"Don't put too much salt on those eggs honey"
"Grandpa's heart is damaged because he used salt every day. Eating salt will also destroy your kidneys".
O.K., I'll stop mommy...
Sorry for the theatrics.
Fortunately, that conversation never happened.
My point is, however, that the conversation might have happened. Lots of people assume they should not add to their food. You might be too...
You must be thinking:
"Tough choice. I either choose to eat bland food that tastes like crap, or I'm eating mouth-watering salted food that destroys my health."
Not so quick...
Almost everyone is aware that there's a debate around salt. That debate focuses on whether you should add salt to your food and how much.
The salt debate has become more "violent" in the last decade.
So what's my take?
I'll tell you right now:
Just focusing on salt without having an overview of the bigger picture is a phenomenal mistake.
In this blog post I'll give you that 30,000-foot view.
So let's dig deep into the topic of salt. Salt, which contains a mineral called "sodium", has been demonized for decades.
About 40% of salt is made up of sodium. The more salt you're adding to your food, the higher your overall sodium intake will be.
But let's make one thing clear:
I'm not saying that you can consume unlimited amounts of salt and never get any consequences either.
That would be stupid...
What I'm claiming instead is that it's a big mistake to just focus on your sodium intake without minding how much of the "potassium" and "chloride" minerals you're ingesting.
"How come I've never heard much about these minerals?"
That's my entire point.
So let's give you an overview:
In this blog post I'll make several controversial claims:
Want to see how that 30,000 foot view plays out?
Read the entire blog post.
Disclaimer: because salt is the main means of manipulating your sodium intake throughout the day, I'm using the words "salt" and "sodium" interchangeably.
Of course, on a quantitative level, recommendations for your salt and sodium intake are not interchangeable.
By the way: do you want to receive a free shareable infographic that contains my 10 best practical salt tips? Subscribe below:
View the entire table of contents of the article below:
Optimizing Salt Intake:
As always, let's start with a definition:
Let's first analyze the words "salt" and "sodium". These words are often used interchangeably but their meaning is not equal.
Salt actually consist of several minerals and includes sodium.
A mineral is a chemical compound, which is made up of several chemical elements.
Table salt, for example, is made up of 40% "sodium" and 60% "chloride". Regular table salt is refined though, and some other minerals that are naturally occurring in salt have been removed.
Natural salts such as "Celtic sea salt" or "Himalaya salt" contain up to 80 different minerals in addition to sodium and chloride,
Sodium and chloride nevertheless remain the primary minerals found in all salt types.
Sodium and chloride are still making up 98-99% of the Celtic sea salt or Himalaya salt.
If any website or author claims that Celtic sea salt or Himalaya salt is a "rich source of trace minerals" they're completely ignorant.
Himalaya salt: still consisting of
almost 40% sodium and 60% chloride
Only 1-2% of minerals in natural salts are thus composed of non-sodium and non-chloride minerals.
Unless you're eating 10 tablespoons of salt a day - which is very ill-advised - Celtic sea salt or Himalaya salt are not rich sources of trace minerals--only a rich source of sodium and chloride.
Eat oysters if you want to ingest many trace minerals, not salt.
You might be thinking: "I agree it's self-evident that 10 tablespoons of salt are too much, so, how much salt should I get?"
I'll give you my exact view on salt quantities later.
Let's first explore some common recommendations out there:
Have a look at what sodium intakes popular health websites recommend:
A 2010 WebMD article titled "90% in U.S. [sic] Get Too much Sodium" states:
"Basic U.S. dietary guidelines suggest that adults get less than 2,300 milligrams of sodium each day, but the basic guidelines apply to fewer than a third of Americans. The rest -- 70% of the population -- are middle aged, elderly, or African-American. This huge majority should get less than 1,500 milligrams of sodium per day."
