Understanding salt: how it affects the body

how salt affects the body

Blame it on the salt shaker, but the fact remains Americans eat too much salt — every day. Eating too much salt is a sure way to increase blood pressure, however, most people don’t understand how or why this happens.

When you eat salt your kidneys are forced to hold on to more water. The extra water stored in the body raises blood pressure, putting a strain on arteries, heart, kidneys and even on your brain. To remove this extra water, your body filters the blood via the kidneys. Extra fluid is then moved into the bladder and eventually excreted as urine.

To achieve this removal of extra water, the kidneys require a delicate balance of potassium and sodium. Through osmosis, the kidneys then draw extra water from the blood by pulling the water across a wall of cells from the bloodstream. This is the ‘extra water’ that is eventually deposited into the bladder. When you eat too much salt, the level of sodium in your blood wreaks havoc on this delicate balance reducing your kidney’s ability to remove the extra water.

About salt and sodium

Salt is a combination of two minerals, chloride and sodium. It’s sodium that’s considered to be the unhealthy part of salt. You can correctly interchange the words salt and sodium when referring to nutrition and food.

Salt under any other name is still salt and that includes table salt, sea salt and kosher salt. Neither of these are much healthier than the other because they all contain the same amount of sodium, which is 40 percent. The difference, however, is their grain size and intended use.

Table salt is the most processed and is void of any minerals. In order to make the salt grains extremely small so they can be used in seasoning, baking and in salt shakers, chemicals are added to prevent the grains from clumping and sticking together.

Sea salt, which does come from evaporated seawater, contains trace minerals that are left behind after evaporation. It’s these minerals that give sea salt its distinct flavor and coloring, making the large or small grains perfect for cooking and seasoning.

Kosher salt does not mean kosher, as in conforming to Jewish food laws. This large-grained salt should be properly referred to as kosher-style salt (to avoid food-law confusion) or to be even more accurate, koshering salt because it’s perfect for koshering meat. Kosher-style salt, which is the same as table salt, is preferred by chefs because it dissolves quickly, adheres to food and mixes well with other ingredients, making it easy to work with.

How much salt is too much?

Harvard health recommends adults consume a maximum of 2300 mg — which is about 6 grams or 1 teaspoon — of salt / sodium each day. To be on the safe side, doctors advise adults aim for no more than 1500 mg of salt per day especially if you are over the age of 51, are African-American, have diabetes, high blood pressure or chronic kidney disease.

You may be surprised to learn that more than 80 percent of the salt you consume each day already exists in the foods you eat. Processed and packaged foods, as well as restaurant and other prepared foods, are literally packed with salt. All this salt, including the salt you add yourself, goes toward your daily intake maximum.

How to reduce your salt intake

You can easily reduce your salt intake by eating fresh food, avoiding processed or packaged contents and by cooking meals at home. The following is a quick reference to sodium food labels:

  • Salt / sodium-free: food servings that contains 5 mg of sodium or less
  • Very low sodium: food servings that contain 35 mg or less
  • Low sodium: food servings that contain 140 mg or less
  • Lite sodium: a product that contains 50 percent less sodium than their regular version
  • Reduced sodium: a product that contains 25 percent less sodium than their regular version

Three things to understand about salt:

  • While sea salt does have some trace mineral health benefits, eating it instead of kosher-style or table salt will not lower your sodium intake.
  • Sea salt is not a low-sodium alternative to table salt.
  • Eating less salt / sodium will not affect your daily intake of iodine. Most Americans meet their daily iodine needs through the foods they eat. If you’re concerned about getting the necessary 150 micrograms of iodine per day, eat foods like fish, strawberries, yogurt, eggs, shellfish and milk as well as sea kelp, which is found in many Asian soups and sushi.

Rachel K. Johnson, Ph.D., R.D., and Bickford Professor of Nutrition at the University of Vermont stresses, “One of the keys to maintaining a heart-healthy diet is to control your sodium intake. If you’re consuming more sea salt than you otherwise would because you think it has less sodium, then you may be placing yourself at higher risk of developing high blood pressure, which raises your risk of heart disease.”