Salt, which is composed of sodium and chloride, often gets a bad rap. But sodium is necessary to maintain the body’s fluid balance, nerve transmission, muscle contraction and other key functions. And even though it hasn’t been definitively shown that a low-salt diet positively impacts heart disease or death (unless you already have hypertension or cardiac disease), many health agencies still recommend limiting sodium.
The story of salt isn’t as black and white as you may think. Some health professionals even say that salt restriction causes adverse effects on health. So what’s the story? Here are 10 of the most common myths about salt and sodium and what it all means for your health:
1. The only reason to worry about salt intake is blood pressure.
False. Actually, studies show that excess sodium has been associated with other health issues such as gastric cancer, stomach ulcers, osteoporosis, muscle cramping and brain function. Salt intake does not cause, but can contribute, to high blood pressure, specifically in salt-sensitive individuals.
2. Nothing about salt is good for you.
False. Salt is essential for life. It's a major component of your blood, it helps carry nutrients into and out of your cells, regulates blood pressure and plays a role in nervous-system function. We need salt—just not too much or too little. The amount of salt that is right for you depends on your salt sensitivity (see #3).
3. Everyone responds to salt in the same way.
False. Most of us are either salt sensitive or salt resistant. Your level of salt sensitivity or resistance is determined by many factors, including genetics, race/ethnicity, age, body size and general diet. Salt sensitivity is defined as when a person’s blood pressure changes significantly from increasing or decreasing salt in the diet. Older people, overweight people, women, African-Americans and South Asians are examples of groups that are known to have greater salt sensitivity.
The issue of salt sensitivity underlies the reason that many studies show conflicting results about the impact of sodium on health for the general population. Some people don’t experience changes in blood pressure or water retention when eating salt and others do, depending on their salt sensitivity. Most studies tend to report averages but ultimately it’s the salt-sensitive people who should be most concerned about sodium intake.
How can you tell if you are salt sensitive? There’s no easy medical test for salt sensitivity, but if you can, watch out for certain symptoms. In general, eating a healthy diet low in processed foods, high in fruits and vegetables, and lots of home-cooked meals, is a safe bet for everyone.
4. If you don’t add salt in cooking or at the table, your diet will be low salt.
False. The majority of sodium intake comes from processed foods, not the amount of salt you add in cooking or at the table. And no one needs lots of processed foods in their diet! Processed meats, canned soups, tomato and pasta sauces, bouillon, breads, crackers with salted toppings, and just about anything that comes prepared is high in sodium. If you do eat processed foods, look for lower-sodium soups and sauces available in many stores.
5. Watching my salt intake means eating bland food. Life’s just not worth it!
False. Herbs, spices, garlic, onion, lemon and lime juice, red and black pepper can all add flavor to your dishes so that you don’t need to depend totally on salt for flavor. Actually, adding salt into your home-cooked meals has a much smaller impact than eating lots of processed and prepared foods, which are much higher in sodium.
6. Hot sauce is a good replacement for added salt in dishes.
True. Some people like to add hot sauce to their food instead of salt on the premise that they ingesting less sodium that way. Hot sauces, salsa, ketchup and other similar sauces can add a peppery flavor to your foods, but many of these still contain excess salt. Some brands that are lower on the sodium scale are Tabasco, Cholula, and “no-salt added” labeled products.
7. I’m young, so I don’t have to worry about my salt intake.
False. When you eat excessive salt, your body holds onto extra fluid. This extra water volume puts pressure on organs like your heart and kidneys, as well as on your arteries. This increases your risk of heart disease and high blood pressure later in life. While young people don’t have to be super restrictive, it’s not a good idea for anyone to eat foods with excessive amounts of salt.
8. Working out offsets salt intake.
True. Exercise does affect salt sensitivity. A recent study shows that physical activity was shown to significantly lower salt sensitivity of blood pressure, especially in salt-sensitive individuals. Eating excess salt can still cause fluid retention, which puts pressure on your organs and arteries, but may not increase blood pressure.
9. The effect of salt on my body is separate from the effect of sugar.
False. One of the main mechanisms behind a lower carb diet is a reduction in insulin levels. This is helpful not just for diabetes, but for weight loss because insulin tells fat cells to store fat. But another thing that insulin does is to cause the kidneys to hold onto sodium. That’s why you lose excess water, and along with it sodium, when you reduce carbs (and therefore insulin).
10. Fancy salts like Himalayan, kosher and sea salts have less sodium than regular table salt.
False. All salt contains a similar amount of sodium and there are no studies that prove that one is healthier than another. Opponents of regular table salt argue that these “fancy salts” contain less sodium and contain trace minerals such as calcium, potassium, iron and phosphorus, but there’s little evidence to prove this. These salts may, however, taste better and be less processed, so it really is a matter of personal preference.
Lea Basch, M.S., RD, is the registered dietitian for The Tasteful Pantry. Lea has been in the nutrition industry for more than 30 years and was one of the founders of Longmont United Hospital's nutrition program in Boulder, Colorado. She is a diabetes educator and focuses now on gluten-free diets and food intolerances. Lea's passion is combining the science of nutrition with the heart that it takes to change lifelong habits.