What’s the truth behind salt and out health? Is it really linked to high blood pressure?
If you follow the media you would certainly think so. It’s easy to imagine salt as high blood pressure in a bottle. What else could you conclude? Wherever you look, health websites, TV news reports, magazines… one of the first tips for lower blood pressure is to avoid or reduce salt.
Then you have all the “low” or “reduced-salt” foods in the supermarkets. Some health experts even recommend using so-called salt “substitutes”. This salt must be dangerous stuff indeed!
But in these days of health and food scares it’s easy to forget the legacy of salt in our history:
In your early days at school you may have heard of the “Silk Route”, the celebrated trail from Europe to China forged by Marco Polo in pursuit of exotic spices and other treasures of the Orient.
But just as renowned during its time was “The Salt Route”, the Roman roads over which the precious crystals were transported along with other expensive goods from all over the ancient world.
Salt has been coveted and traded – even used as a currency itself – since the earliest times. Wars have been fought over it. Animals travel vast distances to find it… and often die if they don’t.
With its value as a food preservative, salt had a major influence on the development of civilization. And early people recognized the many other health benefits of salt. Ironically, considering its demonization, sodium plays a crucial role in regulating healthy blood pressure. Life itself depends on maintaining sufficient levels of sodium along with other essential minerals.
So what’s gone wrong? Why is salt now so strongly linked to high blood pressure?
It comes down to over-use… you may even call it abuse. Salt tastes good. It livens up bland food. Calling it a drug experience may be a stretch but it definitely tickles our pleasure centers. Saltiness is one of the four basic taste groups… we have taste buds specifically adapted to it. It’s even mildly addictive.
It didn’t take food manufacturers long to catch on to this and realize that salt helps sell more food. The result is that the salt content of our food, especially snacks, has crept relentlessly upward.
And we can’t blame only food producers. Because salt is cheap, abundant and tasty, people began putting extra on their plates. Salt and pepper shakers became required accoutrements to any dining table (at least in Anglo-Saxon households… the French and Blood balance other people shudder at our habit of shaking salt on food without even tasting it first!).
Healthy blood pressure: it’s all in the balance…
The eventual result of all this extra sodium is a mineral imbalance in our bodies. Blood chemisty is a key regulator of our blood pressure. If levels of minerals including calcium, sodium, magnesium and potassium become destablilized it throws the whole system out of kilter.
Specifically, when excess salt is consumed you end up with not only high sodium levels but also relative deficiencies of the other minerals. The overall effect is to destabilize blood chemistry thus raising blood pressure.
As we’re dealing with an imbalance there are a number of scenarios that can contribute to high blood pressure. So a deficiency of, say, magnesium, can increase blood pressure as surely as too much sodium does. But with the processed foods we eat and the general abuse of sodium in our diet, salt is nearly always the culprit.
Too little sodium is also a hypertension risk…
Of course, balanced levels of minerals – including sodium – are essential to good health and normal blood pressure. Which means that severely salt-restricted diets and/or the use of salt “substitutes” are almost never called for. But the same processed food manufacturers lacing their products with unhealhy amounts of sodium are now stoking the flames of hysteria in order to sell their equally dangerous “antidotes”!
What about “healthy” salt alternatives?
You may have heard about “salt alternatives” such as sea salt and Himalayan salt that claim to be unrefined and thus healthier. Such products that are free from chemical additives are attractive but you do have to read the labels carefully. The labels of some sea salts and others with health claims expose them as little better than their cheap tabletop cousins.
Others are terribly expensive and you have to wonder how much of it is a clever ruse just to capture those “healthier than thou” food dollars! It’s still healthier – and certainly cheaper – just to get your sodium naturally from a healthy diet.
A balanced and varied diet rich in whole, natural foods will provide all the minerals and other nutriets you need in the right balance to maintain healthy blood pressure. Avoid processed foods which, as previously mentioned, tend to contain high levels of sodium (not to mention sugar, preservatives and artificial additives).
Whole, unprocessed foods contain nutrients in their natural state and balance…
Milk is a perfect example of the difference between processed and natural foods. Low and non-fat milk products are processed. (To be completely accurate, all Pasteurized milk is processed, even so-called whole milk! Raw milk is an ideal whole food… but that’s another debate.)
Coming back to low and non-fat milk; most of their minerals and other nutrients are removed during processing. These are then artificially replaced, a process that is promoted as a health benefit, i.e. as in “calcium-fortified”! Whole milk, by contrast, does retain much of its original nutrient profile, critically its mineral levels.
A healthy diet does not have to be complicated…
And you can forget about expensive “superfoods”. Every natural food is a superfood. Following a simple diet of whole, natural foods will almost always result in better health and lower blood pressure due to balanced blood chemistry.
Of course your body does need sodium and a diet like this will provide all you need in a natural balance. Some foods are naturally higher in sodium than others, which is why it’s important to have a varied diet. But whatever you eat, it’s never necessary to add extra salt… so get that shaker off your table!
Just say no…
I mentioned briefly above that salt is mildly addictive (another way, incidentally, that food producers are able to exploit it). When I first started rejecting extra salt in my food I could actually feel withdrawal symptoms. For a short time everything tasted bland… where did the pleasure go?
But it doesn’t take long to adjust and it’s definitely worth it. Now when I taste too much salt in a dish I recoil from a harsh, almost stinging, metallic sensation. And I wonder how I could ever have tolerated such extremes…
Extremes… that brings up the common-sense solution to the salt debate… just avoid extremes:
– Salt shakers are usually extreme…
– So are expensive, reduced-salt foods and freakish salt “substitutes”…
– And so are overpriced, “healthy” alternatives like Himalayan Salt.