There is little doubt that we get far too much sodium in our diet. This includes not only adults, but children as well. A recent study reported by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found that adults take in an average of 3,466 mg of sodium every day, closely followed by children at 3,387 mg per day. These are both considerably more than the government’s recommended daily intake of 2,300 mg. There is reason to be concerned. High sodium intake can lead to high blood pressure and increase your risk of stroke or heart attack. However, eating too little salt can be bad for you too.
A study that was published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) found that low salt diets not only do not prevent you from getting high blood pressure, but they actually increase your risk of dying from heart attack or stroke. Similar results were found in a study that was published in the American Journal of Medicine in 2006, where a low-salt diet was associated with a significant increase in heart attack rates. Not only that, but scientists found that restricting sodium may promote insulin resistance, and thus increase the risk of diabetes.
Although the above studies suggest that for most of the population a low salt diet is not the best idea, some populations need to keep their sodium intake down to about 1500 mg per day, which includes children and the elderly and anyone who currently suffers from hypertension or heart disease. Given the sodium in the typical American diet, this can prove to be a challenge.
Our diet is filled with processed food and meals from fast food restaurants, which is where the majority of sodium can be found in our diet. Most people are amazed to find that only about 10% of the sodium we eat each day comes from the salt shaker on the table or from cooking at home. Sodium is added to processed foods by the manufacturer in order to increase their flavor and to extend shelf life. Even foods we would not necessarily consider salty, such as some breakfast cereals, are surprisingly high in sodium; for example, one cup of Grape Nuts contains 580 mg of sodium.
Most of the sodium contained in processed and fast foods is pure sodium chloride (usually with an anti-caking agent added). This is essentially the same as refined table salt, food manufacturers just use it in larger amounts. Now, all salt originally comes from evaporated seawater, whether the sea dried up millennia ago or not. This evaporated seawater leaves behind mostly sodium chloride, but also has trace elements of other minerals such as potassium, magnesium and calcium. The refining process not only removes these important trace elements, it also adds bits of other substances that are used during the process of refining the salt, such as ammonium citrate, sodium ferrocyanide, aluminum silicate and bleaching agents.
Centuries ago, unless you lived by the sea where access to salt was no problem, salt was considered a precious substance. The term salary comes from the practice of paying Roman soldiers a subsidy so they could buy salt, and at a medieval table, people who were considered important were seated “above the salt.” It is a vital element to our body’s proper functioning, getting our muscles moving and allowing our heart to keep beating. It also helps us to maintain a healthy fluid balance and allows us to think clearly. If we become dehydrated through sweating (as those practicing intense sports can become) it is important that not only to take in enough water, but take in some salt as well to replace electrolytes, or seizures may result.
So while you want to be sure to keep your intake of salt within recommended limits, it’s also important to use salt that has been as minimally processed as possible so you also get the important trace elements it naturally contains. Unrefined sea salt (particularly gray salt, Celtic sea salt and Himalayan sea salt) retains up to 90 of these trace elements. Also, unrefined salt contains less sodium (typically 85%-90% as opposed to 98%) and tastes remarkably more flavorful, which allows you to use less of it in your food.
If you are concerned about iodine deficiency (all table salt is iodized to reduce the incidence of thyroid disease), most people who eat a balanced diet that includes fish, seafood, eggs and dairy products likely get a sufficient amount already. For vegetarians or vegans, kelp and other sea vegetables can provide an excellent source of iodine.