The low sodium diet… Bet you’ve never heard of that before.
“Sodium” has become a dirty word. It’s so overused in the negative, its meaning has become completely abstracted.
At Athletic Greens, we believe a good diet is at the center of well-being, but a “good diet” and a “low sodium” diet are not necessarily one and the same.
It’s true, processed food does carry an excess of sodium and, for this and other reasons, is at the root of many contemporary health problems.
But sodium cannot be so easily explained, rightfully condemned, or successfully avoided as all that.
Let’s not forget how integral sodium is to sustaining life. And, since our main source of sodium is table salt, we’ll endeavor to appreciate salt’s rich history, as an incredibly potent, versatile, and necessary material.
Like most things of extreme power, salt has equal potential for good and evil.
1. The Secret Life Of Table Salt
2. What Is Sodium?
3. Why Salt—Symptoms Of Excessive Salt Consumption
4. Why Nutritionists Shout “Low Sodium Diet!” From The Rooftops
5. Guidelines For Beginning Your Low Sodium Diet
6. How To Make The Low Sodium Diet Delicious
The Secret Life Of Table Salt
Every time you salt your scrambled eggs is an ode to life.
In human history, salt has been one of the most desirable commodities for its use as currency, for economic gain, political leverage, medical uses, religious ceremonies and other social practices—even as decoration.
And as for its nutritional value, humans are not the only ones who require salt; animals and plants need salt, too.
Without salt, our earth would be a very different place, if it existed, at all.
Salt is, literally, everywhere. No, really, you can’t escape it. You are embracing salt as an integral cultural element when you eat that kale salad your doctor recommended as part of your low sodium diet.
Why? The word ‘salad’ was derived from the word ‘salt’, for a time when Romans salted their own rabbit food.
Ironic, I know.
You can’t do so much as receive your monthly salary without acknowledging salt. You can probably guess why, this time: Yes, it’s true, “salary” also came from “salt”, because salt was once used as payment.
The Dirty Shepherdess
Salt has been considered as so dear, such a source of pain and turmoil, so necessary to life that… Could it be love?
Numerous folk tales from all over the world profess as much.
Take The Dirty Shepherdess (so popular, it’s been adopted by a few different countries). You’ll have to allow for a brief paraphrasing.
Once upon a time, a king had two daughters. One day, he was feeling a bit confused, a bit whimsical, so he decided to leave his kingdom to whichever daughter gave a preferable response to one question: “How much do you love me?”.
Well, one daughter said he was “the apple of her eye”. He liked that.
Then the second daughter really stuck her foot in it by saying, “I look upon you, my father…as I look upon salt in my food”. No, he didn’t like that. So, he kicked her out of house, home, and territory.
Her mother’s presence and comments were not documented.
That poor, discarded offspring thought about crying, but she sucked it up and put her little grey cells to the task at hand.
She dressed herself in peasant clothing and walked for days, appealing to every household for work.
Eventually, she was hired as a shepherdess.
One day, she was watching the sheep and a prince spotted her in the fields, went gaga, and tried to gallop her down for a closer look and maybe a marriage proposal.
Well, she ran like infernum for the woods.
He dismounted, tripped on a tree root, and ate sheep droppings.
While his highness was temporarily hors de combat, the dirty shepherdess made her way back to the home of her employer.
(We’re getting to the good part, I promise.)
But the prince would not be so easily dumped. He found the farm where she worked and, though he couldn’t see her, thought it would be clever to commission a loaf of bread to be baked by her. It’s lucky really that this ended up working in his favor.
She baked the bread, but she had to put herself in the mood, so she wore some of her princess garments.
A ring fell off her finger and into the bread. The prince found the ring without first choking to death. He declared whatever woman fit the ring would be his bride.
Oh, he turned the tables, making her come to him. And come to him she did.
The wedding was on! Her father was invited to the wedding and that was nice for him, because he’d been feeling pretty badly about everything.
But the princess wanted to teach her dad a lesson. So, she gave him unsalted food at the wedding. She just sat there and watched him suffer through it.
“Did I not tell you, my father, that salt was the best thing in life?… I compared you to salt to show how much I loved you”. Realizing his gross misinterpretation, he was then allowed to eat salted food and father and daughter were reunited in love.
This story successfully illustrates that being so in love with salt can lead you to disinherit your children, work as a shepherdess, role play while baking, marry a prince or even, maybe, eat salt in excess.
In other words, it’s beyond dispute that we’ve allowed salt to jeopardized our life choices, long before McDonalds hoisted those magnificent, yellow arches on the horizon of Des Plaines, Illinois.
And can you blame us? After the time we’ve had getting our hands on this essential nutrient.
