Salt intake: why is it bad for you?
We’re all too aware of the effect of excess salt, by why is salt really bad for us? The current guidelines say we should consume no more than 6g per day, but the World Health Organisation (WHO), estimates that the current global average intake of salt is between 9g and 12g per day – significantly higher than recommended.
What exactly is salt?
Salt is sodium chloride which is a necessary mineral for a healthy human body. As a result, salt is the most common source of sodium and chloride ions, which cannot be made by the body itself and so need to be consumed through our food intake.
Sodium plays a significant role in the body, it regulates volumes of fluid in the body and also aids the uptake of various other nutrients into cells. In addition, the normal pH level of blood is also influenced by the sodium levels in the body. Sodium also plays a significant role in transmitting nerve signals in the body and aiding muscular contraction. You, perhaps, may have even noticed sodium’s role in the latter, if you have ever experienced cramp after exercising and sweating.
Chloride ions also play important roles within the body. They, like sodium, are involved with influencing fluid movements and pH levels in the body. Chloride ions are also important in digestion; for the stomach contains a naturally produced acidic fluid, which is made up partly of chloride ions – which plays an essential role in digestion.
The fact that salt is made up of sodium chloride can actually make food labels quite confusing. This is because sometimes the labels will only give the amount of sodium in the food and not the amount of salt.
What’s wrong with eating too much salt?
If salt plays such important roles in the body, then why is it bad to have too much of it?
Too much salt has been linked to high-blood pressure, as it is widely thought that having high levels of sodium in the body causes a decrease in the synthesis of nitric oxide. Nitric oxide is an arteriolar vasodilator, meaning that it causes the blood vessels to widen, reducing the resistance the blood experiences as it flows.
Sodium is thought to decrease nitric oxide by increasing the levels of a molecule called asymmetric dimethyl L-arginine. This molecule is an inhibitor of nitric oxide production, which causes the blood vessels to narrow, the blood experiences more resistance, and the outcome is higher blood pressure.
High salt intake has also been linked to osteoporosis, a condition that causes weakening of the bones making them more susceptible to fractures. Salt is proposed to affect bones by causing increased calcium excretion in urine. 99% of the body’s calcium is stored in our bones, so the loss of calcium through too much salt, can ultimately be bad for your bones.
What effect does this have on my fitness?
Too much salt in the short term, will lead to increased dehydration and bloating. Excess sodium is flushed from the body with significant levels of water. Losing high volumes of water to complete the rebalancing of salt, will leave you feeling thirsty and can often be enough to wake you up during the night. Even a small amount of dehydration can lead to lethargy and lapsing concentration, which when you’re working out or competing, will lead to your performance tailing off rapidly.
Maintaining a well hydrated body should be something you try and achieve whether you’re going to work or whether you’re about to run a marathon – it’s crucial for your body to operate at 100%.
In addition to dehydration, consuming too much salt, can lead you to feel bloated and uncomfortable. Sodium is a mineral that naturally retains water, and a side effect of this water retention is a bloated sensation, something which is never going to feel nice when you’re coming in for a class or heading out for a run.
Longer term, the effects of restricted blood flow and poor bone quality, will result in the body consistently underachieving its performance potential, risk of injury and serious health issues such as a heart attack or a stroke.
How can we reduce our salt intake?
Given all the negative effects high salt intake can cause, you may wish to reduce your own salt intake. You may find this is actually harder than you initially think. The difficulty in reducing your salt intake arises due to the fact that a significant amount of the salt we consume has already been added to our food at the manufacturing stage.
The Telegraph recently reported, “Half of all takeaway pizzas surveyed contained the entire maximum daily recommendation of salt which is six grams”. This is indicative of all processed foods and the only solution is to cut these processed foods from your diet.
Want that takeaway pizza – make your own. Want that takeaway curry – make your own. You’ll have a better idea of what’s going into your food and remember, you can still add your own salt – just don’t overdo it. There is lots of different evidence supporting a link between high salt intake and high blood pressure.