For many people, saltiness is one of the best flavors out there. A meal without salt is like a day without sunshine. Eating something salty and crunchy can up a salt lover’s mood just like people with a sweet tooth turn to their favorite treats when they’re feeling down.
Most people like to add a little salt to their meals for a boost of flavor. But did you know that salt can also affect your health? Too much of it is very bad for you, but so is having too little of it. Our bodies need sodium, but we must eat it in healthy amounts.
In fact, the FDA recently released new salt guidelines that aim to help inform people’s health choices around salt and lower overall salt intake in order to prevent disease. Read on to learn what you need to know about the new salt guidelines, why we need salt, how salt affects our health (good and bad), and the diseases linked to salt intake.
What are the new salt guidelines?
In October 2021, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Food and Drug Administration released new guidance around salt for the industry titled “Voluntary Sodium Reduction Goals.”
The guidelines state, “This guidance is intended to provide measurable voluntary short-term (2.5-year) goals for sodium content in commercially processed, packaged, and prepared foods to reduce excess population sodium intake, while recognizing and supporting the important roles sodium plays in food technology and food safety.”
The guidelines also report that “Sodium is widely present in the American diet (most commonly, but not exclusively, as a result of eating or drinking foods to which sodium chloride, commonly referred to as ‘salt,’ has been added). More than 70 percent of total sodium intake is from sodium added during food manufacturing and commercial food preparation.”
The average sodium intake in the U.S. is approximately 3,400 milligrams per day, while The Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2020-2025 advises individuals 14 years and older to limit their consumption to just 2,300 mg per day. Obviously, there’s a problem here.
According to Everyday Health, “In an effort to curb Americans’ sodium intake, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) this week called on chain restaurants and food manufacturers to voluntarily slash the salt content in their products. The goal: to reduce Americans’ typical daily sodium intake from 3,400 milligrams (mg) to 3,000 mg, a roughly 12 percent decrease.”
Even if the FDA’s new salt guidelines are perfectly implemented, Americans’ daily sodium consumption would still be above the recommended limit of 2,300 mg per day for people ages 14 and up. However, the FDA says that “even these modest reductions made slowly over the next few years will substantially decrease diet-related diseases.”
While most people will still be above the daily limit, this change has the potential to save thousands of lives per year with respect to diet-related diseases. The new salt guidelines aim to lower our overall salt intake and stave off disease that can be caused by a diet too high in sodium.
Why do we need salt?
Limiting your salt intake to a healthy and moderate amount could save your life. But it’s important to remember that not all salt is bad salt. Our bodies do need a moderate amount of sodium per day, about 500 mg for essential functions. Our bodies use sodium to conduct nerve impulses, contract and relax muscles, and maintain the right balance of water and minerals. Salt balances the fluids in the blood and maintains healthy blood pressure.
Still, as Everyday Health puts it, “the high-sodium diet many people eat puts too much strain on the kidneys, allowing sodium and water to accumulate in the bloodstream and forcing the heart to work harder to pump an increased volume of blood through the body.”
Eating a normal amount of sodium in your diet can be especially delicious when you also add some herbs or spicy ingredients for added health benefits. Spicy food can help you live longer, speed up your metabolism, combat inflammation, and more.
Lowering your salt intake is good, but don’t make it your goal to cut it out completely. In fact, that’s impossible. With absolutely no salt in your diet, you will die. If you get dehydrated from hard exercise or a great workout, the first thing you need to do is replenish your body’s salts.
Salt intake levels may affect your brain’s functioning
Did you know that your salt intake may affect the development of Alzheimer’s, dementia, or memory loss in the brain?
According to a study published by the National Institutes of Health in which mice were fed a high-salt diet, “high levels of dietary salt caused a chemical change to a protein called tau. This change—phosphorylation—can cause tau to clump together in the brain. Clumps of tau are linked with some dementias, such as Alzheimer’s disease.”
Yes, that’s right: too much salt can actually cause cognitive deficits. Eating too much salt in your diet can also increase your risk for other chronic diseases, such as heart disease and weight issues.
When your salt levels are too high, you are putting a strain on your heart. It has to work harder to pump more blood through the body because sodium has accumulated in your bloodstream. This can cause not only high blood pressure but also an increased risk for heart attacks, strokes, heart failure, kidney disease, and even blindness.
Another study, published by Deccan Herald, examines “how blood flow to the hypothalamus changes in response to salt intake.” The study “showed a decrease in blood flow as the neurons became activated in the hypothalamus.”
Too much salt is very bad for the body and brain. But on the flip side, a diet with healthy levels of salt can be very good for you. Below, we’ll take a look at the benefits of a low salt diet.
What can a low salt diet do for you?
This may amaze you, but the statistics show that a low salt diet (or even just a diet lower in salt than you usually eat) can drastically change your health outcomes. As the WHO puts it, “[eat] less salt for a longer life.”
According to Everyday Health, “A previous study found that sodium intake above 2,000 mg a day was responsible for an estimated 1 in 10 deaths from cardiovascular causes worldwide. Another study calculated the health benefits to Americans from reducing daily sodium intake by 1,200 mg, roughly the amount needed to bring our salt consumption within limits recommended by dietary guidelines. Each year, a reduction of this magnitude could prevent up to 120,000 new cases of heart disease, 66,000 strokes, 99,000 heart attacks, and 92,000 deaths.”
In other words, a low salt diet can majorly reduce your risk of disease and death. It can prevent disease and help you live a healthier, happier lifestyle.
As a study published on the Harvard website puts it, “Lower sodium consumption and higher potassium intake is linked with lower risk of cardiovascular disease (CVD) in most people, according to a study led by Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health researchers.”
How to lower your dietary salt intake
How can you eat a low salt diet? It’s not just about putting away the salt shaker. In fact, the problem for most people is not in the sprinkle of salt they may add to their food.
Instead, most of the average person’s salt intake is found in packaged, processed, and restaurant foods. So your best bet is to stick to healthy, whole foods you eat at home (even better if you grow them yourself). If you stick to primarily non-processed foods, adding a little salt to season your food shouldn’t be a problem.
Much of the sodium in American diets comes from a handful of problem foods, including deli meat, pizza, burritos, tacos, soups, savory snacks and junk food, chips, poultry, burgers, mixed pasta dishes, and egg dishes. Extra salt is added to these items to make it taste good, but they can deliver unhealthy amounts of salt to your diet.
To lower your unhealthy salt intake, Health.gov recommends knowing your limit, reading the label, cooking at home more often, and shopping for lower-sodium foods. “Sodium is in almost all the processed and prepared foods we buy – even foods that don’t taste salty, like bread or tortillas. When you are shopping, limit these items that are high in sodium:
* Processed meats, poultry, and seafood – like deli meats, sausages, and sardines
* Sauces, dressings, and condiments
* Instant foods, like flavored rice or noodles.”
The agency also recommends people to choose products with 5% Daily Value (DV) or less of sodium, as a sodium content of 20% DV or more is high.
Also, instead of the typical processed table salt, use only kosher or pink salt when you cook or to season your food. These salt options still contain trace amounts of minerals from where the salt originated, so they have some added health benefits over the usual table salt.
If you keep a close eye on your salt intake, it can be easy to keep your sodium levels at a healthy place without having to drastically change your diet or go without your favorite foods. Simply make healthier choices with lower amounts of sodium and you’ll do your body a favor.
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