7 salt myths debunked

Salt may not have a trending hash tag or cult ‘quitter’ following like its fellow friend sugar, but this s-word isn’t to be fobbed off lightly.

Currently 1.6 billion people suffer from high blood pressure, and in Australia, 3.2 million will face cardiovascular disease (be it heart attack, stroke or blood vessel disease), with someone dying every 12 minutes from it.

And what’s to blame? Salt. Yep, it’s one of Australia’s biggest silent killers.

But before you trade table salt for pretty pink rock salts or attempt to go cold turkey from sodium, it’s worth learning a little more about it. Read on for the classic salt myths, as debunked by top Sydney health experts….

1. If I don’t add salt to meals, I’ll reduce my sodium intake

“Lots of people think they don’t have salt, but 75-85 per cent of our intake comes from hidden salts – either from restaurant or processed foods,” says Dr Bruce Neal, Professor of Medicine at the University of Sydney and the Director of Food Policy Division at the George Institute for Global Health.

“The number one source of salt actually comes from bread and the second largest source is breakfast cereals. You don’t think of these as salty foods, but they have a surprising amount in them – not to mention processed meats and cheeses.”

“However, if you select low sodium packaged foods and whole foods, adding a small amount of salt to your cooking isn’t likely to throw your sodium balance out in a negative way,” explains dietician, Kara Landau of The Travelling Dietician.

2. Fancier salts like Himalayan are healthier than table salt

“Stock standard table salt is usually processed at a high heat, bleached, then packed with anticaking agents – making it full of harmful toxins,” says Gigi Cumbers, in-house nutritionist at Hard Candy (@healthbygigi).

“These additional chemicals add strain to our body as they aren’t designed to be ingested. Whereas Himalayan, Celtic sea salt, and rock salt are less refined and usually harvested and packaged in their naturally occurring state so they still contain trace elements and minerals (Himalayan can have up to 80 trace minerals and elements).”

However, this doesn’t mean they’re a guilt-free alternative. “While Himalayan salt does contain more minerals it still provides additional sodium in your diet,” says Landau. “Sure it can be used it in place of a regular salt (for obtaining bonus nutrients) but I wouldn’t recommend increasing your intake based on the provision of trace minerals alone.”

Dr Neal also says it’s important not to be persuaded by ‘natural’ based marketing hype or price points.

“Fancy salts are often just a more expensive way to do yourself harm.
Instead, spend money on a salt substitute that’s potassium chloride based, (not sodium chloride based) to get more nutrients or just opt for fruit and veg – they too contain potassium which helps lower blood pressure.”

3. Salt is bad for you, full stop.

“Like all foods, its health or nutritional value depends on the source and processing,” says Anthia Koullouros, naturopath at Ovvio Organics.

“Refined salt can contribute to high blood pressure but if salt is naturally sourced with little processing or intervention then it offers a spectrum of naturally occurring, essential minerals – including magnesium which helps regulate blood pressure.”

4. The only reason to worry about salt is high blood pressure

“Going to the doctor and taking medication for the management of high blood pressure is annoying in itself, but more worryingly it can also lead to heart attack, kidney disease and even stomach cancer,” says Dr Neal.

“Just like smoking, it accumulates with time, so you might not get immediate effects after a cigarette but once you commit and do it for a couple of decades, you will cause serious harm. Salt is the exact same which makes it a problem for younger people who don’t often realise until they get older.”

5. You don’t need salt in your diet

“Wrong. Our body requires salt for the regulation of fluid as well as normal cell, brain and muscle function,” says Natalie Ford, in-house nutritionist at Pressed Juices in Manly.

Dr Neal agrees. “You need salt to live – it’s essential, as sodium and chloride are key electrolytes that are vital for cell functioning, so if we change the sodium in the fluid of our body, everything can go wrong and that’s when you get adverse problems like high blood pressure.”

There are also specific times though where our demand for salt will naturally increase.“If you experience cramping, headaches, fatigue, restlessness or taste impairment you might be low in salt,” says Cumbers. “This can be triggered if we’ve had coffee, sweated a lot during a workout, drank excessive amounts of water or suffer from an adrenal insufficiency.”

While we can’t encourage people to eat only half a gram a day, Neal believes if we tweaked our diet to eat 10 – 20 per cent it will help our health twofold.

6. Salt is a vital source of iodine

“Iodine can be added to refined salt, but a natural salt like Celtic sea salt contains it naturally,” says Koullouros.

“What people don’t realise though is that seaweed is the richest source of iodine. So add seaweed to your diet or buy natural salts with a dried seaweed mixed through for an easy iodine hit.”

7. Exercising offsets salt intake

Think that bag of salty chips was paid off after a spin class? Think again.

“Unless you’re an elite athlete, you’re not going to deplete your body of salt. While exercise is always a good thing, you won’t reverse the effects of eating less salt,” says Dr Neal.

Want to crack down on your sodium consumption? Download ‘Foodswitch’, a quick, on-the-go app, as researched by the George Institute for Global Health to help you suss sodium levels. Just scan the barcode of any packaged food and it will rate whether it’s high or low in salt then give you the lowest brand alternative to pick instead.

Sam Bailey

About the person who wrote this

Sam Bailey

Sam Bailey is a Sydney-based journalist whose passion for health and fitness and has seen her write across health titles including Womens Fitness, Womens Health, Body + Soul and Daily Mail Australia. In her down time you can find her sipping green smoothies, attempting complex yoga poses and soaking up vitamin D on Bondi beach.

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