Are you eating too much salt?

SaltNational Salt Awareness Week

There have been several awareness campaigns aimed at getting people to realise how much sugar is in the foods they consume – for example a can of regular cola contains 35g of sugar – but in order to improve our health we also need to be looking at the other end of the scale.

High salt intake = health problems?

An excessive salt intake can lead to health problems such as high blood pressure, obesity, stomach cancer, osteoporosis and poor kidney function, as well as heart attacks and strokes. Although apparently our bodies only need 1g of salt per day the recommended Government daily salt intake for adults is 6g i.e. around one teaspoonful. Nevertheless most of us exceed this quota due to the amount of hidden salt we consume in processed foods. In fact 75 per cent of the salt we consume comes from this source.

It’s easier to identify some high salt culprits than others: For example, bacon, ham and smoked foods taste pretty salty, as do crisps and other savoury snacks. Other offenders are less obvious, for example soups and sauces, ready meals, restaurant and takeaway foods, cereals and breads and even some foods that taste sweet.

Is eating salt simply a habit?

Dietary habits in childhood and adolescence have been found to influence eating patterns in later life. Enjoying and being used to the taste of salt is an acquired habit, so this year National Salt Awareness Week is focusing on children. If a child gets used to a low level of salt in his food at an early age, then the chances are that he’ll eat less salt in adulthood and avoid the health problems listed above.

Just as people looking to lose weight get used to eating less sugar, it’s not long before our taste buds adapt to less salt in our food. Good alternatives to salt when cooking include lemon, chilli, ginger, dried herbs, black pepper and spices. It is the amount of sodium in salt which is the main problem, so if you really can’t do without the taste of salt, you can use an alternative such as LoSalt, which contains potassium instead of sodium.

You can find out more about salt at where you can also download a low salt recipe book.

How much salt should we be consuming?

Too much salt is extremely dangerous to babies and very young children. That’s why the guidelines for salt intake are much lower than for adults:

0-6 months         less than 1g per day

6-12 months       1g per day

1-3 years              2g per day

4-6 years              3g per day

7-10 years           5g per day

11 years +            6g per day

Calls for industry to reduce salt in kids’ foods

Action on Salt are asking the food industry to reduce the amount of salt they add to children’s food and stop advertising high salt food to children. Until reduced salt is commonplace in processed foods, there are plenty of steps we can take ourselves to reduce the level of salt in our diets. First and foremost is to read labels on packaged food so that you can monitor your salt intake. Secondly you could stop putting the salt cellar on the table at mealtimes and use less in cooking.

Should we take Government guidelines with a pinch of salt?

Some estimates state that if everyone only ate 6g of salt per day by the time they reach adulthood, there would be 17,500 fewer deaths from strokes and heart attacks every year. According to Action on Salt, the evidence that links salt to high blood pressure (a contributory factor in heart disease) is as strong as that linking cigarette smoking to cancer and heart disease.

On the other side of the coin, should we always take what Government health officials say as being gospel? After all, let’s not forget that they were the ones recommending that we eat low fat diets and yet obesity levels continued to climb. For all the studies which advocate a low-salt diet, there are also several studies which suggest that a reduction in salt intake can actually increase a person’s chance of dying prematurely.

They claim that the results of original studies which linked increased salt consumption to high blood pressure, heart disease and stroke simply don’t stack up. For starters, in the first tests (and on which public advice was based) rats were fed 50 times more salt than the average intake. Additionally, in subsequent tests on humans where salt intake across the population was lowered and deaths from cardiovascular disease and stroke decreased, other factors had not been taken into account. For example, during the period in which the data had been collected there had also been a significant drop in the number of smokers.

Too much sodium? Or not enough potassium?

Jimmy Moore’s popular low-carbing website  livinlavidalowcarb has reached the conclusion that we are not an over-salted nation, but one that is deficient in potassium instead. Indeed, there is plenty of research evidence revealing that a low-salt diet could be potentially as harmful as a high-salt one.

In 1988 the Intersalt study in the USA failed to demonstrate any linear relationship between salt intake and blood pressure. Inversely data published in 2012 suggested that long-term salt restriction may pose serious health risks, particularly in those who already have health and lifestyle issues. Studies show that people suffering from Type 2 diabetes are, in fact, more likely to die early if they have a low sodium intake. And a 2010 Harvard University study linked low-salt diets to the immediate onset of insulin resistance. If the body receives too little sodium the kidneys secrete rennin, an enzyme which can lead to high blood pressure.

It seems that, like the high-fat/low-fat debate, this is a topic that will continue to run for years. There seems to be no definitive right or wrong answer. As ever, it seems that the key to remaining healthy is moderation, but do be aware of hidden salt in your diet.

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