Sodium and Salt

My mother always told me that putting salt on my food before I tasted it was disrespecting the chef.  This etiquite tip has proven extremely useful during formal dining.  For casual dining, the US Dietary Guidelines have always recommended a maximum salt intake of only 1 teaspoon of salt per day.  When beginning a low carb diet, it is recommended to increase salt intake to help retain water.  So what is it about salt that we should really know? 

The Julian Bakery Blog is about to teach you!  Let’s start at the bottom:

Salt is made up of Sodium and Chloride (NaCl), and is essential for life in small quantities.  However, too much salt can be very problematic for plants and animals.  In terms of the human taste buds, saltiness is one of the five basic tastes.  Historically, salt has played a major role in food preservation and food seasoning. 

Although salt is made of two main elements, for this blog post I want to concentrate on the electrolyte sodium.  Sodium plays two major roles in the body including maintaining body fluid and extracellular electric potential.  Put in layman’s terms, sodium is responsible for water regulation in our bodies.  Without it, we don’t absorb enough water, and with too much of it we feel dehydrated and react by absorbing too much water which then causes an increase in blood pressure.  As you can see, sodium balance is vital for the proper functioning of our osmoticregulation system.  Too much or too little salt in a diet can cause muscle cramps, dizziness, or electrolyte disturbance, which can result in neurological disorders, or even death.  On the other side of things, too much water with not enough salt can also cause death via water intoxification.  With that in mind, let’s get into situational sodium management.

 There is a select group of people who should definitely keep close track of how much sodium they are taking in.  African-Americans, people over 50, people with high blood pressure, diabetes, or chronic kidney disease should all stay under 1,500 milligrams of salt per day.  Children and everyone else are recommended up to 2,300 milligrams per day as a maximum.  Currently, the average American consumes double the maximum amount recommended!  Personally, I don’t understand what it is about salt that people love so much.  Once you decide to stop adding salt to your food, within a few weeks your taste buds will adapt and you won’t have the same salt cravings.  I don’t add salt to anything, so perhaps my tastebuds have adjusted which is why I don’t like adding salt to my food.  Minimally reducing your salt intake will go a long way to improve health and lower your blood pressure.  Here are a few suggestions that will help you reduce your salt/sodium intake: 

  • Use lemon juice, cooking wine, herbs, and spices to season food instead of salt.
  • Avoid processed, packaged, and canned foods.
  • Dine out less.  Restaurant foods contain high levels of salt.
  • Eat fresh foods such as vegetables, fruits, whole grains, beans, peas, and lentils.
  • Prepare meats without salt.

Low Carb Dieters – The exception to sodium

The one group of people who are recommended to increase salt/sodium intake are people who are starting a low carb diet.  In the first phase of beginning a low carb diet, the transition causes the kidneys to release a ton of excess fluids.  On top of a quick drop in weight, this reduction in fluid can cause dehydration,cramping, hypotension, and fatigue.  The follow section from a blog post from one of my favorite low carb bloggers, Dr. Michael Eades, MD couldn’t explain this process any better: 

“When you are overweight and insulin resistant, you have a lot of insulin circulating in your blood most of the time. This excess insulin does a number of bad things to you. Gary Taubes wrote an entire book about how excess insulin makes you store fat in your fat cells. But the story doesn’t end there. Excess insulin also drives the kidneys to retain fluid, which is why many obese people retain a lot of extraneous fluid and experience pitting edema in their lower legs.

One of the first things that happen when people go on low-carb diets is a rapid improvement in insulin sensitivity. Because the low-carb diet starts to quickly banish the insulin resistance, insulin levels fall quickly. And as insulin falls, the stimulus to the kidneys to retain fluids goes away, and the kidneys begin to rapidly release fluid. One of the common experiences at the start of low-carb dieting is the incessant running back and forth to the bathroom to urinate this excess fluid away. Which is both good news and bad news.

The good news is that it’s great to get rid of the excess fluid but it comes at a cost, which is the bad news. As the excess fluid goes, it takes with it sodium an extremely important electrolyte. When sodium levels fall below a critical threshold (which can happen within a short time), symptoms often occur, the most common being fatigue, headache, cramps and postural hypotension.

Postural hypotension happens when you stand up too quickly and feel faint. Or even pass out briefly. It’s a sign of dehydration. So if you’ve started your low-carb diet, made your multiple runs to the bathroom, and jump up off the couch to answer the phone and feel like your going to faint (or actually do pass out momentarily) and have to sit back down quickly, you’ve got postural hypotension. It’s really easy to fix – you simply need to take more sodium and drink more water. Salt your food more. Increasing sodium is just another one of the many counter-intuitive things about low-carb dieting. Just like eating more fat to lower your cholesterol. You’ve got to start thinking differently. The low-carb diet is one that absolutely requires more sodium. A lot more sodium.

If you’ve got the brutal headaches that some people get when starting on a low-carb diet, add sodium. And drink extra water. Even if you don’t have pitting edema, postural hypotension or headaches, you still need more sodium if you are starting out on or following a low-carb diet. It’s critically important that you get extra sodium. I can’t make this case too strongly.

An easy way to get extra sodium along with magnesium and potassium (a couple of other electrolytes we’ll discuss in a bit) is by consuming bone broth. Unfortunately, you typically have to make the good stuff yourself because it’s difficult to find commercially. You can get chicken broth and beef broth at most grocery stores, but it’s not nearly as good as the broth you can make yourself. At the end of this post I‘ll give you a spectacular recipe that we have for a great bone broth we made at our now-defunct restaurant. It is beyond good. It requires a little time, but you can make a bunch and freeze it in small containers and keep it forever.

Short of making your own bone broth, you can use commercially available bouillon, which contains plenty of sodium and makes a nice hot drink. Plop a cube in a cup of hot water and throw it back. Many patients have reported that drinking a cup of hot bouillon helps them get through carb cravings. It’s easy and convenient, but can’t compare in taste to the real bone broth you make yourself.

In addition to broth, get some Celtic Sea Salt, Himalayan Salt or one of the other grayish, pinkish kind of grungy looking salts and replace your normal salt with these. And don’t use them sparingly. These salts have been harvested either from ancient sea beds or obtained by evaporation of sea water with high mineral content and contain about 70 percent of the sodium of regular salt (which has been refined, bleached and processed until it is pretty much pure sodium chloride, often with anti-caking agents added). The other 30 percent of the volume is other minerals and micronutrients (including iodine) found in mineral-rich seas. Consuming these salts is not just following a Paleolithic diet using modern food, but, depending upon the origin of the salt, it is consuming the same food your Paleolithic ancestors ate. I much prefer these salts taste-wise to regular salt, and I salt the heck out of all my food with it.” 

So let’s rehash the numbers:

  • African-Americans, people over 50, people with high blood pressure, diabetes, or chronic kidney disease should all stay under 1,500 milligrams of salt per day.
  • Everyone else is recommended up to 2,300 milligrams of salt per day.
  • Low carb dieters should supplement their diet with 2-3 grams of sodium per day, especially to start.

 Whether you are starting a low carb diet or not, this information should be taken seriously to prevent future health problems or side effects from your dieting.  If you are not on a low carb diet, you should immediately stop adding salt to your food.  I can guarantee that within a few weeks you will adjust and no longer depend on salt to make your food taste better.  If you are on a low carb diet, I would certainly take Dr. Eades’ advice by picking up some of the sea salt he suggests to keep your diet going smoothly and avoid unwanted side effects.

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