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Sodium chloride — salt — is a difficult problem because it’s a necessary nutrient and risky for our health. This is not entirely news. We’ve known for some time that overindulging in sodium can lead to high blood pressure, a major risk factor for cardiovascular disease. To put it in perspective, a 2011 article in the British Medical Journal indicated that a 15 percent reduction in global salt intake could prevent 8.5 million deaths from cardiovascular disease over 10 years.
To bring it even closer to home, a more recent study from the Harvard School of Public Health suggested that one in 10 Americans may die from eating too much salt. So while we do need some salt, we also need to be aware of the risks of over-salting every bite of food.
Salt And Immunity
While it’s been widely accepted that excessive salt consumption is associated with hypertension, it’s only recently that researchers have linked sodium with autoimmune disorders. These crippling diseases have been on the rise in developing countries, but no one has been really sure why.
However, in a group of studies published in Nature, researchers investigated a type of T cell linked with autoimmune conditions — TH17 — and found these cells respond to salt. In fact, too much salt caused over-activity of TH17 cells and increased inflammation.
Your natural response to the news about salt may be to simply reduce salt. Many of us have already reduced junk foods, trans-fats, alcohol, caffeine and sugar. Salt seems to be one more ingredient we need to limit. But, again, measuring salt intake is tricky. It’s no simple task to adjust how much we are actually ingesting. While it’s easy to refrain from tilting the shaker, that’s really just the tip of the iceberg. The real culprits are prepared and processed foods that are loaded with unhealthy levels of sodium along with other processed food ingredients.
You may think that’s another easy fix. Simply stay away from McDonald’s and Lean Cuisine. However, the authors of the Harvard study note that salt is much more widespread and harder to avoid. In fact, the two biggest sodium sources in today’s diets are bread and cheese.
Still, there’s a lot we can do to control our salt intake; it just takes a little diligence.
First, control how much salt you add to your recipes. Cut the amount a recipe requires by half or even more. Remember, the palate becomes accustomed to salt and can also adjust to less of it. Food may seem blander at first, but gradually your taste adjusts and you can come to appreciate the natural flavors of the healthy foods you’re eating.
You can also add herbs and spices, as well as salt alternatives, to your food. However, be careful about salt substitutes; many contain potassium chloride that can be harmful for individuals with kidney disease.
You can limit salt by using flavorful and aromatic herbs, foods and spices such as garlic, pepper, onion, celery, curcumin, turmeric, lemon juice, rosemary, cinnamon and many others. The good news is that these alternatives also provide an abundance of health benefits, including increased antioxidant activity and inflammation control — essential if you’ve been consuming a high-salt diet.
Prepared meals, such as frozen foods, canned foods, soups, sauces and salad dressings, all have high levels of salt. If you can’t avoid them entirely, opt for the reduced-sodium versions. Avoid fast foods: They are deleterious to health and their salt content is no help.
Obviously, the best way to avoid salt and other ingredients that can increase risk of cardiovascular and chronic disease is simply to cook your own meals. By cooking at home, you take control of your diet. Whenever possible, opt for fresh, organic ingredients. Think high-quality proteins, healthy fats, fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds and sprouted grains.
Also remember, hypertension can be caused by a variety of factors where excess salt is only part of the problem. Make sure to control stress, exercise regularly, limit caffeine and maintain a healthy weight.
Stress, in particular, can have a profound impact on cardiovascular and immune health. I find that yoga, Tai Chi and other meditative mind-body practices are ideal. They combine mindfulness, breathing and movement in ways that are proven to reduce cardiovascular risks and offer other important benefits.
Think About The Big Picture
Despite the potential risks from overconsumption of sodium, it’s important to remember that a small amount of natural salt is necessary for our cells, muscles, nerves and other important areas of health. Eat enough, but not too much — 1,000 to 2,000 milligrams a day. Himalayan or Celtic grey salts are good choices, and they contain naturally occurring minerals.
In today’s health-fad culture, we tend to gravitate to the latest trend. When low fat is the “diet of the year,” many people reflexively reduce fat. The same is true of salt. But I recommend veering away from the “should not” list to the “should” lists by emphasizing good habits that maintain health in the long run. If you can adopt a lifestyle that supports vitality and wellness, you can much more easily avoid the obstacles that interfere with health, whether the popular wisdom of the day recognizes them or not.
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