How To Tell If You’re Eating Too Much, Or Too Little Salt — And How It Affects Your Body
So you think avo can’t be toast’s best friend without salt? You might want to reconsider that relationship when you find out the amount of salt we’re actually meant to be eating…
So, how much is too much?
“The World Health Organisation and Heart and Stroke Foundation South Africa both agree that we should reduce our intake to no more than 5g (1 teaspoon) of salt from all food sources a day,” explains registered dietician and Association for Dietetics in South Africa (ADSA) spokesperson Shani Cohen. “Salt is made up of sodium and chloride. One teaspoon is equivalent to 2 000mg/day of sodium. Most people exceed what is recommended, consuming on average 9-12g per day.”
Besides its undeniable deliciousness, why are we consuming so much? “Most of this salt is not added during cooking or even at the table, but is hiding inside packaged and processed foods, making it incredibly easy to exceed this limit,” says SA Heart And Stroke Foundation registered dietician and exercise physiologist Gabriel Eksteen.
“Part of the problem is that it’s not easy to gauge your intake, and almost impossible to keep count. People become accustomed to their habitual salt intake, unaware that they eat too much salt, and foods don’t taste overly salty, even when they are salt-laden,” adds Eksteen.
What does too much of a salty thing do to your body?
“Chronic high salt intake disrupts the body’s salt and water regulation, and over time causes high blood pressure, which in turn can lead to heart disease, strokes and kidney disease,” says Eksteen. “Even if your blood pressure is normal now, high salt intake is bound to cause a rise in blood pressure as you age.”
But are there healthier alternatives that actually taste good?
“Mastering herbs and spices is the secret to tasty meals,” says Cohen. “Besides flavour, many herbs and spices contain vitamins, minerals and antioxidants essential for our immune system.”
Try the taste test before you end up chewing your way through a parsley casserole with a hint of mince though… “When trying a new herb or spice, crush a small amount in the palm of your hand and let It warm. Then smell it and taste it. This gives you an idea whether you will like it in your food,” says Cohen.
Tips when using herbs as subs, according to Cohen…
- If you’re using fresh herbs, use three times more in place of dry herbs in a recipe.
- Cook whole spices like peppercorns, cinnamon sticks or cloves for at least one hour to bring out flavours.
- For hot foods, add the spices or herbs at the end to preserve the flavour and prevent evaporation. For cold food, like salads or dressings, add herbs and ground spices at the start to let the flavours grow stronger.
- Fresh lemon, dill, ginger and garlic are wonderful with all types of fish dishes.
- Rosemary, bay leaf and onions with chicken and steak will enhance the natural flavour of the foods.
- Mint and lamb pair very well together.
- Swap out pre-made marinades loaded with salt for citrus juices and olive oil.
- It’s very handy to have cinnamon for oats and baked goods.
- Vegetables are a great place to start experimenting with spice – think cumin, chilli powder, pepper and onion powder. Curry powder can also add a ton of flavour to any vegetable dish. Roasting veg in the oven with your chosen spice or herb also has a way of intensifying the sweet veggie flavour.
Gasp – the biggest salt culprits are… stock powder or stock cubes
But it’s very easy to make your own low salt homemade stock, says Cohen. “Simply boil equal amounts of carrot, celery and onion in water for 30 minutes. This homemade stock will jam-pack any soup, gravy or stew with tons of natural flavour.”
Salt substitutes are available in grocery stores too. “They’re made with potassium or magnesium instead of sodium, and can be used to replace table salt,” says Cohen. But she notes that there are medical contraindications to salt substitutes (especially those made with potassium), so it’s best to check with your doctor to make sure it’s safe for you to consume.
Other clever tips you might not know about
“Besides herbs and spices, also think about adding nuts and dried fruits to starches like rice or couscous to provide a nutty flavour,” says Cohen. “Start experimenting with different combinations by creating spice mixes. Starting a herb garden can also make people, especially kids, more inclined to try new flavours.”
It’s all about training your taste buds to enjoy food for its natural flavour rather than disguising it with salt. “Look out for the Heart Mark from the Heart and Stroke Foundation South Africa on foods to help you choose healthier options,” says Cohen.
“[Importantly] don’t be fooled by mixed spices or colourful salts that are still incredibly salty,” adds Eksteen. “If you do use these, they should replace your usual salt, not double up.” Be salt savvy – always check sodium values on labels.
Okay, while it’s good to cut down, is there a danger in cutting out too much salt from your diet?
Good question… “Salt plays an important role in maintaining the body’s hydration levels, nervous and cardiovascular system, electrolyte balance and blood pressure,” says Cohen. “It also controls how we taste and smell and encourages the contraction of muscles in our body, like the heart.”
It is possible to have too little salt. “This condition is called hyponatremia,” says Cohen. “Symptoms may include nausea and vomiting, decreased appetite, headache, fatigue and muscle cramps. Over time, hyponatremia can lead to brain impairment and even death. Those at risk include athletes who sweat a lot, medications that affect sodium-fluid balance, and certain illnesses like kidney or liver disease.”
But it’s super unlikely for the rest of us. Why? “The human body is incredibly efficient at retaining salt, probably because in ancient times salt was scarce,” explains Eksteen. “As a result, we need only 1.5g salt per day, and eating this amount, given our modern food supply, is nearly impossible. While some scientists have warned against too little salt, supposed harmful effects are only likely with extreme reductions in unwell people.”
So for us regular folks, reducing our salt intake is always a good idea. If in doubt, chat to a dietician.