MYTH: Salt is bad for you.
Beware the Ides of March
As we publish this first blog on salt, we note it is the Ides of March, that day in history when Brutus, Cassius, and other conspirators assassinated Julius Caesar. What’s the connection between Caesar and salt? Well, while Julius Caesar was betrayed by those close to him with ulterior motives and forceful influence, salt may have been betrayed by similar forces—with dire results!
We hear it over and over again: People try to completely eliminate salt from their diets because they think it’s bad for them. Well, yes, too much salt or the wrong kind of salt can be bad for you, but all animals—including humans—need some salt in order to survive and thrive.
That’s why Gloria’s dad set out large blocks of salt (salt licks) for the cattle on his Saskatchewan farm, and it’s why healthcare practitioners generally recommend we get some salt every day.
Why is salt so important? Well, it’s really sodium chloride we’re talking about here, but let’s just call it salt. Your body needs salt for proper electrical activity in cells. Without it, electrical activity within neurons would not be generated, and your nervous system could not coordinate countless functions within your body. Inadequate amounts would leave your muscles unable to contract properly, fluids wouldn’t be distributed appropriately throughout your body, and even your blood pressure wouldn’t be maintained where it should be. (Yes, you need a little of the right kind of salt to ensure your blood pressure is neither too high nor too low.)
Of course, the recommended amount is constantly in dispute, partly because we are all influenced by the myths of salt intake and partly because the effect of salt on our bodies is influenced by each person’s unique biochemistry and a range of health factors.
A general rule of thumb is one-half to one teaspoon of salt per day accumulated from all sources, but check with your healthcare provider because, when it comes to salt intake, the best advice may come from the early Greek aphorism for all decision making: Know thyself.
Note: Some people can be highly sensitive to salt (even in the amounts that healthcare providers tend to recommend) and some people have to reduce their intake for medical reasons. Be sure to speak to your healthcare provider before adding more salt to your diet.
A LITTLE HISTORY
You may need to know yourself, but you also need to know a few things about salt, too. If we look back at the history of salt research over the past century, we’ll find some surprising things:
- 1904: “French doctors reported that six of their subjects who had high blood pressure—a known risk factor for heart disease—were salt fiends,” (Scientific American http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=its-time-to-end-the-war-on-salt, 2011).
- 1970: Over the intervening seven decades, fear of salt grew, culminating in a report by Brookhaven National Laboratory‘s Lewis Dahl who claims to have evoked high blood pressure in rats by feeding them 500 grams of salt a day (compared to human daily intake of about 8.5 grams). Fear becomes entrenched and salt is confirmed as a “fiend.”
- 2013: The Canadian government joins hosts of others in its announcement (CBC Lang & O’Leary Exchange, March 14) that dietary salt might have to be regulated. Many food manufacturers, like Campbells, have read the signs and reduced salt in their food products.
- 1904–2013: The vast majority of studies confirming the role of salt in hypertension and heart attacks ignore unrefined salt and privilege refined salt. It’s hard to find a food manufacturer who uses unrefined salt in food products.
But is the government right? Should people be so wary of salt that it requires government regulation, especially when food manufacturers (such as Campbell’s, for example) already have read the signs and reduced salt in their food products?
Well, these are somewhat complicated questions that are difficult to answer, especially when people’s general understanding of salt is muddied by the dissemination of incomplete information and uninformed fear. Nevertheless, let’s give it a try.
THE ROLE OF SALT AS A NUTRIENT
It’s important to understand that the concentration of sodium chloride in your body must be kept within a narrow range. Too high or too low causes problems. This is why people need a little, but not a lot.
The good news is that your body is equipped to deal with some salt excess. Your kidneys, for example, monitor and control the build-up (called accretion) of salt in your body based on the amount you take in. (Source: Michael Alderman, an epidemiologist at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine and former president of the International Society of Hypertension.)
You don’t want to be silly about this, though. Ingesting copious amounts of salt can put your kidneys at terrible risk. As with so many foods, the poison is in the dose.
