Is salt really that bad for you?

Dr Nick Fuller
Leading Obesity Expert at the University of Sydney and founder of Interval Weight Loss.

Salt has gained a bad reputation over the past few decades with its links to heart disease and stroke – often being the common scapegoat for the increasing prevalence of many of these modern-day lifestyle diseases. BUT is salt really that bad for you or is high blood pressure and heart disease a by-product of the modern-day Western diet?

Salt is a naturally occurring compound that is made up of sodium and chloride - 40% sodium and 60% chlorine. It’s used to flavour and preserve food. And it has several functions in the body. Most importantly, it tightly regulates both blood volume and blood pressure.

National guidelines tell us we should be limiting our sodium intake to less than 2300mg per day – one teaspoon – equivalent to 6 grams of salt per day. And World Health Organisation guidelines suggest even less – 2000mg per day.  BUT most recent data reported that males are consuming about 10 grams of salt per day and women 7 grams a day. That’s double what we should be having!

There is no questioning that the modern-day Western diet and the gluttonous environment is contributing to disease but single nutrients – i.e. fat, carbs or protein - or minerals – i.e. salt - are NOT to blame. Foods must be looked at as a whole as this is what contributes to our health and disease. 

There are many common misconceptions surrounding salt which again makes it confusing when knowing what and what not to put into our body. 

Here are 5 of the most common:

1. The majority of salt consumption is added at the dinner table

This is certainly not true. Processed foods make up 80% of our salt consumption. So if you think you’re in the clear because you don’t add salt to your cooking or at the table, think again. Discretionary foods contribute to over one-third of the population’s total daily energy and processed foods make up 70% of the diet, so it’s likely you’re eating too many. Switching to more fresh foods that are not in a packet or can is the best way to lower your salt intake. Keep the processed meats, cereal products, biscuits, condiments and take-away meals in the “treat” category of once per week.

2. Himalayan pink salt is better for you than table salt.

From a nutritional point of view they are the same thing - sodium and chloride. And this goes for all the many different types of salt available - Himalayan salt, kosher salt, rock salt, sea salt, table salt, organic salt, the list goes on. Their point of difference is how they are processed and where they are harvested from. Despite varying amounts of trace minerals between different forms of extracted salt, it is negligible. Their point of difference is that table salt contains anti-caking agent - an additive added to prevent it from lumping together and ensure it flows out of the shaker.

3. Adding salt at the dinner table is bad for you.

This is certainly the case if you are consuming processed or packaged foods on a regular basis, of which most of us are! BUT a little bit of salt in your cooking or at the table won’t be doing you any harm provided you aren’t having a diet that is based on processed or packaged food.

4. You don’t need to limit sodium, you need to increase potassium.

Yes, the ratio between sodium and potassium is important as potassium counterbalances the effects of sodium on heart function. But simply limiting your consumption of processed foods and increasing your consumption of fresh foods will lead to an improvement in this ratio. A high sodium intake can increase blood pressure and a high potassium intake can relax blood vessels and decrease blood pressure. So again it comes down to eating more fruit and vegetables, dried legumes, nuts and seeds, and grains like quinoa and barley - NOT justifying an increase in salt in the diet because you think – or you’ve been told - you’re getting too little.

5. You need extra salt when you sweat a lot.

No, this is not true. Sweat is 99% water and the most important thing to replenish when you are in the heat all day or sweating a lot from physical activity is your water intake. Athletes who train high volumes also consume more food than the average adult and as a result will replenish their electrolytes - such as salt - from the extra food they eat.

The take-home message: As a population we are eating too many processed foods – consequently contributing to 80% of our salt consumption and our growing waistlines. Even though salt itself is not the sole problem, the type of foods we are eating is cause for concern.

Considering that 2 in 3 people are overweight and 1 in 3 have high blood pressure this is a serious issue and reducing salt intake by making the switch to fresh foods is a step in the right direction towards lowering high blood pressure and our waistlines.

About Dr Nick Fuller

Dr Nick Fuller is the founder of Interval Weight Loss and is a leading obesity expert at the University of Sydney with a Ph.D. in Obesity Treatment. Dr Fuller is also the author of three best-selling books and his work been published in top ranked journals in the medical field, including JAMA, Lancet and American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.