Excess salt is a well-known health hazard. While sodium is fundamental for our bodies to function properly, consuming it in excess will cause both symptoms and side effects in the short-term and serious health conditions in the long-term.
What is table salt?
Table salt is a chemical known as sodium chloride (NaCl), which is made of about 60% chloride (Cl–) and 40% sodium (Na+). Iodine is generally added to prevent hypothyroidism in the general population, while calcium silicate or other anticaking agents may be added to prevent it from clumping. Table salt is all the same, whether it is white salt obtained from the evaporation of sea water, or pink Himalayan salt extracted from mines, the only difference is how much it is processed and refined to remove trace minerals and impurities that usually tint the salt crystals, like iron oxide in the case of pink salt. Some table salts may be lower in sodium, you should check the label of the specific product for more information.
Salt is a seasoning capable of enhancing flavors. It is also widely used as a food preservative, as a binder and as a stabilizer. Natural foods like grains, milk, eggs, nuts, meat, fruits and vegetables are low in sodium, while processed foods like bread, pizza, cold cuts, soups, cheese, snacks, and canned goods have added salt and represent the major source of sodium in our diets (about 70%).
Why do we need salt?
Sodium is the element in salt that we need in trace amounts to be able to transmit nerve impulses, contract the muscles, regulate extracellular fluids volume, maintain a water and mineral balance and more. Sodium is not only contained in table salt, but also in sodium bicarbonate (baking soda), monosodium glutamate (MSG), sodium citrate (food additive and preservative), sodium nitrate (food preservative), sodium benzoate (preservative, used for pickling food) to cite a few.
How much sodium is too much?
According to international guidelines, it is recommended to not exceed 2,300 mg of sodium per day, with an ideal limit of 1,500 mg of sodium per day. This means not having more than 5 grams, or about a teaspoon, of table salt per day.
This is a recommendation that applies to all healthy adults. Individuals with certain illnesses and conditions, or taking certain drugs, or living and working in certain environments may have to follow different recommendations.
Currently, most people consume on average 9-12 grams of salt per day.
9 signs and symptoms you are eating too much salt
The following are some of the possible symptoms that can occur when you are having too much sodium in your diet:
- Bloating. Excess salt may cause discomfort to your stomach and belly as well as bloating due to fluid retention.
- Hypertension. The most known effect of sodium is that it raises your blood pressure.
- Swelling. Besides the abdomen, puffy face, hands, feet, and ankles are common in people eating too much salt.
- Thirst. Craving water may be a side effect of having ingested too much salt.
- Weight gain. If you recently gained a few pounds in just a couple of days, it may be due to water retention caused by having had too much salt in the last few meals.
- Frequent peeing. Drinking more water to quench the salt-induced thirst will also increase the urine output.
- Poor sleep. Eating too much salt is frequently associated with restlessness, waking up often during the night, and insomnia.
- Hypernatremia. When blood sodium levels exceed the normal range, it is called hypernatremia; it can be caused by some medical conditions, but excessive salt consumption in conjunction with dehydration is also one possible cause.
- Everybody thinks the food is salty enough but you. Although not a symptom, being the only one who thinks salt should be added to a dish may indicate you’re used to eating too much salt.
Why is too much sodium bad for you? What happens if you eat too much salt in your diet?
The main effect of excessive sodium consumption is an increase in blood pressure which over time can cause heart disease, strokes, heart attacks, arterial stiffness, and kidney failure. The increase in blood pressure is due to our bodies retaining more water when we eat more salt and lack of elasticity of the arteries. Moreover, eating too much salt also increases calcium excretion in urine, potentially leading to osteoporosis, it can cause blindness and has also been linked to stomach cancer.
What to do if you had too much salt?
If you had a very salty meal recently and you’re looking for ways to help your body compensate excess sodium, here’s what you should do:
- Drink plenty of water.
- Preferably eat fresh food like fruits, vegetables and unprocessed foods in your next meals
- Eat potassium rich foods. Foods like bananas and potatoes are rich in potassium, which increases urinary sodium excretion and limits the effects of sodium on blood pressure.
How to cut down on sodium intake in your diet?
To reduce the amount of salt in your food, you should follow these simple advices:
- Cook your own meals. Have plenty of fresh fruits, vegetables, poultry and meat. Try to avoid processed food, by far the main source of sodium in our diets.
- Limit the amount of salt you put in your food. We don’t really need to season it too much, it’s just a matter of getting used to it.
- You can try and substitute salt with other seasonings, such as chili, herbs, garlic and onion. Make sure there is no added sodium in it.
- Read food labels. Sodium is always listed and there may be “salt-free” or “reduced-salt” alternatives. Also check for other sources of sodium in the label, such as sodium bicarbonate or sodium nitrate.
- Some supplements in form of effervescent tablets may contain very high amounts of sodium bicarbonate up to an equivalent amount of 1,000 mg of salt! Check the product label and switch to a non-effervescent formulation if needed.
Our taste buds adapt to saltiness. This means that by using excess salt we get used to that salt level and anything less than that will taste not salty enough. By gradually reducing the amount of salt we ingest over the course of several weeks, we can retrain our taste buds and have them adapt to lower levels of saltiness; so while during the first days and weeks the food may taste bland, over time we will adapt to using less salt, without missing the taste. In the end food will taste the same, if not even better, with the added benefit of being healthier for your body.
Is a low-salt diet bad?
It is advisable to reduce sodium intake and follow the guidelines on maximum daily intake of this micronutrient, but can you eat too little salt?
The minimum amount of sodium needed by the human body is less than 500 mg per day and the kidneys have the ability to retain sodium and spare it from excretion if needed.
Due to the minimal amount of salt needed per day and the high amount of salt found in processed food it is highly unlikely to not have enough sodium in your diet:
- A single slice of pepperoni pizza can have as much as 30% of your recommended daily sodium intake.
- A sandwich or burger from a fast food can have more than 100% of the max recommended sodium intake.
- 4 oz or about 100 g of cold cuts and cured meats contains around 100% of the maximum daily sodium allowance.
- Cheese, bread, canned food, packaged meals, soups, snacks and sweets are all generally high in sodium.
Some individuals, such as firefighters fighting wild fires, professional athletes, workers exposed to high heat as well as people with certain conditions may need a bit more sodium than the general population, but again it is very unlikely for normal healthy adults to not meet the minimum amount needed due to how much sodium there is in foods we eat on a daily basis.
Sodium deficiency is known as hyponatremia, a condition where sodium levels in blood are lower than normal. It is a serious condition, but it is unlikely to occur in healthy individuals: among the people at risk for hyponatremia there are those affected by kidney failure, heart failure, and taking certain diuretics. Water poisoning, excessive sweating, vomiting and diarrhea are other possible causes of an electrolyte imbalance. Hyponatremia is treatable with a sodium chloride IV drip, by adjusting the medications taken by the patient and by treating the underlying condition that caused it.
A very low sodium diet, in some individuals, may also cause hypotension. If you suffer from low blood pressure, do not try to treat it by using excess salt, but follow your doctor’s advice.
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