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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