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Shaking Up What We Thought We Knew About Salt

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Maybe only second to saturated fat, salt is one of the most demonized nutrients in history.  But does it deserve such an ominous status?  In last week’s article, we talked about how you need to add salt to your healthy diet to make up for the sodium that is lost by cutting out processed foods.  When I was discussing these two weeks of topics with my co-workers, I got the usual, “You’re nuts, everyone knows you need to cut salt, not add it” types of responses.  And until recently, I agreed with them.  But as I was researching this topic, what I found flies in the face of everything I’ve been told all my life.  So where did salt get the bad rap?

Before we go any further, a bit of a disclaimer.  If you are getting most of your meals from a drive-thru or out of a wrapper, then disregard all of what follows.  Your diet heavy in processed foods is getting you more than enough sodium and you probably could stand to cut back.  A lot.  But for those eating clean, healthy foods that they prep themselves, this information applies to you, so read on.

Let’s look the history behind salt’s placement on the naughty list and some science behind how it actually affects the body.

In the 1980s, a global study of salt intake and its effect on blood pressure called INTERSALT was conducted.  The focus of the study was to look at the relation of salt intake and blood pressure on people of undeveloped, primitive cultures, compared to modern, industrialized cultures.  They already knew that modern cultures showed high incidences of heart disease and hypertension.  The researchers based much of their findings on the Yanomami people of the Amazon rainforest.

The Yanomami people had very low sodium intake and very low blood pressure, even among their elderly.  It seems from their numbers that a low salt diet would translate to low blood pressure in other people.  The researchers took their findings from the Yanomami people study and made their recommendations for everyone to cut back on salt to lower their blood pressure.  However, another non-industrialized group’s blood work and lifestyle (not included in the INTERSALT study) threw a wrench in that conclusion. 

The Kuna people of Panama consume 2.6 to 6 teaspoons of salt a day, many times the recommended amounts of ¼ to ½ a teaspoon daily, and still had low blood pressure even into old age.  So what is behind the Kuna people’s “high” sodium intake, yet low blood pressure?  The answer may very well be their potassium intake.

Sodium and potassium are both electrolytes that perform many of the same body functions, such as muscle contraction and fluid balance, but they do so in an opposing manner.  Sodium draws fluid out of cells, increasing blood pressure, while potassium draws fluid into cells, decreasing blood pressure.  While they work in opposite ways, sodium and potassium work together to achieve a balanced state in our blood and body functions.  When this balance is thrown off, that is where we see development of high blood pressure and other maladies such as heart disease.  This explains why when you cut out processed foods and replace them with healthy meats and vegetables that you need more salt to correct the imbalance caused by the increased intake in potassium from those veggies.  It also explains why people like the Kuna could eat so much salt, yet have such healthy hearts.

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Studies have shown that sodium loading before exercising in the heat increases fluid volume and reduces physiological strain.  Many athletes report being able to workout harder, longer, and more effectively with sufficient levels of salt in their system.

Conversely, a sodium deficiency can have dire consequences during exercise.  Long distance runners have experienced over hydration, where too much plain water dilutes the sodium levels in the blood, sometimes sending the body into seizure or stroke.  The solution to hydrating in these conditions is not expensive sports drinks.  A small amount of salt added to your water is all you need to replenish your sodium balance.

Additionally, insufficient levels of sodium have been related to insulin sensitivity, weight gain, and formation of diabetes.  Adequate sodium intake speeds up cortisol clearance from the blood.  This means having enough salt in your diet can help you manage and recover from stress faster.  Salt also aids in digestion.  If you are having digestive distress, see if adding salt to your food helps restore order.

While the typical American is grossly overdosed on sodium, they are equally as deficient in potassium.  So what is recommended?  The answer will vary depending on where you look, but generally, I found the recommendation to be 1500-2300mg of sodium (about ¼ to ½ a teaspoon) and about 4700mg of potassium daily.

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Stating potassium in terms of teaspoons isn’t really a quantity of measurement we can relate to, so here is a list of sample foods and their potassium content to give you a better idea of what quantities and types of foods might add up to get you to your potassium goals.

Sweet Potato (1 medium baked):  542mg potassium   

White Potato (1 medium baked):  941mg potassium

Tomato Sauce (1 cup):  728 mg potassium

Watermelon (2 wedges):  641mg potassium

Banana (1 medium):  422mg potassium

Swiss Chard (1 cup cooked): 961mg potassium

Butternut Squash (1 cup cooked): 582mg potassium

Kale (1 cup chopped):  329mg potassium


You will find a recurring theme when it comes to your body and health in general.  Balance.  The key is to achieve a healthy balance of sodium and potassium in your diet.  As with everything health related, we are all different, so these ratios of sodium to potassium intake may be different for you.  Check with your doctor if you have concerns and get regular blood work done to make sure everything is functioning as it should.  But for now, please pass the salt.


-- by Geoff







Stand Up For Your Health

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by Geoff Rand

What would you say if I told you that standing for just three hours each day could increase your overall health?  I’m sure some would expect sore feet or backs from such a change, and you might even think there’s no way you’d have time for that.

You may wonder what the harm is in sitting down so much.  Studies have shown that people who sit the majority of their day live on average two years less than someone who is on their feet most of the day.  Other studies have shown that exercise can’t undo the effects of sitting down the entire day.  And, there are the obvious detriments of increased weight gain and obesity for workers in sedentary jobs.

