Did you ditch salt in your efforts to improve health? It’s time to reconsider that. Here are some of the reasons why salt is good for you.
When someone decides they are going to start “eating healthy” they tend to ditch the typical diet villains–those foods that mainstream diet dogma has deemed “bad”– fat, sugar and salt. But just like it’s a bad idea to avoid all fat, not all salt is the same and it shouldn’t be thrown out entirely. Salt can be a beneficial addition to your diet.
Before I dive into why salt is good for you, I want to clarify what kind of salt I’m taking about.
I am not talking about regular table salt– you know, the kind that comes in a blue can with a girl holding an umbrella. That stuff is highly processed, usually bleached, often contaminated, and is lacking the trace minerals your body needs*. This refined sodium chloride is what your doctor really wants you to avoid. And so do I!
Salt is more than just sodium. It’s a mineral-rich supplement that was once so valuable it was used as currency. The salt you should be using– the kind that is beneficial to your health– is as unrefined as possible. My personal favorite is Redmond Real Salt, but there are plenty of excellent unrefined sea salts on the market.
So why is salt good for you?
Salt keeps you hydrated.
That’s right– we need water and salt to stay hydrated.
Hydration is a delicate balance between the amount of water contained within cell walls (intracellular fluid), and the amount of water outside of them (extracellular fluid). This balance is maintained via sodium-potassium pumps in the cell membranes. Both of these minerals are essential, and they are found in unrefined salts (as well as some fresh foods). You can drink all the water in the world, but without salt, your body wouldn’t be able to utilize that water. In fact, you’d become even more dehydrated since all that water would flush out of your system, taking what little mineral reserves you have left along with it (remember the horror stories of frat boys being forced to drink gallons of water and essentially “drowning” in their own bodies?).
When you sweat excessively or get food poisoning, you’re told to replenish your electrolytes so you don’t get dehydrated. Rather than guzzle Gatorade, you could just drink a glass of salt water, because guess what? Electrolytes are salts. They are the essential minerals needed for a slew of important bodily functions.
Again, this isn’t advocating for the consumption of high-sodium table salt or processed foods. Sodium-free salt substitutes are also problematic, since consuming them can result in excess potassium and insufficient sodium, which disrupts intra/extracellular hydration. You should be eating foods that are as close to how they are found in nature as possible, and that includes salt.
Salt contains essential minerals.
Along with sodium and potassium, unrefined salts contain other important minerals such as chloride, calcium, magnesium, phosphorous, sulfur, and so on (check out Redmond Real Salt’s Elemental Analysis to see for yourself). I could write a book on all the roles these minerals play in your body, from nerve conduction, to bone remodeling, muscle contraction, digestion, heart health, and energy production. Instead, here’s a brief rundown:
Calcium: development and maintenance of bones and teeth; muscle contraction; heart function; nerve transmission; enzyme activity; and acid-base balance.
Chloride: hydration/fluid balance (in conjunction with sodium and water); stomach acid production; and acid-base balance.
Magnesium: muscle relaxation, including the muscles of the digestive tract and blood vessels; enzyme activity; DNA production and function; nutrient transfer across cell membranes; and ATP (energy) production.
Phosphorous: bone and teeth health; energy production and exchange; tissue growth and repair (protein synthesis); cell membranes; kidney function; acid-base balance; muscle contraction; nerve conduction; and DNA production and function.
Potassium: hydration/fluid balance; acid-base balance; blood pressure regulation; nerve conduction; muscle contraction; heartbeat regulation; protein synthesis; and carbohydrate metabolism.
Sodium: hydration/fluid balance; acid-base balance; muscle contraction; nerve conduction; stomach acid production; and protein transport.
Sulfur: enzymatic reactions; protein synthesis; production of collagen and keratin; insulin production and carbohydrate metabolism; and cellular respiration.
As you can see, these minerals play many critical roles in the body. Rather than thinking of salt solely as a seasoning, start thinking of it as your daily mineral supplement. It does so much more than just add flavor to food. It provides essential minerals that maintain your body’s health and homeostasis.
How much salt should you consume?
There’s no definitive answer here**. While high levels of sodium have been linked to high blood pressure and other issues, it appears that the real concern is when sodium and potassium levels are out of balance. A standard American diet of processed foods is high in sodium, while being deficient in potassium, calcium, magnesium and so on. Excess sodium is excreted through the urine and sweat, but this can put a strain on the kidneys over time, especially if you’re not drinking enough water (another epidemic of our modern society).
Once again, it’s not salt that is inherently the problem, it’s a highly-processed diet. Pure sodium chloride (table salt) would not have been consumed before pre-industrial times. When eating a natural, fresh diet of meats, seafood, vegetables, fruits, and healthy fats, high sodium levels are rarely a concern. Unrefined sea salt would not be a burden, it would be a nutritional boon for the essential minerals it provides.
Here are my suggestions:
- Avoid processed foods, which are high in sodium and lacking in nutrients.
- Eat plenty of fresh vegetables (leafy greens, avocados, potatoes with skin, squash, mushrooms, bananas, and papaya are especially rich in potassium).
- Use unrefined sea salt, which contains both sodium and potassium (along with many other essential trace minerals), to season your food.
- Drink lots of water (half your body weight in ounces, ex: 150 lbs = 75 oz water per day) and for every 8 oz of a diuretic beverage you drink (coffee, tea, etc.) add an additional 12 oz water to replace the lost fluids. Drink more if you live in a very hot/dry climate or if you sweat a lot.
The bottom line: Don’t fear salt! Not all salt is created equal, so don’t throw the baby out with the bath water. If you have more questions about why salt is good for you, ask in the comments!
*Note about iodine: Most table salt is iodized, meaning it’s been mixed with iodine, another essential nutrient. Iodine deficiency is common in Americans (and other Western societies), which can result in thyroid dysfunction and goiter. Rather than relying on processed table salt for iodine, be sure to include plenty of quality seafood and sea vegetables in your diet. I like to sprinkle these kelp granules on my food.
**Note for ketogenic diets: Adequate salt consumption is especially important when in a state of ketosis (when ketones are created as fuel for the body). When in ketosis, your body excretes more sodium in the urine, which means you may need to replenish your sodium levels more often.