Salt is often demonised in the media. You’ve probably heard that it’s unhealthy, and that eating too much can cause health problems.
But is salt really that bad for you? If so, why? And how much salt is too much?
A diet that is high in salt can cause high blood pressure, but our bodies do need some of this vital mineral in order to function.
Read on to find out how you can make sure you're getting the right amount of salt, the difference between salt and sodium, and how to reduce your salt intake without compromising on taste.
How much salt should I be eating?
The NHS recommends that adults consume no more than 6g of salt a day and no more than 2.4g of sodium. These recommendations are sometimes referred to as reference intakes or ‘RDA’, which stands for recommended daily allowance.
Most food labels in the UK use traffic light colours to help you see at a glance how much salt a product contains. Red means the item is high in salt, and contains more than 1.5g of salt per 100g. Amber indicates a medium amount of salt (between 0.3g and 1.5g per 100g), and green indicates that a food is low in salt (less than 0.3g per 100g).
6g of salt roughly equals a teaspoon, which doesn’t sound like very much when you consider that many prepared foods like bread and pasta already contain salt.
In the UK, adults consume an average of 8g of salt a day – well above the recommended 6g. But what are the risks?
What are the dangers of eating too much salt?
Regularly consuming too much salt can cause high blood pressure. This is because salt makes your body hold on to water, which is why you often feel thirsty after eating something very salty.
This extra water stored in your body can raise your blood pressure. You are particularly at risk if you’re aged over 50, have diabetes, or already have elevated blood pressure.
High blood pressure often has no symptoms. You may not know you’ve got it, but it can put extra strain on your organs such as your brain, kidneys, and heart.
This in turn can increase your risk of serious conditions including heart disease, strokes, and vascular dementia. If you regularly eat a lot of salt, cutting down could have a huge impact on your health.
Is it possible to not eat enough salt?
The short answer is yes. Sodium is an important electrolyte, and our bodies need it to function.
It’s vital for digestion and hydration. We need to consume some salt just to replace the amount we lose when we sweat going about our daily lives.
In extreme cases, not eating enough salt can increase your risk of hyponatremia, which occurs when the concentration of sodium in your blood is abnormally low.
While it’s important to take steps to reduce your salt intake if you’re eating too much, it’s not a good idea to cut it out of your diet completely.
What’s the difference between salt and sodium?
Salt and sodium are often use interchangeably, but there is a difference between the two.
Salt is a mineral. It’s made up of sodium and chloride, and it’s the sodium in salt that affects blood pressure.
Food labels often show the amount of salt and the amount of sodium they contain, which can be confusing if you’re trying to track how much salt you’re eating. To convert sodium to salt, multiply the amount of sodium by 2.5. For example, 2.4g multiplied by 2.5 is 6g.
Ultimately, while it doesn’t actually matter whether you track salt or sodium, it may be easier to track the salt content. Some food labels won’t show the amount of sodium they contain, but almost all will show the amount of salt.
Alternatives to salt
Some foods are almost always high in salt. These include bacon, cheese, gravy, and ham. Other foods have a salt content that can vary drastically between different types or brands.
These are the foods that can often catch us out, because we wouldn’t necessarily consider them to be high-salt foods. Examples are bread, including bread products like crumpets; cooking sauces; ready meals; soup; tinned vegetables and pulses like beans; and condiments like ketchup.
However, nowadays there are lots of low-salt alternatives to help you reduce your salt intake. For instance, Heinz have created a reduced sugar and salt range which includes ketchup and baked beans.You can even still get salt and shake crisps, complete with the little blue sachet of salt!
Many people worry that reducing their salt intake will result in boring dinners and bland food, but there are lots of herbs and spices that you can use to add flavour to your food instead.
Chilli, paprika, and cumin are all easy ways to add flavour to everything from casseroles to soup while herbs like parsley and dill can help brighten up fish dishes.
So what's the verdict?
As with so many things in life, moderation is key! If think you're eating too much salt, why not try tracking your intake for a week? Depending on the results, it will either put your mind at rest or show you where you can cut down on salt in your diet.
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