A little salt is indispensable for a healthy, balanced diet. We need sodium (which, along with chlorine, makes up table salt) to help regulate the body's water balance, keep muscles functioning and conduct nerve impulses. But just how much salt does the body really need? "Sodium is critical to our bodies. But that said, we are all eating too much salt," says Dr Vivek Gupta, Senior Consultant Interventional Cardiologist, Apollo Indraprastha Hospital, New Delhi.
"The body requires only 500 milligrams (mgs) of sodium - the amount found in 1/4 teaspoon of salt - everyday. The daily recommended allowance is not more than 2,400 mgs (about one teaspoon) per day. Most of us, however, consume much more than that. All this excess salt leads to hypertension (or high blood pressure) - which is on a high everywhere, even among young people now - besides a host of other problems, like stroke and coronary heart disease. When levels of sodium are too high, the body retains too much water and the volume of body fluids increases. This process is linked to hypertension, which in turn is linked to a greater risk of coronary hearta disease and stroke," explains Gupta.
And that's not all. Research now also suggests that consuming too much sodium may increase the risk of osteoporosis too. "That's because sodium competes with calcium for re-absorption, so there's a chance that calcium will leave the body through urine, rather than be reabsorbed into the blood if you consume excess salt. And that means there's less calcium available for strengthening bones," explains Dr Raju Vaish, Senior Consultant Orthopaedic Surgeon at Apollo Indraprastha Hospital.
Adds Pratima Kaushik, chief dietician at VIMHANS, Delhi: "Salt can worsen the problem of water retention that many women experience before menstruation. It can also increase the build-up of fluid in the legs, which occurs when a person has been sitting for long periods."
"Another problem is the company that salt keeps. French fries, pizza, potato chips, Chinese food - are all loaded with both salt and fat. So when you eat a high-sodium diet, you're often also eating a diet high in fat and sugar, and usually low in nutrients and fibre. In fact, it is noticed that when people cut calories, they cut sodium as well," observes Dr Shikha Sharma, a weight-loss consultant based in Delhi.
But there are ways to ensure that our consumption of salt is controlled. In fact, experts feel that, to cut your salt intake, it's better to start with small changes. The best news is that you weren't born with a taste for salt. So, if you gradually decrease it in your diet, your taste for salt declines. The less you consume, the less you want.
Salt, whether added during food preparation or at the table, is the most common source of sodium. So think before you reach for that saltshaker. Instead, jazz up food with herbs and spices. Suggests Sharma, "Keep added salt to a half-teaspoon a day. One way to go about this is to switch your salt and peppershakers. Since the peppershaker has fewer holes, you'll get less salt with every shake. Also, it is important to keep the saltshaker in the kitchen cupboard rather than at the table, where it's easy to use."
"And then there are hidden sources. You can cut that intake by making wise food choices. A good place to start is by eliminating processed foods, which account for more than 75 per cent of the salt we eat. Even foods that don't taste salty, like bread, are often high in sodium; so be careful. Bacon, cheese, olives, pickles, salad dressings, salsa, sausages, salted nuts, mustard, Soya sauce, mayonnaise are all high on sodium," warns Kaushik.
"To moderate sodium intake from processed food, read the nutrition label on food packages carefully; cut back on processed foods; reduce eating out (one meal out will add on more than a day's requirement); buy fresh food; have five servings of fresh fruits and veggies (vegetables and fruits have low sodium content); switch to fresh poultry, fish and lean meat, rather than canned or processed foods. You can try rinsing canned foods, such as tuna, to remove some sodium," Kaushik advises.
Sharma also suggests the use of citrus juice (like lemon and lime), fresh herbs like cilantro, basil, thyme and rosemary and other spices like pepper, to brighten up the flavour of food. "This helps significantly reduce salt intake without sacrificing taste. Also, foods like celery can satisfy a salt craving, and they definitely beat out chips in the nutrition battle," she says.
All of this doesn't mean you can't have the foods you love. Just keep reading the labels and make good choices. For example, if you're going to have a fast food lunch, make sure you plan for a low-salt meal at dinner to balance your daily intake, these experts feel.
Also, new research published in the 'Journal of the American Medical Association' (January 18, 2005) suggests that increasing folic acid in a woman's diet may help reduce her risk of developing hypertension. The results appear to be particularly pronounced among younger women. This B-Vitamin is found in foods such as leafy green vegetables, fruits, dried beans, and peas or can be had as a dietary supplement. But all said and done, it is time to check the salt assault.