We’ve long been told that salt is bad for us. Almost sitting on a par with the devil that is sugar, salt is one of the ingredients we’re told to avoid wherever possible. It’s bad for our bodies, and bad for our health. And it’s one of those warning lights we look for on packaging.
But why is this? Why is salt bad for us? Do we all need to avoid it as much as we do, or is there a case for certain people – sportspeople – to actually add more to their diet?
Why is it blacklisted?
According to the NHS, salt is listed as a ‘warning food’ because too much of it really is bad for our health. Too much salt has been proven to raise our blood pressure and cause hypertension, which in turn can lead to an increased risk of heart disease and stroke.
Together, coronary heart disease and strokes are the leading cause of death and disability in the UK.
When we eat too much salt, it also affects the water levels in our body, as we hold onto fluid to balance out salt levels. This can lead to water retention problems. There is also some evidence linking high salt intake to stomach cancer, osteoporosis, kidney disease and vascular dementia.
Other studies have shown that salt can increase symptoms and problems associated with asthma and diabetes too.
In general, salt is on the blacklist because it’s actually found in a lot of the food we eat without many us realising. 75% of the salt we consume is already present in everyday staple foods like cereals, bread, tined products, packets, ready meals, sauces etc.
Other foods high in salt content include processed meats, smoked fish, cheese, olives and prawns.
This means that we need to be careful about adding extra salt to our diet, as our bodies only require around 6g per day; this is the recommended daily allowance. It’s important to note that sodium is not the same as salt either; sodium is one molecule in the salt compound, and is heavier than others. Many packages will only label sodium, rather than salt, because the number is smaller.
2.4g of sodium is the equivalent of 6g of salt.
The importance of salt
In spite of all the warnings about excess salt, it’s still an ingredient that is necessary for our survival, just like all warm-blooded animals.
Our brains and spinal cord actually float in cerebrospinal fluid, which is salt water circulating between them; it removes unwanted acidity from the brain. Salt helps our kidneys and digestive system function effectively; and together with potassium, sodium helps our body regulate water levels, triggering that thirsty feeling where necessary.
Sodium is an electrolyte, a special type of mineral that carries electrical charges through the body. It’s responsible for transporting nutrients in and out of cells throughout the body, and removing any unwanted waste products. Electrolytes also carry nerve impulses around the bloodstream to muscles, helping your heart, diaphragm and limbs contract and relax.
If you have muscle cramps, it could be because you don’t have enough salt in your bloodstream.
Other symptoms of low salt levels include:
- chronically low blood pressure
- feelings of light headedness when you stand
Sweat more, lose more
Sodium depletion is a common condition suffered by many athletes. One study found 30% of the trial group were experiencing low salt levels without even realising.
This is because when we work out hard, our bodies sweat. Sweat is composed chiefly of salt and water. So the more we sweat, the more salt we lose.
Think about what happens when you lose a lot of fluid, and end up in hospital for example. One of the first thing doctors do is put you on an IV drip with a saline solution – otherwise know as salt water!
Leading sports physiologist Allen Lim claims that 2,300mg of sodium can easily be lost during an hour of heavy sweating. This is equivalent to the recommended daily allowance of salt. So if you’re training 3 to 5 times a week for more than an hour each time, you could be suffering from chronic sodium depletion, which results in overtraining syndrome.
So, if you’re on a two plus hour endurance workout and you’re sweating a lot, be sure to replenish lost salt with a sports drink that contains good sodium content. Ideally, this should be around 600mg of sodium per litre.
For shorter sessions of around an hour, look to replace your sodium levels post-workout. Carrots, beetroot, celery, and cottage cheese all contain good sodium levels and are good bets, whilst spinach and beans also contain potassium to help you balance out your intake and negate any danger of taking on too much sodium.
Ultimately, listen to your body. We seek out salt when we need it, so if you’ve finished a workout and have a craving for salt, you might want to think about indulging in it.