They surveyed more than 1000 Australian adults and found that two in five (40%) agreed salt was OK to flavour foods in heart-healthy eating, with a further 29% who were uncertain.
Perhaps more surprisingly, recent HeartWatch (2) data, worryingly found just two in five people (41%) were aware that poor diet increases their risks for heart disease, with males and people aged 45 or over, less likely to be aware of this risk (both 39%).
I’m not sure how so many people have missed the memo, but it seems we have a way to go before everyone realises there is a link between cardiovascular health, including risk of heart attacks and stroke, and what you choose to eat. While of course there are other factors involved, many that we have no control over such as genes, diet matters and you do have much control over that.
What’s the story with salt?
In some ways I’m not too surprised that 40% of people thought it’s OK to flavour their food with salt. After all, pretty much every chef on TV and in cookbooks uses salt… and fairly generously.
Salt is also integral to human history and not just as a culinary ingredient. The word ‘salary’ was derived from the word ‘salt’ because salt used to be used as a kind of currency when trading in ancient times as far back as 6050 BCE. The Romans used salt to flavour their vegies and leafy greens. The word ‘salad’, derived from ‘salt’, emerged as a result. Salt has undeniably been a part of human civilisations for a very long time.
The Romans used salt to flavour their vegies and leafy greens. The word ‘salad’, derived from ‘salt’, emerged as a result.
Salt was and still is a highly effective preservative for foodstuffs. A high salt environment makes it very inhospitable to most microorganisms. Salted/cured meats and seafood, olives and other foods stored in brine (salty water), pickled vegies, salted capers and today many dried foods have salt added as a natural preservative as well as a flavour enhancer.
Salt was and still is a highly effective preservative for foodstuffs. A high salt environment makes it very inhospitable to most microorganisms.
That combination of attributes, along with the fact that salt is pretty cheap, has contributed to the fact that the vast majority of salt in the average modern diet comes from processed, packed foods and not from the salt we add at the table or in our own cooking.
Why is salt bad for your health?
The main health issue is that too much salt increases your risk of high blood pressure, especially with age. When your blood pressure if too high this puts enormous pressure on blood vessels and results in damage.
The main health issue is that too much salt increases your risk of high blood pressure, especially with age.
High blood pressure can result in stroke, damage to your kidneys, fluid retention (hello swollen, puffy ankles and hands, technically called oedema) and an increased risk of osteoporosis.
Ahead of World Salt Awareness Week (8-14 March), Heart Foundation dietitian Sian Armstrong said it was concerning that people believed salt was ok in heart-healthy eating.
“High blood pressure is known as a silent killer because there are no obvious signs or symptoms that you have it, but it can put you at higher risk of a heart attack or stroke. As people get older, it can increase over time,” Ms Armstrong said.
“The good news is high blood pressure can be controlled by following a heart-healthy eating pattern that is naturally low in salt, added sugars, saturated and trans fat, together with other lifestyle changes and, if advised by your doctor, taking medication.”
Your genes make a difference to your body’s response to excess salt. A gene called the ACE gene depicts your level of risk. Those with either the GA or the AA variant are at an increased risk of developing high blood pressure with an excessive salt intake. Those with these risk variants (which includes me – I have the GA variant) should be especially careful to keep their sodium intake at or below the recommended daily intake. Since most people haven’t had their genes analysed, it is prudent for us all to shake off the salt habit.
How much salt is too much?
Part of the confusion over sodium is that it is a required nutrient. It plays an essential role in maintaining the correct fluid balance across cell membranes. That’s why too much salt can draw in excess fluid, leading to those ‘cankles’ I mentioned earlier as well as general oedema in the body. Sodium is for that reason carefully balanced in the body.
Part of the confusion over sodium is that it is a required nutrient. It plays an essential role in maintaining the correct fluid balance across cell membranes.
That balance can be upset by either too much sodium coming in or excessive loss of sodium. The latter can easily happen with heavy sweating. Sodium is the major electrolyte lost in sweat and that is why sports drinks contain sodium to help with replenishment. Some athletes are famously big sweaters and struggle to maintain sodium balance – Australian tennis legend Pat Rafter is one of those.
For most of us mere mortals we get more than enough sodium in our diets and are much more likely to suffer from an excess.
An Adequate Intake (AI) of sodium for adults is set at 460-920mg/day. Children under the age of 14 should have even less. It is especially important for infants and toddlers to avoid added salt in their foods and drinks.
That’s how much sodium we need for our physiological functions. The Suggested Dietary Target for us to avoid the risks of excess sodium are set at 2000mg/day for adults. That’s 5g of salt (sodium chloride) or just under a teaspoon (1 tsp = 6g salt).
Currently most Aussies are consuming about 9g, so we are almost double what is recommended. Our poor blood vessels!
Which foods are high in salt?
The trouble with salt in processed foods is that you don’t always taste it. A packet of salted chips or salted nuts are obviously salty. But a bought pasta sauce, Thai takeout, burger, pizza or a biscuit may not taste salty at all. Although if you’re excessively thirsty after eating them that might give you a clue!
Read the label of packaged foods and you’ll find sodium listed in the nutrition panel. A low salt food has less than 120mg sodium per 100g, and a moderately salty food has less than 400mg per 100g.
Of course, your portion size matters too. A moderately salty food that you then eat 500g of will be delivering your entire day’s limit of salt in one meal. Whereas an Asian sauce such as soy or oyster sauce is incredibly high in sodium, but if you use sparingly you can stay within your recommended intake.
Look too for products labelled with ‘no added salt’ or ‘salt reduced’.
Tips for reducing your salt intake
Just as you can wean yourself off a sweet tooth, the same is true for salt. Many of us are just so used to that salty taste that we hardly notice just how salty it really is. Get your tastebuds used to less salt and suddenly you will start to notice.
Get your tastebuds reacquainted with all the fabulous natural tastes we get from the spectrum of whole foods. Flavour with herbs and spices, or add flaked seaweed for a wonderful umami taste (with the added bonus of iodine – a mineral many are short on).
Cut back on how many package, ultra-processed foods you buy. Making more meals yourself at home allows greater control over the quality of ingredients and how much salt (and other things) is added.
A little pinch of salt here and there in your cooking is of course OK, but be mindful that there is no such thing as a healthier salt. Fancy rock, pink and Himalayan salts are still salt. They may also contain contaminants (read more on that from our published research here).
If you are going to use a little salt at home, I recommend using an iodised salt. You can get this as salt flakes now too, as well as regular table salt. You benefit from the iodine but remember you still have to limit how much you are using to keep your sodium down.
Finally, for good blood pressure control it is equally important to keep up your potassium. You do that by eating lots of vegies and fruit. That brings us back nicely to the cornerstone of Get Lean and that is a plant-rich (whether or not you also consume animal foods), whole food, deliciously healthy diet.
(1) 2019 Heart Foundation, Heart Foods Consumer Research
(2) 2020 Heart Foundation HeartWatch survey, December
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