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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







Are You Getting Enough Salt?


If you are eating a typical American diet, you don’t have to be worried about not getting enough sodium in your foods.  Whether it is for taste, texture, preservation, or to help dough rise, manufacturers are not afraid to dump huge amounts of salt into their processed foods.  But what happens when you cut out those processed foods on a healthy diet, like the foods allowed on The Numbers Don’t Lie Challenge?  Removing all that processed food can actually put you in a situation where you need to add salt to your diet to maintain the healthy balance between it and your potassium levels (more on this next week).  Since you are getting a high dose of potassium from healthy vegetables on this type of diet, you need to restore the balance by adding more sodium to your diet.

The general guidelines for healthy sodium intake are about 1500-2300mg of sodium per day, which translates to about ¼ to ½ a teaspoon.  Even though this seems miniscule, this small amount is essential to your health.

Suppose you are eating a diet composed of 2/3 unprocessed plant foods and 1/3 unprocessed animal foods.  This way of eating will only provide you about 600mg of naturally occurring sodium.  It gets even worse for vegetarians eating a 100% plant based diet.  They would only receive 300mg of sodium eating this way.  These numbers show how little sodium you are actually taking in when you cut out the processed foods and their added salt.  You need to make up for this loss by adding salt.

Sodium is an electrolyte that you need in order to stay properly hydrated.  It also plays a role in nerve transmission, muscle contraction, and cardiac function.  Additionally, it aids in nutrient transport, blood pressure regulation, and tissue growth.

Hyponatraemia is a condition caused by low levels of sodium in the blood. Symptoms are not usually very specific and can include changes to a person's mental state, headaches, nausea and vomiting, tiredness, muscle spasms, and seizures.

Not all salts are the same.  Standard table salt is heavily processed and lacks naturally occurring trace nutrients found in healthy natural salt.  Amanda recommends Pink Himalayan Salt. 

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Pink Himalayan salt is a pink-colored salt extracted from the Khewra Salt Mine, which is located near the Himalaya Mountains in Pakistan. The pink Himalayan salt harvested from this mine is believed to have been formed millions of years ago from the evaporation of ancient bodies of water.   Pink Himalayan Salt gets its color from iron deposits leaching through the rocks in which it is mined. The salt is hand-extracted and minimally processed to yield an unrefined product that's free of additives and thought to be much more natural and healthy than table salt.  It is estimated that it contains up to 84 different minerals and trace elements.

While Pink Himalayan Salt and regular table salt are not very different chemically, they differ greatly in the way they are processed.  While Himalayan salt is mined by hand and ground up and bottled, table salt gets heavily filtered, removing most of any trace elements and minerals it may have contained.  After that, the manufacturers often add calcium silicate as an anti-clumping agent, and dextrose to stabilize any iodine if it is iodized salt.

Additionally, table salt is either evaporated from brine pools or seawater, or mined from rock.  Because of its remote location, Himalayan salt is claimed to be healthier and free of contaminants that regular salt may contain.

One consideration when switching over to Pink Himalayan Salt from table salt is how coarse the salt crystals are.  While you can get Himalayan Salt in several different crystal sizes, most are significantly larger than regular salt crystal sizes.  This means that you may need to add more Himalayan Salt to your food than what you would normally add in table salt, as the larger crystals don’t pack into the same volume measuring spoon as the smaller crystals in table salt do.

Now I know what you are thinking.  Salt is bad.  We’ve been taught that all our lives.  Next week, we’ll dissolve some of the salt myths and maybe change how you look at this important nutrient.







Take it With a Grain of Salt

by Geoff Rand

Our bodies are wonders of engineering, more complex than any robot or computer we could build.  Just like computers, our bodies sometimes send warning messages or set off alarms to let us know something isn’t functioning properly.  The trick is to figure out what is causing the alarm or effect, and that’s not always easy.

One area of concern in which I recently took notice was thyroid function.  If your thyroid isn’t happy, it lets you know by mucking up your energy levels and limiting glucose consumption, leading to fatigue and weight gain.  Now, thyroid malfunction isn’t the only thing that can cause fatigue and weight gain, but it’s simple enough to figure out if you aren’t giving your thyroid what it needs through either medical tests or analysis of your nutrient intake.

A properly functioning thyroid determines how your body uses energy, makes proteins that affect growth and development, helps control glucose consumption, regulates blood lipid levels, and controls body temperature.  To do all this, the thyroid needs to be supplied with sufficient levels of iodine.  It is recommended that average adults consume 150-300 micrograms of iodine daily.  My measuring spoons don’t go down to micrograms, so to put this in better perspective, one teaspoon of iodized salt contains about 400 micrograms of iodine.

Iodine is naturally occurring in saltwater fish, seaweed, shellfish, cheese, cows milk, eggs, frozen yogurt, ice cream, soymilk, soy sauce, yogurt, and some breads.  Unfortunately, many of the foods on this list are not the best choices if you are looking for optimal fuel and nutrition.

In the early 1900s, there was a pronounced iodine deficiency in certain regions of the U.S., mainly those that had limited access to seafood.  In 1924, the Morton’s salt company began adding iodine to their table salt, which made great strides towards combating these iodine deficiencies.

Another source of iodine used to be wheat flour.  Bread used to be made with iodized flour, however, today’s breads are made with flour processed with bromide, which does not have the same beneficial effect on the body as iodine.

Check your labels carefully.  Many brands make iodized and non-iodized versions of their salt.

Check your labels carefully.  Many brands make iodized and non-iodized versions of their salt.

With gluten fears on the rise, less and less people are eating bread anyway.  Another issue is food labels don’t list whether or not their products are made with iodized salt (they’re usually not).  With many diets proposing reduction in salt intake, along with non-iodized sea salt being so popular, iodine deficiencies are back on the rise, with some estimates putting 74% of Americans suffering from iodine deficiency.

Another contributing factor in which active people should take notice is iodine is excreted through sweat, so it is important to replenish iodine after exercise. 

If you feel like your energy levels are off, or you have weight that just isn’t dropping even with a proper diet, take a look at your iodine levels.  It is an easy adjustment to add a little iodized salt to your food or water.  Give it a few weeks and see if it improves things.  You can also have your doctor check your iodine levels with a urine test.

If you were looking to increase your iodine intake solely through eating ice cream, it’s possible, but not recommended.  Two scoops of ice cream contains about 10 micrograms of iodine.  If you can eat 30 scoops of ice cream in a day, you likely have much bigger problems than iodine deficiency.