Archive for October, 2012

The Skinny On Salt

October 26, 2012


Andrew Siegel, M.D.   Blog # 81

Most of us adore our saltshakers and put them to frequent use.  Salting our foods enhances taste—imagine how bland French fries, scrambled eggs or popcorn would be without salt (aka sodium).  Salt also serves a function as a food preservative and played an important role as such in the days before refrigeration was widely available.  Historically, salt has been a valuable commodity. Think for a moment of all of the salt idioms used in our English language, many of which that convey the value of this essential mineral: “Salt of the earth”; “Worth one’s salt”; “Back to the salt mines”; “Rub salt in a wound”; “To salt away.”

Sodium is an important mineral, a critical electrolyte in terms of regulating fluid exchange within the body compartments, including membrane permeability in cells, nerve conduction, and muscle cell contraction of skeletal, smooth and cardiac muscles. However, when consumed in excess, it can wreak havoc on our bodies. Unfortunately, the majority of Americans consume more than twice the recommended upper limit of sodium, with most of us eating/drinking about 3400 mg sodium daily.

Excessive sodium intake increases our blood volume, which causes increased pressure within the arterial walls, known as hypertension.  Hypertension within the arterial walls contributes to the following serious ailments: coronary artery disease; aneurysms; stroke; congestive heart failure; and kidney disease.  These cardiovascular diseases are the leading causes of death in the USA.  So clearly, excess sodium intake contributes to the hypertension present in at least one of three Americans; this hypertension in turn is linked to cardiovascular disease and death.  Excess dietary sodium also promotes fluid retention and edema.

Although the recommended daily allowance of sodium is 2300 mg (one teaspoon), our bodies actually only require 500 mg of sodium daily, and most Americans would do well to consume no more than 1500 mg daily.

Sources of sodium include table salt, pickles, olives, canned soups, luncheon meats and deli products, cheeses in general and cottage cheese in particular, and bread.  Pizza is very high in sodium.  Snack foods such as chips, pretzels, and popcorn pack a load of sodium.  Condiments and salad dressings are major culprits as are processed, prepared foods, fast foods and many sauces including tomato, soy, Worcestershire and Tabasco. Chinese food and Mexican food are often bathed in salt.  Flavor enhancers such as Accent, for example, are mono-sodium glutamate and are thus very high in sodium.  Restaurant meals are a major source of sodium.  That gyro that I consumed for dinner the other evening was so salt-laden that I was thirsty all evening and the following morning I had trouble getting my wedding ring on!

Generally speaking, roughly 80% of our sodium comes from processed foods and restaurant dining, 10% occurs naturally, 5% is added at the table and 5% is added during cooking.

What To Do:

Lowering salt intake is an inexpensive and practical way to make a major impact on our overall cardiovascular health and avoid morbidity and mortality:

  • Increase potassium intake by eating more potassium-rich foods including root vegetables; sweet potatoes; green, leafy vegetables; grapes; yogurt; and tuna. (Increasing our potassium intake helps to lower blood pressure by blunting the effects of sodium.)
  • Use salt substitutes such as potassium chloride.
  • Read food labels carefully and compare brands—you might be shocked at how many foods that you would not expect have very high levels of sodium.
  • The less processed the better in terms of sodium content—in general, the more highly processed foods have more ingredients, are touched by more hands, and are usually located in the central area of supermarkets.
  • Avoid “instant” foods that are often high in sodium, e.g., Ramen noodles and Rice-a-Roni.
  • Use alternative flavors: think spicy (like chili or red peppers) instead of salty.
  • Eat fresh foods including fresh fruits and vegetables, which are extremely low in sodium.
  • Any animal product will have some degree of sodium as sodium it is a vital chemical to biological existence. Even a glass of milk will have over 100 mg of sodium.
  • Rinse off canned vegetables, tuna, etc.
  • The DASH diet (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) can be a very effective approach to lowering sodium consumption.

Take everything you read with a grain of salt, but trust me on this one—take your salt in moderation and your body will thank you!

Andrew Siegel, M.D.

Author of Promiscuous Eating: Understanding and Ending Our Self-Destructive Relationship with Food:

Available on Amazon in paperback or Kindle edition

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