Reducing Your Intake of Salt
In the last thirty years or so, salt (sodium Chloride) in the diet has received bad press, being linked with hypertension (high blood pressure), heart disease, stroke, kidney problems and other disease states.
Not everyone is affected by salt in this way, and reducing salt intake will not necessarily be of benefit to everyone, but is seems sensible for most people to moderate their intake. Various expert committees have proposed that dietary salt intake should be limited to a level far below that currently consumed. The typical British diet contains about 8.4 grams of salt per day for men and about 6 grams per day for women (because women generally eat less food, rather than specifically eating less salt). However, there is a wide variation between individuals because of differences in the types of food as well as the amounts of food eaten. The intake of 95% of young men in the UK falls between 3.8 and 14.3 grams per day and for young women the values are 2.8-9.4 grams per day. Only a few people (one in twenty) eat either more or less than these amounts.
There are large differences between countries in the recommended intake of salt: the British advice is for a maximum of 6g per day, but in Germany, a maximum of 10 g/d is recommended. In contrast, Sweden recommends a maximum of 2 g/d, and Poland recommends a minimum of 1.4 g/d. These differences in the recommendations by different expert committees reflect in part different interpretations with regard to the evidence linking salt intake and health, but also reflect regional consumption patterns. These conflicting recommendations illustrate very clearly the difficulty in giving advice on the amount of salt we should be eating.
Clearly, if your salt intake is already low, or if you are one of those people whose blood pressure is not affected by salt intake, then there is no reason to reduce salt intake and to do so may even be harmful if taken to extremes. Salt is necessary for health, and cutting out salt can be dangerous, especially for physically active people and more particularly when the weather is warm and sweat losses are high. The salt content of sweat varies greatly between people, and is affected by many different factors, including fitness levels and whether or not we are accustomed to high sweat rates. The salt content of sweat may range from about 1-5 grams per litre of sweat produced. A two-hour workout on a warm day can easily result in a loss of 2-3 litres of sweat, meaning that up to about 10 grams of salt may be lost. Most people will lose less than this, but some people will lose more than this. If this is not replaced from the diet – in addition to the other losses that take place during the rest of the day – then the body becomes salt depleted, leading to fatigue, general malaise and potentially more serious problems in extreme cases.
The following suggestions, therefore, are for those who feel the need to reduce the amount of salt in their diet.
- Salt in cooking. It is easy to get into the habit of adding ever-increasing amount of salt to foods during cooking. This applies especially to foods like boiled potatoes, pasta and rice. Water is absorbed by these foods during the cooking process and salt is absorbed along with the water. We readily become accustomed to the taste that salt gives, and come to prefer the familiar taste. It is not too difficult, however, to slowly wean yourself off salt by progressively decreasing the amount added. Use a measure, such as a small teaspoon, so that you know how much is being added rather than just throwing in a handful. If a little salt is needed, add it at the last minute, and only after tasting the food.
- Ready prepared foods and meals. Many commercially produced ready-to-eat meals and tinned or dried foods will contain significant amounts of added salt. Foods to watch out for include tinned vegetables, tinned or packet soups, ready-prepared savoury foods, and some ready-cooked sauces. In most cases, reduced salt versions are available: in reality, these are only varieties where less salt is added rather than the natural salt content being reduced. The label on the package should tell you how much salt is present. This may be labelled as salt or as sodium.
- Salted snacks and nibbles. Many savoury snacks have a high salt content, including salted roasted nuts, pretzels, crisps etc. In most cases, versions without added salt are available, but it may be better to avoid these foods, or at least to limit the amount you eat.
- Salted meats and fish. Salt has long been used as a preservative for meats and fish, and is still widely used in the preparation of bacon and gammon. For the producer, salt has the added benefit of helping to retain water, thus increasing the profit margin on sales. It is best to reduce the intake of these products: if gammon or salt fish are to be used, they should first be well soaked in several changes of water to extract some of the salt before cooking.
- Savoury foods. Many savoury products are high in salt, which may be in the form of monosodium glutamate rather than sodium chloride. This is used to enhance flavour in many products, especially in oriental foods, soy sauce, stock cubes etc. Most of these are products that you can live without or where you can find alternatives that have a lower salt content.
- Salt at the table. Unless you are training hard in hot weather, you probably do not need to add salt to food at the table. Again, it is easy for this to become a habit, but you should always taste food first. If you are serious about reducing your salt intake, put the salt cellar in a cupboard, so that you have to make a real effort to get it if you want to add salt. Try to find alternatives: use vinegar on chips rather than salt, try lemon juice on fish, and herbs such as mint on potatoes.
- What about salt substitutes? Salt substitutes are available where the sodium content is reduced by replacing some or all of it by potassium. These can help reduce your sodium chloride intake, but will probably not have a major effect. It is probably better to work on just reducing the use of salt. Sea salt is not really very different from ordinary table salt: it has a few extra minerals, especially iodine, but this is often added to table salt anyway.
If you have been in the habit of regularly adding large amounts of salt to your food, you will find that you prefer the taste of salted foods. For a while as you cut down the amount of added salt, you will miss the taste, but you will quickly get used to the new taste. You will also find that there is a whole range of subtle flavours that you have been missing because they have been swamped by the salt.
This article has been contributed by Professor Ron Maughan of Loughborough University’s School of Exercise and Science.
Professor Ron Maughan retains the rights to be identified as the author of this article, it cannot be reproduced without his permission.