Salt (and sodium), Pros and cons

Salt (and sodium), Pros and cons

Here at La Crisalida Retreats we do not add any salt to our food. Guests often ask the reasons we do this so we thought it was time to look in more detail at what salt is, what is does for the body and why you might choose to give yourself a break from adding salt to your food.

What is salt?

Before we start, it is useful to differentiate between table salt and other salts, like sea salt, and look at the difference between sodium and salt. Salt and sodium are words that are often used interchangeably in health circles, but it can be useful to know the difference between the two.

Sodium is a mineral. Minerals are needed by our bodies for lots of essential processes.

Natural (unrefined) salt is salt in its natural form. It contains more than 80 essential minerals and elements needed by the body, in this way, some people believe it is a “wholefood”. It also contains sodium and chloride but at a less concentrated level. Celtic sea salt or Himalayan salt are two of the best known unrefined salts available. Processes for producing the salt are natural (e.g. for sea salt the wind and sun are used) and chemicals are not used.

White table salt is a highly refined type of salt and consists of just two minerals – sodium and chloride. To produce table salt, brine (salt water) is put through some manufacturing processes which increasingly heat and then dry out the salt, and in some instances chemicals are used to remove “impurities” (trace minerals) leaving just sodium and chloride. Anti-caking agents (e.g. aluminium sulphate) may be added (to form up to 2% of table salt) and it might be bleached so has a white appearance. Practically all the other trace minerals that are present in “salt” are removed during this manufacturing process. Some countries then choose to add iodine or iron back into salt to make “fortified” salt. All of these processes mean that salt now has a long shelf life.

In general, we take the approach that the closer a product is to its natural state, the better it is for our health, which is why we advocate excluding table salt from your diet.

What does “salt” do?

Salt, in particular sodium, plays a part in regulating the water content (fluid balance) of the body, together with the kidneys, so everyone needs it. Excess sodium is excreted from the body via the kidneys – we feel thirsty so drink water, which is then eliminated (along with the excess salt) from our bodies. Our body is working to maintain a balance between water content and electrolytes (sodium, potassium etc). The kidneys keep sodium in balance – too much and they release it into urine to be flushed out of the body, too little and the kidneys hold onto the sodium.

Over the centuries, salt has been used for many things, one of which was preserving food, particularly in the days before refrigeration. Salt in processed foods helps to increase its shelf life, which is why most food manufacturers use it. It is used in processed meats, to help to preserve the colour and acts as a binder. Salt can also be used as a water softenor. Rock salt is used in Britain on the roads to help to melt ice and keep the roads clear.

Too much salt in your diet can increase blood pressure, which in turn can increase your risk of heart attack or stroke. Using too much refined salt (table salt) can increase the acidity of the body. Acidic bodies are where ill-health can start to develop (read our earlier article on an alkaline diet).

Sodium deficiency (hyponatremia) is rare, but can happen as a result of excess sweating, diarrhoea or vomiting. Symptoms include dizziness, nausea, poor concentration and weakness in the muscles.

Recommended daily intake

The World Health Organisation recommends that adults should consume less than 2000mg of sodium (equivalent to 5g of salt) each day (WHO, Reference 1). In the United States the maximum limit has recently been reduced to 1500mg.

To give you an idea of what this means, 1 teaspoon of table salt typically contains 40% sodium, which is equivalent to around 2300 mg of sodium – so one teaspoon of table salt will exceed the WHO’s daily maximum recommended intake (2/3rd teaspoon equates to 1500mg).

The minimum amount of sodium needed for full body functioning is difficult for scientists to establish, and it will vary with weight, sex, body type and so on, however they estimate it is around 200-500 mg per day (WHO, Reference 1). That’s not much at all!

Plant-based (Vegan) sources of sodium

Fruit, veggies, wholegrains, seeds and nuts (the unsalted variety) typically contain low amounts of sodium, so someone following a plant-based diet will consequently have a low sodium diet. Olives are one of the highest sources – one large black olive contains around 30mg of sodium, or two green olives have around 44mg of sodium. So, include olives in your diet for their amazing health benefits, but not too many! Olives can be stored in brine (salt water), so purchase those that are packaged in low (or lower) salt. The highest veggie sources are celery (contains 35 mg per stalk) and beetroot (64 mg per raw 80g beetroot).

When purchasing precooked beans, chickpeas or lentils, check the contents of the tin / jar as they are often preserved with salt. If you can it is better to purchase dried beans then soak overnight and cook yourself in plain water.