I’ve talked about how sitting can throw off your posture in a previous blog.  Being sedentary also negatively affects how the body converts food into glucose, which, when out of whack, can contribute to the development of diabetes and heart disease.

A British study looked at the sedentary habits of the average office worker.  With workdays ranging from 8-12 hours, mostly seated at a desk, and adding in commute, TV, and sleeping time, it is completely possible to spend up to 19 hours a day being inactive.  The study took a group of office dwellers and asked them to add 3 hours of standing during their day.  The participants wore accelerometers, heart rate monitors, and measured their blood sugar throughout the day.

The results were quite impressive for such a small change in their daily routine.  The study volunteers saw their blood glucose levels return to normal after a meal much more quickly during times where they were standing versus sitting.  One woman in the study saw an improvement in her arthritis symptoms due to the increase in standing.

They also showed an increased heart rate while standing, which translates to more calories burned.  On average, they burned about 50 calories an hour while standing.  So, for three hours a day standing over a five-day workweek, that translates to 750 calories burned.  Over a year, it’s 30,000 extra calories, or the equivalent of 8 lbs. of fat burned, all for just standing up for a short time during the day instead of sitting.

It turns out the study wasn’t the first of its kind.  A similar study in the 1950s on bus conductors (who stood), compared to bus drivers (who sat), showed the bus conductors had around half the risk of developing heart disease as the sedentary bus drivers.  Standing isn’t a new concept, either.  Winston Churchill, Ernest Hemmingway, and Ben Franklin all worked at standing desks.

Other studies in workplace standing have seen participants who experienced reduced back and neck pain when standing, and increased productivity, decreased stress and better moods from standing.

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You might find that standing while working makes you more likely to walk over to a colleague’s desk rather than sending an email, which helps burn even more calories.  It might even translate to better office operations, as a face-to-face conversation is hard to beat in terms of quality of communication when compared to an email.

If your boss won’t spring for the larger full standing desks, smaller desktop versions exist that convert your standard desk into a standing workspace.

So try it out.  See how standing at work just a few hours over the course of your day can improve your health.






Learning From Bob Harper

By Geoff Rand

When fitness celebrity Bob Harper suffered a heart attack on February 12, the news and social media were abuzz with many people questioning how this could have happened to a person many considered the epitome of health and fitness.  The 51-year-old host and trainer of The Biggest Loser is a CrossFit coach, yoga instructor, and healthy eating advocate.  I don’t know his personal medical history, but there were no reported warning signs leading up to his heart attack during a workout at a New York City gym.  Fortunately, a doctor happened to be on site and was able to use an Automated External Defibrillator (AED) along with CPR to keep him alive long enough to get Harper to the next level of care.  He is now recovering at home.

Heart disease is the leading cause of death in the United States for both men and women, with 1 out of every 4 deaths attributed to heart disease.  While the following symptoms may be present leading up to a heart attack, often the first sign of a pending heart attack is the heart attack itself.  As you can see, many of these symptoms could be difficult to differentiate from what you may experience in an everyday WOD.


            Chest pain or discomfort

            Upper body pain or discomfort in the arms, back, neck, jaw, or upper stomach

            Shortness of breath

            Nausea, lightheadedness, or cold sweats

Many people tend to normalize what they are feeling instead of recognizing it for what it really is, thinking it is indigestion or soreness from an activity.  If you feel something unusual or persistent, that is the time to get it checked out.

Those who have any of these risk factors are at an elevated risk of experiencing a heart attack:  high blood pressure, high cholesterol, smoking, family history, diabetes, overweight/obesity, poor diet, physical inactivity, and excessive alcohol use.

The big variable in all this is heredity.  Bob Harper’s mother died of a heart attack.  He is proof that you can do absolutely everything right in the gym and eat healthy everyday and still develop heart disease if genetically you are predisposed to it.  Whether you have a family history of heart disease or not, your best chance of an early warning is regular medical screening.

Harper after release from the hospital.

Harper after release from the hospital.

I don’t know anyone who enjoys their medical check ups, but they are important to have done in order to monitor your health.  Often, if detected early, many ailments can be treated and corrected before they become huge problems.

My job requires us to have regular physicals at a frequency depending on our age.  If you are unsure where you fall or what tests you should be having done, this page has a chart detailing when and what you should be doing based on age and gender.

This periodic screening can also have benefits for you in the Box.  In your blood tests, you may discover deficiencies in certain nutrients, which could be the cause of a difficulty in putting on muscle and burning fat, for example.

While some may see Harper’s incident as a reason to not work out, Neel Chokshi, medical director of the University of Pennsylvania’s sports cardiology and fitness program, disagrees.  He says, “The long-term benefits of exercise outweigh the slight increased risk during acute exercise.”  He adds that, “If you do exercise and have a heart attack, you are more likely to bounce back and less likely to have complications.”

We care about your health and want you around to complete as many rounds as possible.  See your doctor for regular periodic screenings and tests.  And, while we hope we never need it, we have an AED on site and all of our coaches are trained in its use and are CPR certified.  While these devices are becoming more commonplace, they are not everywhere.  If you are at elevated risk for heart disease and are travelling, you may want to ask if your drop in Box or gym has an AED, just as an added safety measure.