The truth about salt

I was standing in a juice bar the other day when, to my horror, I heard a young and glamorous yoga mummy confiding to her equally glamorous friend that now she had discovered the health benefits of Himalayan salt she was sprinkling it on everything that her two year old (who was drinking green juice happily by her side) ate.

It was one of those socially tricky things...  Do you walk up to a total stranger and beg them to reconsider; risk infuriating them by informing them that their facts are all wrong, or leave little Johnny to his fate and avoid being taken for an interfering mad woman? Reader, I was afraid little Johnny is likely to grow up a salt addict and possibly suffer high blood pressure problems at the very least. But I wimped out, and it has bothered me ever since.

So what is salt exactly? And why is it so bad for us? 

40% of salt is made up of sodium, the other 60% is chloride. But it's the sodium that we are told to worry about and that causes most of our problems. And a large percentage of that sodium is found in the processed foods so many of us rely on (77% of all the salt that we eat apparently). It is added to virtually everything by food manufacturers to make the food they sell us last longer. The salt grinder on your table is the least of your sodium problems.

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There are 4 types of salt

1. Table salt

Table salt is the less expensive salt, mined all over the world from salt deposits and then bleached and processed to a fine texture so it can be easily used. That processing strips out any minerals, while additives are usually put in to prevent clumping. If it says 'iodised' then iodine has been added, which can cause more health problems than the ones it was meant to fix.

2. Rock salt

This is also mined... and the one that is used to defrost the roads in winter. Less often used for seasoning food, it is usually greyer than it's whiter cousins.

3. Himalayan pink salt

This is the one that Johnny's mummy was so keen on. It's a pretty, pink rock salt that comes from Pakistan. While it is said to contain more than 84 health giving minerals, but the point here is that, pretty or not, it still contains more than 95% sodium chloride, which is not at all good for you. Do not sprinkle it all over your food and think you are boosting your mineral levels and getting healthy. You are not! 

4. Salt from seawater

Sea salt is created by evaporating seawater and so contains traces of minerals like magnesium, potassium and calcium. When I was a child, visiting friends in Spain, I remember seeing vast pans of seawater, with the workers waiting for the sun to evaporate all the water so that they could start collecting, bagging and selling. 

Sea salt is minimally processed, if at all, and its grains are larger than those of the processed table salt. It is said to be 'purer' than table salt, but a recent study found that almost all brands were polluted by the plastics now found in the ocean.

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So which to choose?

The main point to remember here is that all of them - however processed or 'pure' - are sodium chloride and basically contain 40% sodium. Which is bad for you!

How much salt is too much?

New York has taken the nanny state to new levels and makes all chain restaurants flag high sodium levels against the items on every menu, and our own government is equally concerned. And the lobbying on salt is quite accurate. If you eat too much of it, not only does it encourage your body to hold onto water, but that extra water raises your blood pressure, eventually leading you down the path of stressed arteries, heart, brain and kidneys. And ultimately disease - heart attacks, stroke, osteoporosis, kidney problems and dementia. Recent research has shown that too much salt can damage your heart and literally double your risk of heart failure. 

And the process starts within 30 minutes of sprinkling that salt on your supper. Frightening eh? Salt in excess is definitely not good for you. Cut it down and science shows your blood pressure levels will reduce in a matter of months. The same goes if you suffer from tinnitus. And did you know that fasting will also speed up the de-salting process?

Or too little?

And yet food without salt, as King Lear found to his cost (though not before he lost a daughter), tastes horrible. And can create health issues too.

Too little salt really can be bad for you. If you exercise too much, or sweat and become seriously dehydrated, or suffer a particularly bad upset stomach with chronic diarrhoea, you can cause a sodium imbalance which will affect your nervous system and mental state. Down some electrolytes and rebalance your ratios. 

You can also dilute your sodium levels by drinking too much water, ending up with severe headaches, vomiting and muscle spasms. Anorexics frequently suffer from low sodium and the overuse of diuretics will cause the same imbalance and associated issues. 

How much salt is just enough?

So once again, it's a question of balance and getting your salt intake 'just right'. Everyone is different, and there are times when salt in your diet is necessary, but more often than not it just isn't. Be aware, and definitely cut down where you can (hopefully in a less dramatic way than the position Cordelia took). Your taste buds will adjust in time and you won't even notice you are eating less than you used to.

And if anyone knows Johnny's mummy.....

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Written by health advocate Sara Davenport, founder of one of the UK's largest breast cancer charities, Breast Cancer Haven. With over twenty years' experience in holistic health, Sara's digital dose of wellness teaches you to listen to your body, tweak your lifestyle and improve your health. 

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