Salt has been at the center of human endeavors and crises on more than one occasion.
Thousands of Napoleon’s soldiers died for lack of salt to disinfect their wounds.
Salt tax revenues paid for half the cost of building the Erie Canal.
The extreme taxation of salt was a prominent motivator for India’s resistance to British rule.
During the Civil War, the south was in such desperate need of salt that confederate president, Jefferson Davis, willingly discharged soldiers from military duty in order that they might form groups to collect ocean water for salt.
Etc., etc., etc.
The bottom line is, human beings need salt, because we do not produce sodium in our own bodies.
What Is Sodium?
Sodium is needed to regulate the chemical activities in our bodies and maintain a balanced state of hydration.
Each individual’s body is designed to let us know when it needs sodium, in order to maintain our kidneys, keep our nerve impulses sharp, and our circulation regulated.
So, basically, your body’s ability to…
- Remove waste (kidneys)
- Balance fluids (kidneys)
- Release hormones that regulate blood pressure (kidneys)
- Produce red blood cells that cart oxygen and carbon dioxide to and from tissues, thus, keeping them from dying (kidneys)
- Provide vitamin D for your bones (kidneys)
- Have thoughts, opinions, or sensory impressions of any kind (nerve impulses)
…Yes, it all requires sodium.
Specifying the individual is important, because each of us requires a different volume of sodium, depending on our size, build, and intake/output of energy.
Unfortunately for many of us, what should be an automated sense of the need for sodium consumption has become confused, because we are a species that eats and drinks for pleasure, as well as by necessity.
Our dietary habits affect our body’s regulation of sodium, because our need for external sources of sodium means our bodies have, from an evolutionary perspective, developed a taste for “salty” foods.
Why Salt — Symptoms Of Excessive Salt Consumption
Sodium is a very prevalent on earth, but it is a positively charged ion and so is inclined to bind itself to other negatively charged chemicals, not all of which are edible for humans.
Luckily for us, when it binds to chlorine it creates sodium chloride and this is what we call, “salt”! Salt is approximately 40% sodium and 60% chlorine.
Now that we are sure we need sodium, know salt is the ticket, and have all surely agreed that it is delicious and we want it, it is time to face a tough reality: It turns out that, although salt is essential to us, generally we only need a little bit.
Too much sodium puts us at risk of high blood pressure.
Other symptoms and conditions are under debate, because even though it is self-evident that sodium can raise blood pressure, the how and why of it are not totally understood.
However, because sodium plays a part in all the body functions listed above, the general understanding is that an imbalance of sodium can adversely affect:
- Kidney function
- Fluid regulatory hormones
- Nervous system
- Blood vessels
One of the greatest concerns is that this may result in heart disease. But, again, research is still being done to determine exactly what role sodium plays.
Why Nutritionists Shout “Low Sodium Diet!” From The Rooftops
You may have come across the confusion and controversy surrounding how much sodium an adult person “should/should not” be consuming daily.
For example, the US government suggests a number as low as 1,500mg/day (about ⅔ teaspoon).
But the World Health Organization recommends up to 2,000mg/day.
Then, Harvard School of Public Health tries to settle the controversy by claiming an appropriate number is actually 2,300mg/day.
But it is the last that appears to be the number having the most evidential backing.
However, given the discrepancy between various, reputable institutions, it is best to consult with your doctor. In fact, given the varying demands of each individual body, it is always safest to accept statistics merely as a starting point to research, not the answer.
In combination with the above numbers, it is understable that the following studies have spurred many companies into putting, “LOW SODIUM”, on food labels:
- In 2014, a study spanning 187 countries showed 88.3% of adults consumed more than 3g/day.
- In January, 2018, statistics claimed American’s from 2 years old to adulthood, consumed more than 3400mg/day, on average.
- Sodium makes up 75% of the Western diet, due to its excess in commercially processed and restaurant foods.
This does not offer a comprehensive idea of food, health, and how to go about them. What it does do is scare the living daylights out of nutritionists.
However, if life has taught us anything it’s that fear is what’s needed to prevent trodding on Rattlesnakes, but courage and knowledge is what’s needed to discover that Rattlesnake venom is a remedy for high blood pressure.
Remember how we talked about the power of salt and its potential for good and evil?
Salt is as medicinal as it is risky and, therefore, is simply to be treated thoughtfully and respectfully. As Paracelsus said [more eloquently], “the dose makes the poison”.
Name One Thing And I’ll Show You The Greeks Did It First
Or the Chinese, or the Japanese, or the Nepalese, or the Maya… The realization of salt’s healing powers happened, at least, 2,000 years ago. Knowledge of its uses were present among many peoples and those recipes are by no means irrelevant, today.
