This article is part 7 in our series dedicated to Sugar, Oil and Salt (SOS).
Americans love their salt.
Most Americans consume approximately 3,400 milligrams of sodium a day, which is well over the American Heart Association (AHA)’s recommendation to keep sodium intake under 1,500 mg a day or the National Academy of Medicine’s and the 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans’ recommendation of 2,300 mg a day.
In fact, a whopping 89% of adults and over 90% of children exceed daily recommendations for sodium intake!
And for those of us just starting to enjoy a whole food, plant-based diet, salt can be a tasty way to season up veggies, legumes, and grains, making it easier to enjoy and stick with a healthier way of eating.
So the big question is this…
If we are already eating healthfully, is excess salt really such a bad thing?
The short answer?
In this blog post, I will explain why…
Why Salt Is Not Your Best Friend…
To understand how salt affects our body, we need to revisit what we learned about endothelial cells in our olive oil article.
Endothelial cells line every vessel in our entire cardiovascular system, providing a barrier between the blood and other body tissues and recruiting immune defense cells.
These highly functional cells also produce nitric oxide (NO), which makes blood vessels dilate to increase blood flow and prevents platelets from sticking to the vessel walls. Healthy endothelial cells respond to stimuli by releasing NO and causing vessels to dilate, while unhealthy cells do not.
The level of dilation of a specific artery can be measured via ultrasound, a method called Flow Mediated Dilation (FMD), and it is a good indication of the overall health of the vessels in the cardiovascular system.
Studies have shown that the consumption of dietary salt negatively affects FMD, resulting in an array of health problems including hypertension and diabetes.
Salt and Hypertension–a Risk for All
The link between salt and high blood pressure is crystal clear.
Ironically, probably the best way to show this link is by looking at the Yanomami Indians, an isolated tribe in the Amazon rain forest. The Yanomami’s diet is completely devoid of salt, and the INTERSALT study showed that their sodium excretion level was the “lowest in any adult population ever reported in the literature.”
The percentage of the population with high blood pressure? ZERO.
‘And even more interesting, the Yanomami Indians had blood pressure levels of 95/60 in their 20s AND their 50s, in stark contrast to what we typically see in Western populations where blood pressure levels tend to rise with age.
It is a given that anyone who suffers from high blood pressure must stay away from added salt.
But studies also show that salt may be unhealthful and dangerous even for those of us without a pre-existing condition and that a reduction in sodium intake will improve FMD in non-hypertensive individuals.
Salt Makes You Eat More…and Crave FAT
Another reason to be careful about your sodium intake is the negative association between salt and fat.
Recent evidence shows that salt may actually promote the “passive overconsumption” of dietary fat in humans.
That is because salt hinders fat taste sensitivity, so even after going long periods without eating fat, subjects who ate high-salt diets continued to crave high-fat meals. Only a low-salt and low-fat diet decreases the desire to eat fats.
People who eat more salt also tend to consume more food and about 11% more calories.
But Don’t I Need Some Sodium?
Some perpetuate the myth that low sodium intake is also bad for you.
The fact is, athlete or not, the human body is simply not adapted for high sodium intake. For millions of years, terrestrial mammals (including primates) ate very small amounts of sodium (100-500 mg/day) because plants contain only a trace amount of the mineral.
Remember that just by eating fruits and vegetables, you will get ~500 mg of sodium every day!
It is almost impossible to get too little sodium, especially when eating whole plant foods, and much more common to be getting too much sodium in our diets.
Which Foods Do We Need to Avoid?
So which kind of foods are the biggest villains when it comes to salt?
According to NHANES surveys, 33% to 44% of sodium intake in the US is linked to grain products. In that category, breads are the biggest high-sodium villains followed by pizza doughs, pastas, Mexican tortillas and grain-based desserts. Soups and potato chips do not fall far behind.
You might think that you are exempt from salt worries if you are eating a whole-food, plant based diet, but this is not true. While a whole food plant-based diet tends to be lower in sodium, you nevertheless need to always be aware of sodium content in the foods you eat, especially when buying packaged foods or eating at restaurants.
We Can Retrain Our Taste Buds
From oven-baked French fries to kale chips, salty snacks can be hard to resist.
The great news is that we can re-educate our taste buds.
In the same way that our taste buds quickly acclimate to natural sweetness coming from whole fruits and starches after we cut refined sugars from our diet, we also adapt to foods prepared with less sodium and enjoy them just as much — sans the salt.
Studies show that when subjects are placed on a sodium restriction diet for a few weeks, they enjoy the taste of salt-free soups more and more and the taste of salty soups less and less. In fact, the longer they adhere to a low-sodium diet, the less salt they prefer to use.
And Here Are Three Ways to Shake the Salt Habit
To help us retrain our taste buds, here are 3 ideas to lower our sodium intake:
- Get rid of the table salt. Did you know that about 33% of us add salt to food before even tasting it? And 1/4 teaspoon of table salt contains 575 mg of sodium.
- Stop cooking with salt. As your salt taste receptors acclimate, the sodium in natural concentrations is plenty tasty. For flavor junkies, ditch the salt and delight in herbs. Remember that the best way to reduce salt is to substitute, substitute, substitute! Replace salt with pepper, onion, garlic, tomato, basil, parsley, lime, chili powder, rosemary, curry, coriander or lemon.
- Avoid (or limit) packaged foods. Approximately 75 percent of the sodium we eat are added to packaged and restaurant foods. If in doubt, read the food label.
If you must buy manufactured foods, make sure your sodium intake remains within the AHA’s 1,500 mg of sodium a day by eating foods with fewer milligrams of sodium than calories per serving. At restaurants, order wisely by sticking to salads and other whole foods and staying away from sauces, soups, and dressings.
Some Concluding Thoughts
According to the AHA, cutting sodium intake by 1,200 mg per day could lead to as many as:
- 66,000 fewer strokes
- 100,000 fewer heart attacks
- 92,000 fewer deaths
The absolute easiest and most effective way to keep sodium down to the recommended level is to eat an unprocessed plant-based diet.
In other words, stick to whole, plant foods that have no labels at all.
Because when it comes to salt, less is definitely more.