Is Throwing Out the Salt Shaker Good or Bad for Healthy Aging?
I like salty foods. I realize that this is not considered an especially smart thing to admit to these days. Nevertheless it’s true. I like salt. Sweets are good too, but, it wouldn’t be devastating for me to cut back drastically. Well… maybe not “drastically,” since I already try to avoid too much sugar. But, when it comes to salt, like many people, I need to work on my restraint.
All that said, there is a simple truth that most people don’t know – salt isn’t evil!
Salt of the Earth
People described as “salt of the earth” aren’t perfect. They are just “good ol’ folk,” with positive and negative attributes. What a simile!
A bit of sodium chloride, otherwise known as table salt, brings out flavor in our food. In addition, it is not just tasty – it is vital to life.
On the positive side, salt keeps our intra-cellular and extra-cellular fluids (meaning inside and outside of cells) in balance. Sodium, in conjunction with potassium, aids the directional slopes for electrical transmission. This is necessary for nerve transmission, our muscular contractions and other functions.
Why Does Salt Get Such a Bad Rap?
Well, it all starts with the fact that water binds with sodium. As a result, an excess of salt can increase your blood pressure. An increase in blood pressure (hypertension) makes the heart work harder.
Unfortunately, consuming an “excess” of salt is common. The recommended daily limit for sodium is 2.3 grams (2300 mg), but most of us consume about 3.3 grams (3300 mg) per day. Yikes! That is definitely over the limit.
While not a disease itself, hypertension is a major risk factor for some serious diseases, like heart, stroke or kidney failure. This is why major health organizations – such as American Heart Association, American Diabetes Association, Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics and the US Dept of Agriculture – recommend cutting back on sodium.
It is also why, in December 2015, the city of New York implemented new rules for fast food menu items, including a salt warning. But is this the whole story?
How Much Salt is “Too Much?”
According to JAMA (the Journal of the America Medical Association), studies indicate that there is a “J-shaped” curve when it comes to the benefits and risks associated with consuming salt. Too much AND too little salt are harmful.
The sweet spot – like for many truths – is somewhere in between. The precise relationship between these risks and sodium intake remain uncertain, although the average over-consumption is not uncertain.
Confusingly, for some people, according to multiple studies on salt restriction, throwing away the salt shaker can have negative health effects.
According to the Metabolism Clinical and Experimental Journal, salt reduction can increase insulin resistance – a leading cause of diabetes and obesity.
Surprisingly, and in contrast to what one would expect from their traditional “low-salt” recommendations, the Diabetes Foundation’s own study on Type II Diabetes stated that less sodium was associated with an increased risk of death. In addition, a review of 57 studies from the National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI), established that restricted salt diets were found to increase LDL (“bad” cholesterol) and Triglycerides, by rather significant amounts, 4.6% and 5.9% respectively.
Another NCBI review of 7 studies concluded that, based on the current research, it is still unclear what side-effects restricted salt diets have. They go on to say that it is still not time to contradict traditional advice. At the same time, they realize that the benefits of reducing salt are probably slight in terms of lowering blood pressure.
Considering all this, does the phrase “clear as mud” come to mind?
On the good news side, exercise has a clear impact on sodium levels for people with mild hypertension and JOY OF ALL JOYS, dark chocolate may be even more beneficial for avoiding heart disease than a reduction in salt consumption.
Is it Time to Eat All the Salt You Want?
No. Can you hear me weeping? This is especially true if you are currently being treated for hypertension, if you are African American or if you are over 50 years old.
The general recommendations for salt intake are slightly less than a teaspoon a day (2.3g.) This would be easy, if it wasn’t for the fact that, as we all know, there is way too much salt hiding in prepared or processed foods. This is true, despite the manufacturers’ marketing claims of “reduced sodium content.”
Did New York Get it Right?
This is where the recent New York City rules come in. I don’t eat out as much as some people. That said, I know that many of us, especially in large cities, eat at restaurants and fast food chains every day. That’s okay – but not if we have no clue WHAT we are eating.
Former NYC mayor, Michael Bloomberg, implemented a ban on trans-fats (a true evil). Perhaps just as significant was the implementation of calorie labels in fast food restaurants.
On the rare occasions that I have eaten in these ubiquitous chains, this labeling has only impacted my habits ever-so-slightly. Most often, I change my “special coffee” order after being reminded that my desired drink accounts for half a day’s calories.
Now, the current DeBlasio administration is tackling the salt issue. I’ve already said that salt is not all bad. At the same time, for me, this is a transparency issue. Like many women, I want to at least know how much salt is in a particular dish, especially it exceeds my level for the suggested daily limit.
Under the new system, a warning symbol – a black triangle containing a small salt shaker – will let a patrons if the meals they are considering are high in sodium. As mentioned, while we do need sodium, we don’t need excess sodium. The new warning logo is a starting point to help us take control of our salt intake.
I truly appreciated the comments of Dr. Howard Weintraub, co-director of the NY University Langone Center for the Prevention of Cardiovascular Disease. He agreed that it is too easy to get 2.3 grams of sodium per day. Then, he added that “things are not going to work out great if all you do is just not eat salt.”
Finally, he expressed the hope that “maybe, just maybe, they’ll start to watch how much they eat, maybe they will get off the subway a stop earlier and walk, instead of taking the elevator, they will walk two flights, there will be some weight loss.” Of course, his reference to “they” is us!
Editor’s note: Of course, everyone’s situation is different. So, it makes sense to check with your doctor before making significant changes to your diet. Depending on your situation, you may find that you are getting too much (most likely) or too little (less likely) salt every day. If you decide that you need to reduce your sale intake, here are some tips from Barbara.
First, keep in mind that there are many great solutions if you want to cook without salt. For example, you can look at the advice from Colorado State University or the Mayo Clinic. That said, keep in mind that using actual salt substitutes does nothing to stop our addiction to the taste itself.
Next, consider getting a salt shaker with smaller holes for your home. This may help you to reduce your daily salt intake. Just don’t shake twice as hard!
Finally, despite traditional cooking recipes and family advice, don’t add salt as you cook. There are exceptions, but, in general, salting at the table will not “hide” sodium as much as throwing it in the pot. Salt “in” food is most often hidden. Salt “on” food has a chance to hit your tongue with its full strength.
The bottom line is that, in general, we really do seem to eat too much salt. That said, we don’t have to give it up completely. On balance, if we maintain healthy habits, avoid excessively salty menu items, and reduce our “shaking” at home, we’ll be just fine!
Do you think you have too much salt in your diet? What have you don’t to balance your salt intake recently? Please join the conversation.