In this case, the recipe came from the Romans, though it was actually used as a medicine by the Greek physician, Galen (A.D. 130-200).
The recipe was for Garum, a salted fish sauce, and Galen was one of the first (recorded) as having used it to help with blood pressure and digestive disorders.
The Omega-3 fatty acid derived from fish oil has been re-adopted by our contemporary medical system as an effective treatment for reducing high triglycerides.
By extension, this has the potential to reduce many of the symptoms and/or risks of heart disease, diabetes, pancreatic cancer, and of course, hypertension.
An appropriate amount of salt helps to regulate all the organs necessary to avoiding those same conditions.
Ancient Mayan civilizations used salt mixed with honey for labor pains and salt with oil for epilepsy.
Salt can assist pain reduction, because it affects blood flow, which affects aldosterone levels (the main steroid produced by the adrenal glands).
Today, we still use steroids to treat pain.
Likewise, salt’s use for the treatment of epilepsy correlates to its increasing blood flow, thereby providing the brain with more oxygen.
Moreover, cultures, across the board, did and do use salt as a primary disinfectant.
For example, salt, in combination with lime juice and sunlight (all provided in specific quantities and within a certain time frame), is an exceptionally powerful recipe for purifying water.
So powerful it significantly reduces turbidity, prevents DNA replication, kills bacteria and parasites, and even viruses like E. Coli were shown to be reduced by 1 million times in 30 minutes.
Another interesting tidbit is to do with hospital sanitation. Hospitals are introduced to all kinds of nasty, little microorganisms that have the unfortunate ability to evolve and develop resistance to disinfectants.
So, hospital maintenance workers are always looking for new cleaning solutions.
In 2015, it was published that salt and water (electrolyzed water) provided one of the most efficient disinfectants. Further study will show how sustainable it can be, but it’s pretty awesome that such a simple solution is being seriously considered by the contemporary, medical community.
Of course, none of these treatments should be considered as home-remedy prescriptions. We’ve reached a time of more exacting sciences that obligate us to consult professionals on any and every given health concern (or cleaning query).
The point is merely to show the long-standing and multi-cultural medicinal usages of salt, so we don’t trivialize it as something to eat or to avoid.
Sea salt (which includes Himalayan pink salt) as opposed to table salt, has been shown to reduce hypertension.
This is tentatively attributed to its mineral content of calcium, potassium, magnesium, and a little iron, manganese, and zinc.
“Tentatively” attributed because more research is being done to understand each mineral’s potential to enhance or decrease risks/symptoms of hypertension, especially when the concentrations are so small.
We do know that potassium influences blood pressure. Those of us who intake high levels of potassium are less likely to develop hypertension, even on a high sodium diet.
That being said, it could be worthwhile to purchase better quality salts, as opposed to a-typical table salts, which are generally baked to the point of having no mineral content, whatsoever.
Is A Low Sodium Diet Right For You?
We would like to help you design the best diet to suit your individual needs.
If your doctor has advised you to eat a low sodium diet, your blood pressure is getting a little over-excited, you’ve been eating out a good deal, and/or you’re concerned over the long-term repercussions of eating processed foods, then we hope you’ll find the following helpful.
Guidelines For Beginning Your Low Sodium Diet
When it comes to salt, the main goal is to prevent hypertension.
We’ve already established that foods containing Omega-3s, potassium, and a carefully determined, individualized measure of salt are excellent dietary considerations.
But since you can’t live off fish and bananas, let’s start designing your shopping list by the process of elimination.
There are a lot of products that are filled with unnecessary amounts of sodium. The following list is a general guideline for what not to/what to put in your shopping cart:
- Canned soups and vegetables, pasta and rice mixes, frozen dinners, instant cereal and puddings
- Broth mixes, salad dressings, sauces and gravies, sauerkraut and pickles, olives, and croutons (unless homemade with low sodium diet restrictions in mind)
- MSG, meat tenderizers, bacon bits, chips, and processed cheeses
- Salts substitutes unless approved by your doctor (for risk of chemical/drug interactions)
- Be wary of these major salt-stuffers (stuff-salters?):
- Processed breads, rolls, bagels, flour tortillas, and wraps
- Cold cuts and cured meats
- Poultry, as it is often injected with sodium (be very careful to check Nutritional Facts for “_% solution”)
- Fresh/frozen ingredients, with no added salt
- If you are short on time, select frozen meals that contain around 600mg of sodium or less and low-sodium soups
- Seasoning or spice blends without salt
- Poultry and fish that do not contain additives and are cooked on low heat
Now, the above lists may look a bit sinister and overwhelming, but it’s really not as difficult as it seems. The thing is, once you make the adjustment to shopping for a low sodium diet, many options present themselves.