Salt – Friend or Foe?

Read most guidelines for health and they advise you to limit the intake of foods and drinks containing added salt and not to add salt to foods in cooking or at the table.  This makes salt sound really bad for you – but salt, in moderation, is essential for good health.

Role of Salt

Salt, or sodium, functions as an electrolyte in the body.  Electrolytes are minerals in your blood and other body fluids that carry an electric charge.  Sodium plays a role in normal blood pressure, regulation of blood volume, nutrient absorption, nutrient transport and maintenance of a healthy cell membrane.

Good health begins at a cellular level.  Around 2/3 of the water in our bodies is contained inside our cells and is called intra-cellular fluid. Cells are also bathed externally in fluid called extra-cellular fluid, which makes up the remaining 1/3 of the body’s water.

In order to maintain strong healthy cell membranes and a stable environment within the cells, the intra-cellular and extra-cellular fluids must maintain a balance of opposite qualities.  This includes a balance in potassium and sodium.   Intra-cellular fluids are usually high in potassium and low in sodium while the extra-cellular fluid is the opposite – high in sodium and low in potassium, and the amount of water in these fluids must be in correct proportion to the amount of minerals.

Balancing Potassium, Salt and Fluid

Your body does the best it can to keep everything in balance but what you eat and drink plays a crucial role.  Balancing your intake of sodium rich and potassium rich foods against fluid helps the cells maintain their balance.  But how much of each should we aim for?

Current guidelines suggest 8 glasses of water a day or to drink half your body weight in fluid ounces each day.  But these guidelines refer to total fluid intake which includes the water found all foods and all drinks so it makes it difficult to calculate correctly.  Is it possible to drink too much?   Absolutely – and the health ramifications of being overhydrated include digestive problems, behavioural changes, brain damage, seizures or coma.

If you’re drinking a lot of fluids and eating a lot of home cooked meals with plenty of fruits and vegetables, which are generally rich in potassium, you may need to add a little salt to your foods or to add salty foods such as miso, olives or other pickled or fermented foods.

Conversely if you’re eating a lot of prepackaged and processed foods – even healthy ones – you may need to reduce these or increase your fruits, vegies and fluid intake to create balance.

The colour of your urine is a simple biofeedback guide you can use.  Clear urine, which is often held up as being the state to aim for, can actually indicate an excess of fluid in your system or an underlying symptom of other health issues including Diabetes insipidus – a metabolic disorder linked to your kidneys and pituitary gland.  Very dark urine often indicates dehydration.  Ideally your urine should be a light straw-yellow colour.

So what should I eat?

It doesn’t need to be too complicated but you do need to be aware and honest about what you eat.  If you eat mostly home cooked food with plenty of fresh ingredients and very little processed foods, then you could add a little salt or salty foods for extra flavor and to keep your fluid/sodium/potassium levels balanced, especially if your urine is very clear or you urinate very frequently.

If you eat a lot of pre packaged or processed foods or your urine is very dark, then you could add greater quantities of fresher foods, replace added salt with herbs and spices for flavor and/or increase your water intake.

If high blood pressure or hypertension is a problem then understanding the role of salt and diet is even more important.

In recent times many natural foods have been unfairly victimised and held responsible for a variety of health issues and salt is one such product.  Total abstinence can have just as many negative health consequences as over indulgence – like most things moderation is key.