Salt: Good Guy or Bad Guy?

To round out our heart health discussions from a couple weeks ago I couldn’t resist bringing up another hot topic. If the cholesterol debate wasn’t heated enough, let’s throw some salt in the mix to really spice it up!

Low-salt and low-fat diets have gone hand in hand in the fight against heart disease for decades. But a 2011 review of 7 different studies found “no strong evidences of any effect of salt reduction” on cardiovascular disease for people with high or normal blood pressure. A 2014 review of 8 different studies found similar results. In fact there are studies that show a low-salt diet actually contributes to cardiovascular disease and overall morbidity. Yikes!

Salt is made of sodium and chloride. Both are essential nutrients that our bodies need and cannot make. Sodium helps regulate the fluidity of the blood. Without sodium in the diet the body restricts sodium excretion to preserve itself but can’t bring sodium excretion to zero. If levels fall too low the body will eliminate fluids to raise the sodium concentration of the blood to functional range. This can result in severe dehydration and even death – all due to an extreme low-salt diet.

This is only one example of our need for sodium. I don’t have space to explain how sodium alone is crucial for the nervous system, metabolism, digestion, brain function, cardiovascular function and adrenal function.

So, if salt is not such a bad guy after all – what else may be contributing to all of this high blood pressure?

Every cell of our body has an exchange system that takes place at the cell wall. The wall uses sodium and potassium as a transport system for nutrients to get in and out of the cell. Each cell needs both sodium AND potassium. This ratio of sodium to potassium is vital. Most Americans have plenty of sodium thanks to processed foods especially cereals and baked goods, but how many of us are getting adequate potassium? Studies show that those with high blood pressure who focused on adding potassium containing foods to their diets saw a reduction in overall blood pressure.

Potassium rich foods from highest to lowest content include potatoes, spinach, plantains, avocado, dates, acorn squash, butternut squash, parsnips, pumpkin, sweet potato, portobellos, banana, red tomatoes, beets and cantaloupe. Potassium is water soluble, so it is best to bake, steam, fry or eat these options raw. Note that most of these foods are also high in starchy carbohydrates. If you are diabetic or working on balancing your blood sugar, please eat these foods in moderation.

Sodium rich foods include sea vegetables, fish, shellfish, meat, beets, carrots, celery, spinach, and turnips. Remember, the balance of sodium and potassium is key. In addition to getting sodium from these foods, I recommend any of the natural unrefined sea salts such as Celtic, Himalayan, Fleur de sel (French/Portuguese), Hawaiian or Italian sea salts.

Food is your first medicine. The human body is extremely intelligent and when given what it really needs in whole food form (not processed) it will respond beautifully by performing and functioning the way it was meant to. Listening to your body, eating healthy forms of sodium and potassium and salting your food to taste will help you take steps toward optimal health and wellness.

There should be no reason to be afraid of salt.

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