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Some Thoughts On Salt – The Other White Powder



by Susan Fekety, RN, MSN, CNM



The FDA recently reconsidered how much salt is okay for our food. (Odd that an edible substance which is "generally recognized as safe" would get this attention, isn't it?) Many of my patients limit their salt intake, or wonder whether they should. Time to update my understanding and refine my talking points.

Salt has been precious throughout history because it is a natural preservative, keeping meats and vegetables edible for months beyond the slimy-stinky-rotten stage. Before Hannaford's, this was really important. (Do read Mark Kurlansky's wonderfully salient book on the history of salt, if you like books.) The popular notion that reduced salt intake will keep you from dying of a stroke is not as much of an "Earth is round" issue as you might think, although consuming excessive sodium does mess up your fluid balance, increasing your heart's work of pumping and your kidneys' work of filtering. Some people are very sensitive to salt, others are not; if you swell up like a toad after eating movie popcorn, or can't zip your jeans before your period, you would be sensitive and it might well matter for you. Furthermore, it may be inappropriate to make the leap from "If you have high blood pressure, reduce salt" to "Keep your blood pressure normal by reducing salt." The first statement is only true for about half the people with hypertension and nobody knows why. The second statement is unproven. Authorities recommend an maximum of 2300 mg a day (about a teaspoonful); many Americans consume several times that much, mostly in prepared and processed foods. Let's keep this in perspective: sodium is only one of the reasons why you don't want to eat food like that, right?

The sodium naturally present in food is generally not a problem. It's the stuff added at the factory that will pickle you. If you've got an evening to kill, roam the supermarket or poke through your pantry and read some labels. The big numbers are on those convenient foods with a shelf life in excess of your life expectancy – like those "just add water" cups of soup, or "healthy" frozen entrées. Notice also that many foods that taste salty really aren't so bad if consumed in reasonable portions like, not the whole bag. Saltiness does not indicate sodium content.

Alternatives? Try some lovely sea salt – it's lower in sodium than that stuff in the blue can and also contains other minerals – without those weird aluminum-based "anticaking agents." Sea salt sticks better to food so you can use less. Get festive with fresh and dried herbs, exotic aromatic spices, citrus juices, vinegar, onions and garlic. Skip the potassium-based salt substitutes unless they have specifically been recommended for you by a health provider.

Perhaps most importantly, remember that your body keeps a tight balance between the electrolytes sodium and potassium, minerals that conduct electricity and are necessary to things like keeping your cells from bursting and keeping your heart beating and your nerves sending messages. Please emphasize potassium intake while you explore sodium. What has potassium? Fruits and vegetables (you knew I'd get it in there, didn't you?) -- and not just bananas by a long shot. I wonder whether it's a high-sodium diet that dings us or the low-potassium one that often accompanies it. Anyway, eat your veggies, especially if you do Bikram yoga and leave your electrolytes in a puddle on the floor.




Article © Copyright 2008 by Susan Fekety. All rights reserved worldwide. Duplication or reprints only with express permission of the author or, for a nonprofit purpose, without consent so long as the author's name and contact information are included as follows: "Reproduced with permission from Susan Fekety," These articles are provided for informational purposes only. Their content is not meant to substitute for the advice provided by your own health care professional. You should not use the information contained herein for diagnosing or treating a health problem or disease, or prescribing any medication. If you have or suspect you have a medical problem promptly contact your health care provider.




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