Salt of the Earth
Salt is the most important food additive that humankind has ever used. We have used it not only as a flavor enhancer, but also as a preservative at a time when there were limited ways to store foods. Salt was so important in ancient cultures that it was even used as currency. It is a main ingredient needed to make bread, which has been a staple of many cultures. Salt has even found its way into superstitions, such as tossing salt over one's shoulder to ward off bad spirits or gaining bad luck from spilling it. You should even take some people's advice with a grain of salt. To prevent goiters as a result of iodine deficiency, it was decided to add iodine into table salt, much like fluoride is added to tap water, thus helping entire populations as they seasoned their food at the table. Bartenders have even been selling more drinks and increasing their tips over the years by having free pretzels at the bar.
Unfortunately, too much of a good thing can often be a bad thing. Sodium is a mineral and an essential nutrient, meaning that the body cannot produce it but still needs it. Sodium is needed to provide muscle and nerve health along with maintaining the body's electrolyte balance. It's a shame, but this very important nutrient, when eaten in excess consistently, can cause high blood pressure and significantly increase the risk of heart disease and stroke. Even though only 1500 mg of sodium is needed in a day and the upper limit is medically suggested to be 2300 mg, it is estimated that the average American consumes around 3400 mg of sodium a day (according to Harvard School of Public Health). For those populations and persons at higher risk for heart disease, such as African Americans, 1500 mg as a limit is strongly encouraged. To give you an idea of how much 1500 mg of sodium is, know that a Campbell's Homestyle Chicken Noodle Soup Microwavable Bowl, according to their website, is 1580 mg of sodium, even though it is only 130 calories. A large fry at McDonald's, according to their own website, might set you back nearly 500 calories, but only adds 400 mg of sodium to your day. Healthy eating is not just about calories... Sodium is a heart breaker and a factor that needs considered.
Many people ask what the "best" salt is. That would depend on what you define as "best". Alton Brown from the Food Network prefers to use Kosher salt because it is larger and flakier than regular table salt and can ideally use less. Some folks spout the health benefits of pink Himalayan salt, but it does not appear that enough studies have been conducted to prove at this time. Sea salt is similar to Himalayan in the respect that they have both been minimally processed, therefore contain more trace minerals than table salt, but this does not necessarily mean that they are healthier. It is my opinion that you should use whichever salt you prefer the taste and texture of, but no matter what in moderation.
Here are some tips if you are a heavy salt user:
1) Buy low-sodium foods. Almost all high-salt products have low-sodium options now. If you cannot find low-sodium canned foods, rinsing them in water does help reduce some of the salt content. It's always important to compare food labels in the case that you do not find a low-sodium product.
2) Taste your food prior to salting it. I had one client who salted his food before he even tasted it, so I gave him an empty plate and told him to use salt as if he had an entire plate of food. We then measured it afterwards and he was shocked at how much he typically used- without even having food on his plate.
3) Reduce foods in your diet that are heavily processed or pickled: cheese, deli meats, frozen dinners, fast food, salted nuts, pizza, breads, pretzels, soups, pickles, bottled salad dressings, etc.
4) Use sodium-free herb blends to season your food, like Mrs. Dash. If you can, remove the salt shaker from the table completely. You can also see my post about using various vinegars for flavoring guilt-free.
For more information on a well-studied diet that can drastically improve your heart health, visit www.dashdiet.org. DASH stands for Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension and has been voted the #1 diet by US News and World report multiple years in a row. I'm not usually a proponent of following a specific diet, but DASH is one that I can wholeheartedly lead someone to if they want to focus on their heart health.
Remember, salt is not a preservative for your heart.