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A dash of salt: Not just a matter of taste

As you’re driving down the road during the long, hot days of summer, how can you make sure you won’t become dehydrated? Pack enough water, for sure. But also monitor your salt intake. Make sure you get enough salt to replace what...

As you’re driving down the road during the long, hot days of summer, how can you make sure you won’t become dehydrated? Pack enough water, for sure. But also monitor your salt intake. Make sure you get enough salt to replace what you lose in sweat.

Over the past decades you’ve often heard that too much salt in your diet can create serious health problems. However, too little can be just as dangerous. Unrefined salt carries these four electrolytes: sodium, potassium, magnesium, and calcium, as well as other vital minerals necessary to keep the body functioning properly.

Sodium carries out many crucial functions. It controls the amount of water in the body; maintains the normal pH of blood, and blood pressure levels; and helps metabolize insulin, produce hormones, transmit nerve signals and control muscle movement.
Yet, our specific salt needs are as individual as we are. Our brain signals us to take in the specific amount of salt we each need. This amount is determined by a combination of genetics, diet, physical condition, stature, environment and stress. So, different people require different amounts of salt. Maintaining the appropriate sodium balance is the key.

How can we do that? First, recognize that most adults should only consume up to six grams of salt per day (about one teaspoon). Yet, most North Americans average 50% above the recommended amount (about nine grams) every day.  It’s easy to understand why.  

Salt brings out the flavour of foods; and it is always readily available. Not only are salt shakers out on every table, but salt is also hiding inside most of our favourite foods. More than three quarters comes from processed foods, just under 15% from natural sources, about 10% is added when cooking or eating, and 1% comes from tap water. Breakfast products like cereals, bread, cakes and biscuits give us about one third of the salt in our diet. Meat and meat products provide just over a quarter.

Recent health and nutrition surveys named the top 10 food sources in the North American diet. These were determined by a combination of how much sodium they contain and how often they’re eaten. The dubious winners were: meat pizza; white bread; processed cheese; hot dogs; spaghetti with sauce; ham; ketchup; cooked rice; white rolls and flour tortillas – an appetizing list!

Salt may have its advantages though, by leading us towards better food choices. Dieters like salt because it adds flavour, but not calories. Low-fat foods often taste better because of the salt that is added. A broader selection of vegetables may be eaten because a bit of salt has enhanced their flavour.

Another advantage is that salt is a natural food preservative. By lowering the “water activity” of food, salt reduces the pathogenic-microbial growth in that food. Additionally, salt is needed during food processing to create a palatable product. For instance, in bread making salt works to affect the strength, expansion and texture of dough. In cheese making, salt is needed to cure and develop the cheese’s consistency.

For healthy people, who reasonably monitor their salt intake, too much salt is not a big concern. Their kidneys just process and excrete “excess” sodium from their body.

However, for those with heart problems or high blood pressure, it might be. These people should follow a low-salt diet as instructed by their health care professional. This has been seen to be one of the best ways to lower blood pressure, especially when combined with a healthier diet. According to a government study, if North Americans reduced their salt intake to six grams a day, the incidences of stroke would drop by 13% and of ischemic heart disease by 10%.

If you need to cut back, here are some simple changes you can make. Instead of salt, use fresh or dried herbs and spices to flavour vegetables. Keep the salt shaker in the cupboard when eating. Choose vegetables that are fresh, frozen or otherwise not canned with salt. If you are having vegetables canned with salt, rinse them before heating. Check labels for low or reduced sodium versions of your favourite foods.

Although sodium deficiency is rarely an issue, occasionally dehydration, excessive sweating, prolonged illness and/or acute kidney disease can cause dangerously low salt levels. With symptoms including headache, nausea and vomiting, muscle cramps, fainting, drowsiness, fatigue and eventually coma, this can be a serious health concern.

So, prepare ahead. Summer’s coming and you never know when you might break down in the middle of nowhere on a stifling, hot day. Why not salt away a few bottles of a sports drink like Gatorade for your rig just in case of emergency? Their fluids and electrolytes could help keep your fluids and electrolytes balanced until a service truck arrives. Cheers to summer!

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