Processed foods, like crackers, muesli, biscuits, shop bought soups, frozen or ready-made meals are all usually high in sodium. Soy sauce (or tamari sauce) is high in sodium, so use minimally; 1 teaspoon is typically around 290 – 330 mg. Also be careful when purchasing soy sauce – watch out for those products that contain added colouring or sugar! So, if you diet includes a number of prepacked or pre-prepared foods, you might be consuming sodium in excess of the maximum limit set by WHO. Eating a nutritionally balanced plant-based diet is an ideal way to get the sodium that your body needs, without going to an excess, whilst also ensuring you consume all the other essential vitamins and minerals.

Myth: Adding salt to food brings out the flavour

Reality – adding table salt to your food is a habit. If you add table salt to your food, just notice if you taste the food before adding extra salt? Many people blindly reach for table salt and pour it on, then take a bite. The saltiness of the plate overpowers the actual taste or flavor of the food. Our bodies get out of balance and we find that we are looking for a salty taste, becoming addicted to it, like we might crave chocolate, alcohol and nicotine (or cheese!). Indeed, some research shows that eating salt triggers the release of dopamine (the body’s feel good pleasure chemical), which makes you crave salt more.

If you are a fan of cooking programmes, you will see the chefs are always adding salt to the cooking process as “seasoning”. In the broadest sense of the word seasoning does not just mean salt – it also means herbs and spices, as well as sweet or acidic things, so get creative instead of relying on table salt.

How to enhance the flavour of your food without adding table salt

Our tongue contains lots of taste buds, all of which can identify four different tastes: salty, sweet, sour and bitter (plus another called umami). You can use some of the veggies or ingredients listed above to bring in more natural sources of “saltiness” into your food. Also think about all of the flavours and textures on your plate, creating a mix for your taste buds. “Taste” is also linked to our other senses, like smell (have you noticed how when you have a cold you cannot taste what you are eating?) or vision (if food looks attractive then we are more likely to enjoy the flavour – brown food is usually not so attractive to you!). When we chew food, chemicals are released, which also plays a part on us liking (or disliking) the “taste” of some foods. The others things you can try are:

  • Vary your method of cooking. Roasting in the oven on a low heat can bring out sweetness and creaminess in veggies. Flash steam, using water in your frying pan, leaving veggies crisp and fresh.
  • Buy veggies fresh, in season and eat them fresh. The closer you can buy veggies to the source, the better. The longer they are out of the ground or off the tree, the less flavour they have.
  • Use herbs and spices. Add extra flavour to the dish using herbs and spices. Sometimes adding one fresh (or dried) herb to a dish really brings the flavour of the veggie out.
  • Lemon. Add a squeeze of lemon to your food. It helps to balance the dish.
  • Cook with celery. Chop celery and add it as a base to soups, stews and other dishes – add it to the step with the onion.

Give up table salt

Given all this, we hope that you agree that excluding refined table salt from your diet is a good idea.

An additional bonus of excluding refined table salt can be that the reduced sodium intake means we are consuming sodium at a level that our body wants and needs. This in turns means that we retain water less, so bloating can reduce and you might feel lighter and thinner – remember, you still need to consume 3-4 litres of water a day to stay hydrated.

If you want to reduce your salt intake, you might choose to gradually reduce adding salt to your meals over a few weeks. Alternatively, you could just give up! Sometimes, if you are used to eating lots of processed foods, or adding a large amount of salt to your foods, when you first exclude table salt from your diet you think there is little flavour in your food. After a few days you will start to become accustomed to tasting less salt and you will start to taste the more subtle flavours of the ingredients themselves. Honest! Remember, taste buds regenerate every one to two weeks! Try it for yourself.

If you still want the salty taste, then we suggest using a good quality unrefined sea salt, adding it to your food just before eating. This means your taste buds will get that saltiness that they want, you will benefit from the minerals and elements that exist in the unrefined salt and you can make sure you keep your intake of salt (and more specifically sodium) to a lower level. If you add salt to the cooking process you will need to add much more to get the salty taste that you want, so it is better to add it to the top, rather than during the cooking process.

When purchasing packaged or processed foods, keep an eye on the nutritional information and check for the sodium content – all processed foods will display the salt or sodium content.

At the retreat we choose not to add any salt to our food, to give guests the opportunity to experience how their taste buds can change in only a few days, and so that they can really start to identify all the wonderful different flavours of the food.

For salt-free tasty recipes check out our blog page and read more about the plant based (vegan) food served at La Crisalida by clicking here.

To your health and well-being.

1. World Health Organisation. Sodium intake for adults and children. Guidelines. 2012.

About the author

Lisa is one of the founders of La Crisalida Retreats. She is an Epidemiologist, therapeutic hatha and yin yoga teacher and also teaches mindfulness meditation. Lisa has studied NLP and hypnosis, as well as nutrition (she designs the menus).