Is Salt Good or Bad for You?
Most of us are eating more salt than is recommended. Here's how to cut back.
Recently, the Food and Drug Administration announced sweeping new guidelines for restaurants and food manufacturers to decrease sodium content in foods. On the flip side, experts warn that some of us might not be getting enough iodine from table salt. So should we pick up the salt shaker, or put it down? And maybe more importantly, if we do shake, which salt is best?
The recommendation for daily sodium consumption is 2,300 mg, or below. That’s not very much. It’s the amount in 1 teaspoon of table salt. By weight all salt contains 40% sodium, so it’s often used interchangeably with the mineral sodium. Salt is the main source of dietary sodium.
Most of us get closer to 3,400 mg of sodium. Since sodium is critical in the body’s fluid balance, getting too much of it can cause fluid retention and electrolyte imbalance issues. Too much sodium can also put us at greater risk for high blood pressure, osteoporosis, and heart disease.
Most of Us Eat Too Much Salt
Since salt is in practically everything, it’s tricky to quantify how much we eat. But bottom line, if your food comes in a package and you’re eating restaurant food a couple times a week, you’re probably eating more than the recommended amounts. Even if you cook everything at home, it’s hard to stay below the recommendations (see tips below).
Other signs that you’re eating way too much salt include bloating, especially in your fingers and around the ankles; constipation; mild frequent headaches; and constant thirst. These symptoms are often a result of the body’s fluids being out of balance. Too much sodium means certain body symptoms try to compensate by pulling water out of other systems (like the digestive system, causing constipation).
What About Iodine Deficiency?
Table salt is a source of iodine. People older than 18 need 150 mcg of iodine daily for metabolism and thyroid health; that’s the amount in 1/2 to 3/4 teaspoon of table salt. Processed foods generally use salt that does not contain iodine; still most of us get plenty of iodine through dairy foods and iodized table salt. But as these foods decrease in consumption, some populations have emerged with iodine deficiencies. Those at risk include pregnant or lactating women. And those with a family history of thyroid disease can decrease their risk of hypothyroidism by getting enough iodine.
What Type of Salt Is Best?
Kosher salt – Health professionals generally recommend shaking on and cooking with kosher salt because the actual salt grains are larger than table salt grains. Thus less salt will pack into a teaspoon, making this an easy way to shave down salt intake; most recipes will still work with slightly less salt. Kosher salt is loved by chefs because of its "clean" flavor without the mineral-y taste in table salt or sea salts. And even among kosher salt, the salt crystal shapes vary; Morton kosher salt has a finer grind than Diamond Crystal. So fewer Diamond Crystal grains fit in a teaspoon.
Sea salt - You’ll taste the sea. If you think you want to spring for a more expensive sea salt — usually labeled with the particular body of water from which those sea salt crystals were evaporated — do a blind tasting comparing a variety of salts. Sea salt crystals also have varied structures, such as large clumped crystals, flakes, or tiny granules which when used to top food can produce a pleasant crunch or are quick dissolving on the tongue.
Iodized table salt – When they do use salt, pregnant and lactating women should probably shake on and cook with iodized salt because kosher salt does not contain iodine and the iodine in sea salt is minimal. According to the National Institutes of Health’s Office of Dietary Supplements, this group is at risk for iodine deficiency, especially if they restrict salt or do not eat dairy foods. A serving of cow’s milk contains about 85 mcg of iodine, almost half of the 220 mcg pregnant women need and a third of the recommended 290 mcg of iodine recommended for lactating women. (Prenatal vitamins usually also contain iodine.)
How to Cut Down on Salt
Since most of us do need to cut down on sodium, here are some surprising and tasty ways to cut down on salt:
Switch up your sandwich. Bread is a major source of sodium; just one slice can have 300 to 400 mg sodium. To cut down, make an open-faced sandwich using one slice, or choose bakery or sprouted grain breads which sometimes have less sodium. And choose fresher grilled chicken breast or canned tuna (which can be rinsed) instead of deli meats which are sky-high in sodium (around 500 mg for 2 oz). Smear on fresh avocado instead of mayo.
Use more tomato paste. Canned tomato products including jarred pasta sauces can have a variety of sodium, so compare labels. Even better, use flavorful umami-rich and naturally lower-in-sodium tomato paste.
Rinse all canned foods. Rinsing canned foods including beans, olives, tuna, chicken, and others can reduce up to 40 percent of the sodium content.
Compare chicken labels. Fresh (and rinsed canned) chicken can be a lower-sodium source of protein. Chicken-broth-enhanced birds are juicier, but that brine contains salt, so compare labels.
Find other iodine sources. If you’re at risk for hypothyroidism or are pregnant/lactating, explore high-iodine foods that aren’t high in sodium. Seaweed is one of the best sources of iodine available: Ocean’s Balance dulse contains 675 mcg of iodine, a package of nori seaweed snacks has about 115 mcg of iodine. Other sources are Greek yogurt with 87 mcg per serving and an egg has 26 mcg.
Train your taste buds. The more salt we eat, the more we generally crave it. If you're already subscribing to a meal assembly service, request low sodium meals, or switch to a service that has specifically developed meals to be high in flavor and low sodium. Purple Carrot told us they strive to keep meals in the range of 300 to 800 mg sodium.
Serena Ball, MS, RD is a registered dietitian nutritionist, food writer, and mom of four children. She blogs at TeaspoonOfSpice.com and is the author of the best-selling The 30-Minute Mediterranean Diet Cookbook and the newly released Easy Everyday Mediterranean Diet Cookbook. Follow her @TspCurry on Twitter and Instagram.