Let me start by saying I love salt. I love salt so much one of my friends once joked that I should convert my bedside wall into a giant salt-lick (you know, those blocks of salt for horses). That way, I could go to bed and wake up licking salt. Sounds like heaven. Sigh.
Yes, I eat a lot of salt. I also never count milligrams of sodium. My blood pressure sits on the low end of healthy. And I never feel bloated or puffy when I eat salt, even what the “experts” would consider too much salt.
When you consider how much sodium per day I consume, and that I don’t suffer negative consequences, and that research backs up my experience, you’ll want to seriously reconsider any fear of salt you may have. In fact, you’ll want to eat more salt.
Simply put, salt doesn’t have the negative effects on your health you’re all too often told it does. In this article, I’ll break down why this is the case.
Salt vs. Sodium: You Say Tomato, I Say…
First things first: let’s make sure we’re on the same page with language.
Throughout this article, you’ll see both the terms salt and sodium used. While sodium is commonly used to describe salt, the two aren’t quite the same thing.
The salt in our diet is actually made of both sodium plus chloride. Not surprisingly, we call this sodium chloride.
When you see an article telling you to avoid eating too much salt and touting the benefits of a “low sodium diet,” it’s really referring to a low-salt diet. The writer just shortened sodium chloride to sodium. But from a chemical standpoint, this always describes sodium chloride.
Sodium, when commonly used, refers to sodium chloride.
Salt is always sodium chloride.
Does Salt Raise Blood Pressure?
If salt truly raises blood pressure, my blood pressure should be through the roof because I eat so much salt each day. Thing is, I actually have low blood pressure (the low end of healthy). Even with all the sodium I eat per day.
There’s a common misunderstanding that salt causes high blood pressure and fluid retention.
I was only 14 years old when I started to realize it wasn’t salt that caused me to bloat and retain water. I started to notice I felt bloated and puffy after eating—not salt—but starchy and sugary foods. I’m not talking junk food either. I’m talking whole foods, like brown rice and strawberries I would retain water. Often my fingers would swell to the point my rings wouldn’t fit and my feet felt swollen in my shoes.
Over the years, I also noticed I’d get puffy due to a histamine response (to foods or environmental factors)–not salt. (Newsflash: there are multiple things that can affect water retention and blood pressure!)
But eating too much salt gets the blame for causing water retention, not the likes of eating sugary and starchy foods. [Eyeroll.]
You know what also tells us–loud and clear–that salt doesn’t raise blood pressure? Saline drips. If you’re ever been admitted to the hospital, your doctor will hook you up to a saline drip to keep you healthy and alive. Those saline drips contain a boatload of sodium in comparison to the suggested daily intake. And your doctor never bats an eyelash.
What Happens When You Eat Too Much Salt?
“…you hear the figures that reducing salt may save 150,000 lives a year….What do these figures mean? First of all, none of them were ever based on clinical studies….It’s all statistical manipulation.”
—Morton Satin, Vice President, Science and Research, The Salt Institute
Though salt has been portrayed as a super-villain for the last half-century, studies show it’s commercial varieties of highly refined salt, present in large quantities in processed foods, that are unhealthy.
On the other hand, varieties of minimally refined sea and rock salts are not only healthy, but downright necessary for countless body processes. You’ll totally develop health problems if you don’t consume enough of this kind, and most of us don’t.
But what about all those bad things like hypertension, heart disease, and even water retention? Eating too much salt doesn’t increase your risk of them? Nope.
In fact, research reveals that lowering salt causes the kidneys to increase secretion of a substance called renin, triggering a biological domino effect that results in an increased risk of heart disease and premature death—yes, this from lowering salt.1
It’s not salt that poses a risk to your health. Instead, look to culprits like sugar and excess starch.
Salt has always been essential to civilizations. Think about how people had to use salt to cure foods back before refrigerators existed. Salt was such a big deal, was so widely and regularly used, even Gandhi led the people of India in nonviolent protest against then-colonial England’s taxation of it.
Think about those healthy salty fermented foods, like sauerkraut and miso. These are the foods that nourished people for thousands of years. Not low-salt faux-ancient diets.
(Learn more about misrepresented diets in the article Here’s Why The Mediterranean Diet Pyramid Is BS.)
You Need Salt
Among many things, salt regulates
- blood volume and pressure
- the nervous system
- brain function
- adrenal function.2
You can’t live without salt—no one can.
Still, in her usual individuality-nurturing way, Mother Nature has made us respond to salt in different ways. And yes, studies back this up.
So how different are we when it comes to our response to salt? Is there such a thing as too much salt? To best answer these questions, let’s look at salt’s impact on blood pressure.
How Much Is Too Much Salt For High Blood Pressure?
Despite what the media and health guidelines would have us believe, research doesn’t support that eating salt increases your blood pressure.
According to Morton Satin, Vice President of Science and Research at the Salt Institute, if we were to reduce salt-intake by two-thirds, for about
- 30 percent of us, reduced salt will drop blood pressure by 2-6 mm systolic blood pressure—a trivial change, especially if you already have hypertension
- 20 percent will increase blood pressure by 2-6 mm
- 50 percent will not experience any change in blood pressure.3
For the majority of people, even a large increase in salt doesn’t raise blood pressure. Yes, some people are salt-sensitive, but they are the small minority of all the salt-friendly people on the planet.4
In short, there’s no such thing as too much salt for most of us.
How Much Sodium Per Day Should You Eat?
When you understand this biologically diverse response to something your body needs to function, it’s hard to swallow the 2010 Dietary Guidelines’ super-low one-size-fits-all daily limit for sodium.
