Salt – The Low Down!

Salt, also known as sodium chloride has been a big part of our diets for many years. We are all accustomed to seeing the salt cellar on the table in many restaurants and even in our own homes. We have all had numerous discussions about salt at dinner time amongst friends and family members. Salt is very distinctive mineral with a very specific and identifiable flavour; it also has the unique ability to enhance other flavours in our meals.

 Why do we need salt?

Salt is an essential mineral that we need for our bodies. It helps in the maintenance of muscle contraction, as well as nerve transmission. It also helps maintain the acid-base balance in our bodies and the normal fluid and electrolyte equilibrium. Usually, we receive sufficient sodium from the food that we eat. Salt is easily absorbed through our digestive system and it can travel easily through our blood system. Due to this effortless availability, it is seldom that we get a deficiency in sodium; however, deficiencies may still occur especially when excess exercise and physical activity is performed or when the temperature is high causing an increased chance of perspiration. When a deficiency of sodium does occur it may lead to muscle cramping or loss of appetite.

 Do you ever find you get thirsty with salty food?

When you eat a salty snack the level of sodium in your blood rises. Thirst signals are then activated and you feel the need to drink. This is to provide the body with sufficient fluid to excrete the excess sodium through the kidneys. When the kidneys are functioning properly they will excrete the same amount of sodium as was ingested, regardless of the quantity.  

 Sodium and high blood pressure

High blood pressure (Hypertension) is a common occurrence amongst South Africans. Some people may find that their blood pressure increases quite rapidly after having a high salt meal (high sensitivity). There is an increased risk of this sensitivity should you have diabetes, chronic kidney disease, hypertension, over 50 years of age and if you are overweight. If you fall into any of these categories it is wise to carefully monitor your sodium intake. 

How can we ensure that we get enough but not too much salt?

Processed and preserved foods have a very high salt content that is added by the manufacturer. These items include tinned food in brine (olives, pickles), salty or smoked meats (bacon, ham, sausage), salty fish (anchovies, herring), snack foods (chips, pretzels, salted nuts), processed cheese and canned or packet soups. Avoiding these foods will help reduce overall salt intake. In place of these items it is recommended that you buy fresh produce (fruit, vegetables, lean meats) and prepare them in your home where you are then able to control and judge the amount of salt used.  

A few extra tips on reducing excess salt intake, include

– Cook with little or no added salt,

– Prepare foods with sodium-free alternatives like basil, bay leaves, garlic, curry powder, ginger, vinegar, herbs or lemon juice.

– When sitting down to a meal taste the food before adding any additional salt.

Remember a healthy, balanced, varied diet that has lots of fresh fruit and vegetables and plenty of whole grains and legumes will ensure the body gets all the nutrients it needs to keep us healthy, fit and active.

  • Chantal Walsh RD (SA)