk instead.
What salt does for you
To understand why it’s crucial to get enough salt in your diet, you need to know about the many roles it plays in your health.
First, salt is about 40% sodium. Your nerves and muscles can’t function without sodium, and here are just some of the other reasons why it’s important:
- It helps maintain a healthy water balance in your body.
- It helps to control your insulin sensitivity.
- It keeps your body from producing an excess of renin and aldosterone, which are inflammatory substances that can damage your circulatory system.
In addition, salt contains chloride, a key component of the hydrochloric acid that digests your food. Chloride also helps regulate your pH, water levels, blood volume, and blood pressure.
Add all this up, and it’s no surprise that a diet too low in salt can be bad for you. In fact, a Danish meta-analysis of 25 studies found that either too much OR too little salt intake increases mortality. Another study, involving more than 130,000 people from 49 countries, found that regardless of whether people have high blood pressure, low sodium intake is associated with more heart attacks, strokes, and deaths compared to average intake. And still more research casts serious doubt on the idea that a moderate salt intake raises blood pressure levels dangerously for most people.
Researcher Andrew Mente, who studies the effects of salt, recently said, “There is no longer any valid basis for the current salt guidelines. So why are we still scaring people about salt?”
How to be “salt smart”
In some situations—for instance, if you have kidney disease—you’ll need to limit your salt intake. You should also cut down if you’re truly “salt-sensitive,” and salt does indeed raise your blood pressure. Otherwise, there’s no reason to keep eating a low-salt, no-taste diet! Instead, simply follow these rules:
- First, buy the right salt. I recommend switching from regular table salt—which is heavily processed and contains anti-caking ingredients such as aluminum—to Celtic sea salt or Himalayan salt. These natural salts are rich in minerals that processing strips out of regular salt.
One important note: Celtic sea salt and Himalayan salt aren’t iodized in their natural state. If you switch to them, be sure to get enough iodine in your diet from foods (eggs, fish, and seaweed are good sources) or from a supplement containing iodine. Here’s more on choosing the best salt.
- Second, stay in the salt “sweet spot,” so you don’t eat too much or too little. Many researchers recommend eating between 2.6 and 4.9 grams of salt a day. Here’s how to get the right amount without going crazy reading labels:
- Avoid processed foods, which typically contain huge amounts of salt. Instead, eat plenty of fresh, natural foods. These provide you with a good balance of sodium and other nutrients, such as potassium, that balance the sodium out.
- Trust your taste buds, and salt your food just enough for it to taste good.
- Drink plenty of water, which will flush out excess salt if you do occasionally overdo it.
- Add some extra salt to your diet after a strenuous workout or on a hot day.
It’s as simple as that. So go ahead… put that salt shaker back on the table, and start loving your food again. And consider another nutrition myth busted!
Keep thinking Big and living BOLD!
Is the American diet too salty? Scientists challenge the longstanding government warning
Eating less salt doesn’t cut heart risks: study
Low-salt diets may not be beneficial for all, study suggests
Levels of sodium intake recommended by CDC associated with harmful health outcomes
Salt and our Health
Low-salt diet increases insulin resistance in healthy subjects
High salt intake associated with doubled risk of heart failure