Salt - how harmful is it to your health?
It's a well-known fact that many of us consume far more than the recommended daily intake of sodium (2300mg). Around 80% of the salt we consume comes from processed foods such as baked goods and cereals, whilst adding salt to our food accounts for the other 20%. Processed foods are often high in salt, which is used to keep food fresh and extend its shelf life. But could all this salt be harming our health? Experts say yes, we should all try to cut our salt intake to avoid an epidemic of heart attacks, strokes and vascular dementia. But just how harmful is salt to your health?
What is sodium?
There's a difference between sodium and salt, which is why you'll usually see the two listed separately on packaging. Sodium is an element found in table salt which is actually essential for certain bodily functions. However, consuming too much sodium can lead to heart disease and high blood pressure. It's important to remember that we need some sodium in our diets in order to stay healthy - sodium chloride and iodine are needed to maintain healthy nerve and muscle function as well as to maintain body temperature and blood pH.
Why salt is the bad guy
Poor salt, it has a really bad rep, but it's not entirely unjustified! To put it simply, the amount of salt you consume has a direct effect on your blood pressure (1). This is because salt makes the body retain water, and all that extra water stored by the body can raise your blood pressure. High blood pressure places a greater strain on your arteries, kidneys, heart and brain, which could eventually lead to stroke, heart attacks, heart disease or even dementia.
Salt's effects on the body
In order to understand how harmful salt is to your health, we need to look at the way it affects your body.
Raised blood pressure as a result of eating too much salt can cause damage to the arteries leading to the heart, resulting in a slightly reduced quantity of blood reaching the heart. This often results in angina, sharp chest pains experienced during periods of activity. Continuing to eat too much salt can cause more severe damage and your arteries could become totally clogged or even burst. This means your heart will no longer get the oxygen and nutrients it needs, leading to a heart attack.
Your kidneys have an important role to play in the body - they filter blood to remove waste and unwanted fluid using a process known as osmosis. This removes extra water from your blood, using a delicate balance of potassium and sodium. Eating too much salt raises your bloodstream's sodium levels, destroying this balance and as a result your kidneys are unable to remove water, leading to high blood pressure caused by the extra fluid. Over time, this could lead to kidney disease and even kidney failure.
Most of us don't think about how eating salt affects our brains, but it really does! High levels of salt can damage arteries leading to the brain, which means your brain will receive less blood. This could cause vascular dementia and it means your brain cells don't function optimally, due to a lack of oxygen and nutrients. Continuing to consume high levels of salt could lead to clogged or burst arteries. If this happens, your brain will no longer be able to get the nutrients and oxygen it needs, leading to a stroke. When you suffer from a stroke, you'll usually lose the abilities linked to the affected part of the brain - for example, movement on one side of the body.
We thought we'd share some (rather scary) statistics about the white stuff with you:
- According to the World Cancer Research Fund, 14% of stomach cancer cases could be avoided by reducing intake of salt
- In the UK, we consume 43% more salt than the recommended daily intake of 6g
- The 200 National Diet and Nutrition Survey for England revealed that the average woman consumes 6.8g of salt a day, whilst for men the figure is 9.3g (2)
How much salt are you eating?
It can be hard to keep track of how much salt you are actually eating, particularly if you regularly consume ready meals and processed foods - even pizzas and fresh soup can contain high amounts of salt. The following should help you to figure out how much salt is too much per 100g.
- Low - 0g to 0.3g
- Medium - 0.3g to 1.5g
- High - Over 1.5g
Traffic light colours can help to guide you towards healthier choices that contain less salt. Hidden salt in everyday foods is one of the main culprits behind our rising salt intake - look out for salt in foods such as cereal, bread and even cakes. Make sure you check labels and choose low-salt alternatives wherever possible.
Reducing your salt intake - top tips
How do you cut your salt intake to protect your heart, kidneys and brain? These top tips should give you some ideas:
- Check, double check and check again when it comes to food labels. Try to stick to low-salt options 90% of the time
- Don't add salt to your food at the table and try to reduce the amount you use in cooking. Use spices, herbs, garlic and lemon or lime juice to flavour chicken, fish and other foods
- Beware of condiments containing high levels of salt, such as some seasoning mixes and soy sauce
- Limit your intake of salty snacks such as crisps and nuts - try to swap them for fruit, vegetables and healthy home-made dips or fruit smoothies instead; a much better option!
- Cut down your intake of processed foods and cook meals from scratch so that you can control the ingredients and salt levels
Reducing your salt intake is key to decrease your risk of heart attack, stroke and dementia in the future, and it all starts today. Making a few small healthy changes to your diet could significantly impact your health as you get older!
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