Salt is that ubiquitous compound that everybody knows a little bit about. There are so many conflicting recommendations out there, it is easy to throw your hands up in despair and forgo a low salt diet, but that might not be the best idea. Becoming fully informed about salt (more specifically referred to as sodium when related to food and health) is the best way to make appropriate decisions regarding a low salt diet.
First of all, sodium is an essential compound that your body uses for fluid and electrolyte balance, as well as proper nerve and muscle function. Sodium is not inherently unhealthy, but too much or too little will have a negative influence on your health. So optimizing sodium intake is really what we mean by low salt diet. The American Heart Association recommends no more than 2,400 mg of sodium each day. Other organizations, like the World Health Organization, recommend less than 2,000 mg of salt each day. Regardless of the exact low salt diet, most people consume far more sodium than is recommended.
So you have a general idea of what to do, but why should you decrease your salt intake? Here are 10 good reasons to go on a low salt diet.
1. Avoid hypertension: A Joint National Committee, JNC-8 (http://jama.jamanetwork.com/article.aspx?articleid=1791497), recently released guidelines for prevention and treatment of high blood pressure (hypertension). A comprehensive analysis of available scientific literature revealed that people who consume low amounts of sodium, also have low incidence of high blood pressure. Since high blood pressure is associated with a number of cardio-metabolic risk factors and diseases, it is easy to see why low sodium is the way to go.
2. Reduce blood pressure: What if it’s too late to prevent hypertension? Not an ideal situation, but the same committee that recommended avoiding hypertension, also recommended aggressive treatment of hypertension with pharmacology, but diet and exercise are also good ideas. One of the best ways to reduce blood pressure through diet….you guessed it: reduce sodium intake!
3. Reduce your risk of cardiovascular disease and stroke: So what’s the big deal with hypertension? There aren’t usually overt symptoms of hypertension, but the extra load on your heart, and blood vessels takes a toll. Hypertension is generally considered the primary cause of ischemic stroke, and is a primary risk factor for developing heart disease (http://www.bloodpressureuk.org/microsites/salt/Home/Whysaltisbad/Saltseffects).
4. Manage your heart failure: Remember how we established the role sodium plays in fluid balance? Well, too much salt causes your body to hold on to more fluid, which puts more load on your heart. A healthy heart can occasionally handle the extra stress, but a sick heart (heart failure) can’t increase performance to meet the demands. Eat a low salt diet to avoid heart failure, but also to manage it.
5. Don’t be swollen: Maybe you aren’t trying to manage your heart failure? No reason not to help your body appropriate balance fluid volumes. One report published in the journal American Family Physician (http://www.aafp.org/afp/2005/0601/p2111.html), indicated that edema (swelling from fluid overload) is commonly caused by excessive sodium intake.
6. Eat more fruits and vegetables: This may be counter-intuitive to some, but the highest amounts of sodium don’t come from the salt shaker! Sodium is an additive to processed foods and restaurant entrees. So if you are avoiding frozen dinners, processed snack foods, and sodium-packed entrees, you have plenty of room to increase the number of healthy plant-based sources of nourishment. Additionally, plant sources are a great way to get potassium, which is sort of like an antidote for sodium. A low sodium diet can help reduce sodium, but also increase potassium.
7. Eat less processed food: This reason is pretty easy to grasp. If processed foods contain a lot of sodium, and you are avoiding sodium, you will also avoid processed foods. Sodium isn’t the only component of processed foods deleterious to one’s health. There are also other chemicals and compounds, including trans-fats, which are associated with increases in so-called bad cholesterol, which increases your risk for heart attack and stroke.
8. Don’t waste your calories: In order to maintain your weight, there are only a certain number of calories you can consume in a given day. While your salty snack may taste divine, it generally won’t be very nutrient dense. In other words, the taste will be the only good part about the food. Natural, whole foods are generally very nutrient dense, while being light on the calories. In other words, pound for pound, salty foods typically do not contain vitamins, minerals and other nutrients essential to optimal health.
9. Stay away from cancer: Eating less sodium may decrease your risk of cancer? It sure could! One prospective trial (http://ajcn.nutrition.org/content/92/6/1429.short) showed a lower risk of colorectal cancer for participants eating a diet containing the highest amounts of low-fat, plant-based foods (ie low salt diet). Other trials have showed low salt diets to reduce the incidence of other types of cancers as well.
10. Protect your bones: Middle-aged and older people should pay special attention to this reason for going on a low salt diet, especially women. Excessive sodium levels in the blood causes increased calcium excretion in the urine (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16772639). Any calcium excreted based on this homeostatic mechanism cannot remain with the bones to prevent the age-related loss of bone mass known as osteoporosis. An easy option is to go on a low salt diet, but a second option could also be to increase calcium and potassium levels to balance out the bad effects of too much sodium.
While an extra sodium-dense meal every so often isn’t likely to acutely harm you, there are many health benefits to adhering to a low salt diet. And the good news is taste tends to adapt over time to meet the dietary intake. So if you are timid about adopting a low salt diet, don’t worry, it gets easier with time! Check out this website for some helpful tips on cutting down on sodium (http://www.cdc.gov/salt/pdfs/Sodium_Dietary_Guidelines.pdf).
Many of the effects of excess sodium are not immediately recognized (compared to eating bad sushi, for example). However, the deleterious effects of an unhealthy lifestyle accumulate over time. Nobody wants to hear a diagnosis from their physician that could have been avoided if only you had said no to all those sodium-packed snacks over the years. Now you know 10 good reasons to go on a low salt diet, will you make the change?