The Guidelines direct healthy people to consume no more than 2,300 mg (about one teaspoon of salt) daily. The Guidelines’ limit is lower–no more than 1,500 mg daily–for those 51 or older, those of African American descent, or those who have high blood pressure, diabetes, or chronic kidney disease.
But not everyone agrees with the new Guidelines.
The 2010 report, penned by six highly-credentialed authors, “In the face of contradictory evidence: Report of the Dietary Guidelines for Americans Committee,” unearths research that demonstrates a lack of “sufficient evidence to conclude that increases in whole grain and fiber and decreases in dietary saturated fat, salt, and animal protein will lead to positive health outcomes.”5
According to Mayo Clinic, most Americans overshoot these daily limits, coming in at around 3,400 mg of sodium per day.6
Of course, for a vast majority of Americans, a lot of this sodium comes from processed foods, containing lots of sugar, starch, synthetic trans fats, and refined vegetable oils—all those things we know are linked to inflammation and disease.
This may make you question: would it be bad to eat the same amount of salt from unrefined, unprocessed sources? Are we really just these horrible salt-addicted fiends who need to whip our bad habits into shape?
Research tells us: no, it wouldn’t be bad. And: no, we’re not. Because there’s no such thing as too much salt for the vast majority of us.
What The Research Says On Salt Intake
A 2010 study out of Harvard lowered salt intake in two groups of healthy test subjects.
Within just seven days
- One half of the people who lowered salt intake triggered insulin resistance
- While the other half didn’t experience any negative side effects from reducing sodium
The same study showed that hypertension rates in the US have somehow climbed in the past 40 years, although the amount of sodium per day consumed hasn’t changed. It simply doesn’t make sense that eating too much salt would have anything to do with higher disease rates.7
And what about the Journal of the American Medical Association’s 2010 government-funded study that showed even a small lowering of salt consumption—within the range of federal U.S. Dietary Guidelines—was associated with a higher risk of cardiovascular disease and death?8
Why You Shouldn’t Limit How Much Salt Per Day You Eat
Trust me, you don’t want to lower your salt consumption.
Salt actually helps regulate appetite, preventing you from overeating. Obesity isn’t the result of people eating too much salt per day.
Keep in mind that as processed food manufacturers reduced salt in foods, they increased sugar and flavor-enhancing chemicals, like MSG, to keep foods palatable.
So people wind up eating more overall–and more junk at that–because the levels of appetite-regulating salt are lower, and appetite-triggering flavor-enhancers and sugar are higher.9
Talk about a triple whammy. Talk about a call to keep stuff simple. Salt is simple and tasty—a much more attractive double whammy, huh?
How To Lower Disease-Risk And Reduce Water Retention
Like me ‘n my pal Research have been encouraging you to do up to now:
- avoid processed foods
- keep sugar in check
- eat plenty of veggies (which are naturally rich in sodium’s counterbalance potassium).
If you do those things, you’ll be just dandy while you sprinkle unrefined salt on your food without worrying about the effects of eating too much salt. (Check out my article Think You Know the Facts About Carbs? Don’t Be So Sure for more information about sugar and processed foods.)
Be curious about the amount of sodium per day that is right for you. Experiment. See what happens. I’d put my money on your being pleasantly surprised—and satisfied.
Try These Different Types of Salt
Now that we’ve debunked the misinformation about eating too much salt, you’re ready to experiment with your salt intake.
Start by trying different types of salt. I consider myself a salt connoisseur and am always changing the kind of salt I put on various foods.
I’ve cultivated an intuition when it comes to salt. If I tune in, I can tell which variety of salt my body needs. This isn’t a craving. It’s body-wisdom. Adding the perfect salt has become a final puzzle piece as I build and season my meals.
Each type of salt contains different minerals in addition to sodium. Over time, you may find that your body will be able to tell you which type it’s craving for additional nutrients. Try one of these options for new healthy salt for cooking.
- Sea Salt: the darker the sea salt the more trace minerals it contains, like potassium, iron, and zinc.
- Rock Salt: contains manganese, copper, iron, and zinc.
- Pink Himalayan Salt: rich in potassium, magnesium, and calcium.
- Red Alaea Salt: rich in iron.
- Black Salt: contains iron, calcium, magnesium, and antioxidant properties.
- Gray Salt: contains magnesium, iron, calcium, potassium, manganese, zinc, and iodine.
- Salt from whole foods is not evil.
- Except for the rare person who is salt-sensitive, your blood pressure and water retention won’t be negatively impacted by eating too much salt.
- The average American eats about 3,400 mg of salt per day, overshooting the amount recommended by the 2010 Dietary Guidelines. If this salt comes from whole foods and added real salt, this shouldn’t be an issue because we need more salt in our diet than the poorly proven recommendations allow. Though, if this salt comes from processed foods, it comes alongside many other unhealthy ingredients we should avoid.
- A low-salt diet could actually increase your risk of developing heart disease and trigger insulin resistance.
- Sodium and potassium exist in proportional balance to one another. If you eat a lot of vegetables (which are potassium-rich) and don’t eat processed foods or drink lots of caffeine via coffee or tea (which can leech your body of minerals), chances are you’re a-okay with whatever amount of sodium you eat per day.
- Try sprinkling a little extra unprocessed salt on your food. Be curious about how your body will react, experiment. You may be surprised how your body responds.
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- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OfDbJ2nsBmo, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5EX0vaGhmYw
- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OfDbJ2nsBmo, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5EX0vaGhmYw
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Feature image Copyright Erika Herman.