Pass The Salt: How To Navigate The World of Sodium

The discussion of salt should be an easy one.  It’s bad for you, right?  Headlines are very confusing today related to all things sodium.

On scoping out the headlines:  If you google Salt and Health, the first two headlines you will find give entirely different messages;  one from Harvard Health, stating that salt increases our death risk, the next from New York Times, claiming that sodium may help us lose weight.

I’ve worked in healthcare for a long time and can tell you that both are probably right in their own way, but neither mutually exclusive.

Salt: Is there a time and a place for it?  Absolutely.  Does it cause health problems for some? Definitely.

But we don’t live in a bubble where a food is either good or evil and absolute rules apply to all.  I get slightly offended by those organizations and guidelines who look at it that way: this is because nutrients and foods help balance out, even have synergistic effects with other nutrients.

Science and research get this wrong all the time when they look at nutrition, even salt.

Salt Basics

Salt provides two essential nutrients: sodium and chloride, which makes up our collective definition of a salt, at least in the world of food.

Sodium and chloride help your muscles contract, your brain function, your heart pump, and more.

The topic of salt can’t be approached without thinking of iodine or trace elements either. Natural salts can contain other elements that are rare in our diet.

Let’s not forget the elephant in the room: salt makes almost any food more enjoyable.

If I had to cut back on salt in my life by a lot, it might really change my world view of food.

I feel for my patients who need to.

In this blog, I will cover some important facts about:

  • The good and the bad of various salt type

  • Risks of salt

  • Benefits of salt

  • Conditions which increase need for salt

  • Nutrient balance

The Battle of the Salts

Cons of refined (iodized or non-iodized) table salt

  •  Table salt has anti-caking agents, which can be scary. Morton’s iodized salt contains calcium silicate and dextrose

  • For more about calcium silicate, click here

  •  It is refined, and all trace minerals are removed

  • Refined salt is added to almost all packaged foods. This makes it difficult to sort out what health risks are from the “junk food factor” or sodium itself

  • Refined salts make up almost 75% of the salt in people’s diet in the United States

Pros of refined, iodized table salt

  • It has more iodine, a nutrient that is often deficient

  • It is inexpensive

Cons of natural salts, including sea salts and mined salts

  • It is more expensive.

  •  Can contain small amounts of scary, heavy metals,  due to ocean pollution, such as lead

  • Natural salts have little to no iodine, even the expensive ones like Himalayan salt.

  • Throw in a little plastic too: new research is finding microplastic in sea salts (1)

A recent research project measured 17 types of salt from various countries were measure for content of microplastics (2).

A total of 72 plastics and contaminants were found and some could not be identified.

The study concluded that 36 types of plastics could be consumed from eating salt alone in 1 year.

However, the total load of microplastics is still “low”.

We also get microplastics from drinking water and many other foods, especially if they are stored in plastic containers.

Pros of various natural salts

  • Natural sea salts like Himalayan and Celtic salts do indeed have trace amounts of beneficial minerals

  • Himalayan salt has 85 different types minerals, making it likely one of the most mineral-rich salts

  • If you are looking for the lowest sodium “salt”, Celtic and other natural sea salts do have a slight, very slight advantage.  It has around 5% less total sodium than refined table salt

  • Natural salts often have unique flavor

  • Some countries of origin for salt appear to be safest: France, Iran, Japan, Malaysia, New Zealand, and Portugal

  • Himalayan salt does not likely have microplastics because it is from a mine, not the sea.

  • Some argue that the heavy metals content is in such a trace amount, that it probably doesn’t have adverse health effects

  • Heavy metals may be balanced out by presence of other beneficial minerals

  • Celtic salt does originate in France, making it likely low in microplastics. At least for now.

Details about natural salt selection

You may be surprised and disappointed at this: sea salts and natural salts only have a very small percentage of minerals other than sodium and chloride: 2% is the most you will find.

It is important to focus on getting more minerals in your diet from foods like vegetables and whole foods. See my magnesium blog for more information.

People do swear by natural salts and health benefits such as improved energy.  If you love it, use it (barring any health restrictions).

But be sure to get an iodine-rich food source in your diet if you choose sea salt or Himalayan salt.  This could include kelp, seaweed, shellfish, or a supplement of multiminerals.

Natural salts also add flavor. Because of this, you could end up using less total salt and eating less than you would eat of refined table salt.

To add some more real flavor, try out some heat and spices.

I tend to believe that the heavy metal controversy is probably of minimal concern. This is because a balance of other minerals may be the key to reduce toxic effects. I’m purely speculating here.

Honestly, it is quite disappointing how little research is available about the various types of salt (3).

The Important Consideration of Iodine

Iodine deficiency is a really big problem, even for your heart.

An estimated 75% of people in the United States have inadequate intake (4).

The trend to move away from iodized salt and to eat more packaged foods, which do not have added iodine, isn’t helping matters.

I’m not saying iodized salt is the best choice. But make sure you get iodine from another source or two in your diet: it is critical for health.

An important tip about cooking with salt; iodine vaporizes off as it cooks, making it disappear from your food.

I really like this blog by Life Extension about the Silent Epidemic of Iodine Deficiency. Check it out to learn more about this important nutrient.

Cases where too little salt may be a problem

  • Insulin resistance (5)

  • Food addiction

  • Athletes

  • Physically demanding jobs

  • Heat exposure

  • Certain adrenal diseases

  • Certain kinds of low blood pressure

Conditions that may be affected by too much salt

  • Congestive heart failure

  • Open heart surgery

  • Kidney failure

  • Osteoporosis

  • Sleep apnea

  • Salt-sensitive patients with high blood pressure

When In Doubt, Sweat It Out

Sweating, due to physical demands of exercise and work load, can cause large amounts of sodium loss.  This can be upwards of 10-15 grams of salt over the period of a day of work (3).

When you sweat, you also lose important minerals like iodine, potassium, magnesium, and calcium. Make sure you have a mineral-rich diet and supplement when needed.

A rule of thumb from Livestrong: for every quart you replace for hydration from exercise, add back 1000 mg of sodium. Unless you eat too much sodium already.

Limiting sodium for an athlete or person working heavily is probably a mistake.

How about a sauna?  Or a very hot bath?  Ever notice how much you can sweat?  Be aware of sodium losses here too.

Sauna use is linked to vast health benefits.  4-7 days a week for at least 19 minutes reduced cardiovascular death risk by 50% (3).

A caveat: Our bodies acclimate to heavy sweating, and reduce the amount of sodium lost over time. But you will always continue to lose sodium when you sweat to some degree.

Food Addiction Advice

What do my colleagues say?  David Avram Wolfe, RD, an expert in food addiction recovery, says, “It is best to stay away from table salt, especially if you identify with sugar/sweet cravings. It contains Dextrose, which is a simple sugar. I always encourage my patients to use real unadulterated sea salt, the dirtier the better.”

Bottom line

  • Skip the packaged, processed foods

  • Grab some Himalayan salt or unadulterated sea salt from the regions with less toxic burden

  • Add in some kelp and seaweed to your diet for iodine

  • Eat more fruits and vegetables to help offset negative effects of sodium

  • If your doctor tells you to limit sodium, please do

  • Users of Himalayan salt state that it tastes saltier than table salt, so use less.

If you can’t find yourself down the seaweed path, supplement your diet with proper amounts of minerals, including iodine.

Diet Detective


By |2018-08-12T17:43:59+00:00August 12th, 2018|

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