Salt is a ubiquitous part of our current nutritional environment. It’s found in almost all convenience foods and in several of the food products that make up the foundation of the diet the average Joe and Jane eat, including in “the staff of life”, AKA bread, which typically contains as much as 1-1,5 grams of salt per 100 grams. If one isn’t careful, one may quickly end up taking in as much as 10-15 grams of salt a day, which is a lot. Personally, I do my best to avoid salt. In this article, I thought I’d briefly explain why…
Salt restriction: The evolutionary & scientific rationale
A massive body of scientific evidence shows that a high salt intake is a major risk factor for hypertension (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6. 7), which in turn is a risk factor for heart disease – the leading cause of death in many developed countries. Salt has also been implicated in the pathogenesis of a number of other disorders and ailments, including various forms of autoimmune diseases and cancer (8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14). There’s almost universal agreement among scientists and nutritionists that salt is a troublemaker. Given that this is the case, it’s not surprising that public health agencies across the globe, including the World Health Organization (WHO), have long urged food manufacturers and consumers to limit the use of sodium chloride.
The evidence is so overwhelming that it’s puzzling that some people, including a small number of medical professionals, question the merits of salt reduction campaigns. We evolved over millions of years eating a low-sodium, high-potassium diet; hence, it’s not surprising that modern, western diets, which are rich in sodium, while low in potassium, cause turmoil within the physiological systems of the human body. We’re simply not adapted for high-salt conditions.
The quote below, which I extracted from what may be the best & most concise overview papers on this issue that I’ve ever read, clearly highlights this fact.
Millions of years of the successful existence of ours and related species in a salt-free environment is sufficient proof that a low-salt diet is man’s original and natural diet, is compatible with normal physiology, and is safe. The modern man while well adapted to low-salt diet is poorly equipped to cope with the salt surfeit imposed on him in recent times. The experimental data on the role of salt in hypertension are multifaceted and incontrovertible. The unnaturally high salt intake, an artifact of recent times, contributes to hypertension and to the increased cardiovascular morbidity and mortality caused by hypertension. (2)
Why I severely limit my intake of salt
The reason I avoid salt isn’t just that I know that salt has been implicated in the development of hypertension, heart disease, and certain other disorders, but also because I’ve noticed that salt doesn’t do my body good. Seeing as I eat mostly whole foods (natural, whole foods are by default low in sodium), my salt intake ends up being much lower than that of the typical westerner, who eats substantial amounts of bread and highly processed foods.
I’m not anal about my diet though, so every now and then, for example when I’m eating out, am at a party, or simply crave something from the inner isles of the supermarket, I do eat some salty foods. One thing I’ve noticed is that I usually feel worse than usual following such occasions. This is particularly true if my salt intake starts creeping up above 5-6 grams, approaching 10. Most importantly, I feel it affects my gut and brain. My gut microbiota becomes somewhat destabilized and my brain feels foggy. (Recent animal studies indicate that high-salt feeding impairs cognitive function, enhances hippocampal oxidative stress, and induces gut dysbiosis (15, 16, 17, 18, 19, 20, 21)).
This is purely my experience and obviously doesn’t constitute scientific proof of anything, in part because potential confounders haven’t been controlled for. That said, there’s no doubt in my mind that there is a link between my salt intake and my general health and well-being. In general, I feel that the less salt I take in, the better I feel. I’m sure others have experienced the same.
It’s often assumed that people who are very physically active and/or live in a hot climate need more salt. To some extent, that may be true. What’s important to point out though is that we humans evolved for millions of years as physically active hunter-gatherers in a hot region of the world (Africa), under low-salt conditions.
Personally, I follow my appetite. If I crave salt, I’ll have some salt, but seeing as that happens very rarely, I usually end up keeping salt at a distance.