Most of us are aware that too much salt is bad for us, but how much is too much? What’s the difference between salt and sodium? And why do we need salt in our diet? These are all questions which need answering and nutrition expert Leanne Edermaniger has the answers.
What is salt?
The salt we put on our food is also known as sodium chloride (NaCl) and is a mineral which is a major constituent of seawater. Although too much salt in our diet can be harmful, sodium is an absolute necessity for our body and brain.
What is sodium and why do we need it?
Around 40% of table salt is sodium. Sodium is a naturally occurring mineral and an electrolyte which is present in all our body fluids, including the blood. The nervous and cardiovascular systems in particular need sodium to function effectively. Sodium is an electrolyte found in the blood which helps to conduct electrical impulses in the body. Electrolytes such as sodium also keep the fluid balance in the body regulated as well as helping muscles to contract and relax. Changes in the tonicity (the relative concentration of dissolved solutes) of cells can cause dehydration, muscle cramps and alterations to brain cell function.
Why should we limit our salt intake?
Guidelines state that adults should eat no more than 6g of salt or 2.4g of sodium per day. A diet high in salt can lead to high blood pressure and heart problems. When too much salt is consumed, the kidneys are put under a great deal of pressure to remove the excess sodium and the body has to store extra water which increases blood pressure.
Although sodium plays an important role in our diet, it needs to be controlled to ensure our fluid balance remains stable. Most pre-packed foods now have nutrition labels on them, many of which include the salt content. Some foods might tell you how much sodium is present rather than the level of salt itself. If this is the case, you can convert this to salt by multiplying the sodium level by 2.5. For example, 1g of sodium per 100g would be 2.5g of salt per 100g.
Foods high in salt include processed meats, cheese, olives, anchovies, salty fish, peanuts and soy sauce. Other, perhaps less obvious salt-heavy foods include bread, pizza, soup, ready-made pasta sauces, ready meals and condiments.
Keeping an eye on food labels is one way to cut down the amount of salt you’re eating but there are other ways too.
Simply reducing the number of times you eat out and the number of ready meals you eat will help to reduce your salt intake. Preparing meals from scratch using fresh ingredients is healthier and allows you to control how much salt goes into your meal.
Find out if hypertension runs in your family
Does a member of your family have high blood pressure? If so, hypertension may be a genetic trait in your family. You can be fit and healthy, but you may have high blood pressure simply because it’s in your genes. If this is the case, you should regularly have your blood pressure checked and actively reduce your salt intake.
Sodium is an important electrolyte which the body requires to keep its fluid balance regulated, but it’s important to stay aware of how much you consume.