When calculating the amount of salt you’re eating in a day, include salt from all sources—especially those prepared foods that are often loaded with salt: soups, sauces, gravies, breads and other baked goods, cereals, canned vegetables, pickles, cold cuts, and (of course) chips and snack foods of all kinds.
Your salt intake can add up quickly, so just because we’ve said you need some salt in your diet, don’t go sprinkling your food liberally with it until you know how much you’re already ingesting. Yup, you guessed it: It’s time to read some labels again—or do your own cooking, so you know (really know) what’s in your food. Healthy eating always comes back to that, have you noticed?
Refined vs. Unrefined Salt
While you’re examining food labels for salt, have a look at the ingredients in your table salt itself. You may be in for a shock.
Refined, iodized table salt (as well as some popular sea salts) contains additives such as alumino-silicate to prevent clumping, dextrose (sugar) from corn, and various bleaching agents. Blech!
The salt in your cupboard also may contain iodine. The amount of iodine in refined salt may help prevent goiter (an enlargement of the thyroid gland), but it is hardly sufficient to meet the needs of your body. Only about 10% of the iodine in refined salt is bioavailable because virtually all of the synergistic minerals are missing. There are better sources for iodine than that, such as dulce and kelp and, perhaps, iodine supplements (taken under the guidance of your Naturopath or other healthcare provider, of course).
It’s important to understand that refined salt lacks the trace minerals that are needed to work in concert with sodium. Ironically, refined salt actually leaches minerals from the body—it’s as though the refined salt is looking for the minerals that were removed, and stealing them from your bones and tissues.
Refining salt, therefore, turns it into a toxic product—a situation that is all-too-common in refining processes.
As the renowned David Brownstein, MD points out, “There is a huge difference between refined and unrefined salt. Unrefined salt is packed with essential minerals, and it supplies the body with a proper balance of sodium and chloride with over 80 trace minerals.”
Those trace minerals help to balance the sodium chloride and thereby play a big part in preventing deficiencies of other minerals and warding off high acidity in the body; that is, the various trace minerals in unrefined sea salt help to defend against the onset of chronic illnesses and even cancer.
In fact, minerals and trace minerals are so important that we encourage you to read (or re-read) Chapter 11: Mighty Minerals in our book Eat to Save Your Life. It will help you more fully understand the vital role that minerals and trace minerals play in human health, so you can take better control of your health and kick disease to the curb.
As you can see, unrefined sea salt is an important food; it’s refined salt (regular table salt) that can be unhealthy and even dangerous for the body
So, when you go shopping, avoid the refined table salt and look for unrefined salt. It will have large-crystal grains, and may be pinkish or greyish in color (that’s the minerals). If you want small crystals for your salt shakers, buy a grinder so you’re not tempted to go back to refined salt for its apparent conveniences.
When it comes to salt, Gloria recommends unrefined sea salt such as Himalayan pink, Celtic, and Redmond’s. Jerre likes these, too, plus the true Alaea sea salt produced in Hawaii. Not only are these salts important for you, they taste delicious.
Do you have a favorite unrefined salt? Let us know.
And while you’re picking up that health-giving unrefined salt, please avoid all those seductively-advertised processed foods, canned foods, and packaged foods that contain high amounts of refined salt. Rather than spending your hard-earned money on prepared foods with pretty questionable nutritional benefits, opt instead for certified organic fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains, beans and other legumes, poultry, and eggs, as well as fish from the cold deep oceans and lean meat from grass-fed animals.
Unfortunately, over the last 100 years, the vast majority of studies confirming the role of salt in hypertension and heart attacks have ignored unrefined salt and have, instead, privileged refined salt.
This takes us back to our question posed earlier:
- Is the government right to regulate the amount of salt in processed foods?
Well, you be the judge. Considering that it’s hard to find a manufacturer who uses unrefined salt in its processed food, should the government regulate the amount of salt manufacturers use in their products?
Let us know what you think.
In the meantime, here’s to your salty good health and a happy Ides of March,
Gloria and Jerre
Next blog: Unrefined salt does not raise your blood pressure, does not cause heart attacks, and does contribute to a healthy pH.