"no more than 2,300 milligrams (mg) [of sodium] a day and moving toward an ideal limit of no more than 1,500 mg per day for most adults"
The AHA assumes that you can get by on less sodium though, as they later on state that:
"[t]he body needs only a small amount of sodium (less than 500 milligrams per day) to function properly."
The AHA recommends a low sodium intake for improving kidney health, decreasing high blood pressure, and lowering your chances of getting a stroke - claims I'll get back to later.
Let's take the recommendation of 2,300 milligrams of sodium per day. To achieve that much sodium intake, you'd need to add very little if any salt to your daily food.
WebMD and the AHA are not the only institutions that recommend an extremely low sodium intake.
Take the World Health Organization (WHO)?
"recommends that adults consume less than 5 g (just under a teaspoon) of salt per day"
Less than 5 grams of salt translates, again, to less than 2,000 milligrams of sodium per day.
Let me be very clear:
These institutions are not talking about adding a teaspoon of salt to your food each day. Those 2,000 milligrams stem almost completely from your food intake.
Let's assume that your daily food contains 1,500 milligrams of sodium. In that case, you'd have room for an additional 500 milligrams of sodium each day - equaling just a quarter teaspoon of salt.
Most Americans consume about 3,500 milligrams of sodium each day and are therefore consuming lots of salt that's added to their food.
To achieve a sodium intake of 3,500 milligrams you'd need to add about a teaspoon of salt to your daily food intake in total.
So what's my overarching point?
Many important health institutions recommend that you consume less than a teaspoon of salt each day, which entails never adding (much) salt to your food.
These institutions such as the WHO, AHA, and others recommend foods such as milk and whole grains as a staple of your diet.
Many such foods already contain sodium, leaving you in no place to add salt because your sodium intake would get too high for their recommendations.
These institutions thus end up recommending to cut all added salt from your diet.
You might think: "How do people end up with so much sodium anyway?"
Adding more salt to your meals (except in extreme cases) remains the only way to add significant amounts of sodium to your diet.
The main reason you're ending up with 5,000 milligrams of sodium instead of 2,000 milligrams is that a lot of salt is added to your food or because you're supplementing with salt.
Many people don't even know how much salt (and thus sodium) is added to their food.
Processed food generally contains lots of salt is generally added to make the food tastier. Canned or frozen meat products are high in sodium, you guessed it, because lots of salt is added to them. Nuts or beans are high in sodium, again, because salt is added to them.
The main question of this blog post purports to answer is thus whether you should consume foods that have salt added to them.
I will claim in this blog post that salt should be added to your food if you're eating an otherwise healthy diet. In fact, I'm recommending a sodium intake between 3,000 and 6,000 milligrams per day - I consider more or less than that amount harmful.
I'm willing to go as far as to say that the claims that you only need 500 milligrams of sodium per day and that most people should consume less than 1,500 milligrams are dangerous.
So let's have look at the fascinating topic of salt.
I'll build my argument in the following fashion:
One important disclaimer...
You're reading a health blog, so I might as well be radically honest:
In general, if your goal is improving your health, I would not begin with fine-tuning your sodium intake yet.
Instead, I would look at other low-hanging fruits first, such as getting enough sunlight, making sure you're not exposed to artificial light after sunset, making sure you're getting enough magnesium, optimize sleep, and much more...
Also, ensure that you're eating an otherwise healthy diet. A few pieces of dietary advice that are golden: avoid junk food, eating late at night, and eat real (and thus unprocessed) food. Everyone already knows that advice, but those strategies bear repeating.
Only then start optimizing your sodium intake.
Simple and yet so difficult...
Let's start with the first step of my argument: considering human salt consumption during our ancestral past.
Let's take a step back:
One basis of the recommendation to drastically lower salt intake is an evolutionary argument.
How valid is that argument?
Let's explore this claim:
The assumption for that argument is that human beings consumed half of their calories from meat, and the other half from plant foods. Both foods contain very little sodium on their own - as do (almost) all other foods.
And yet, I do think that even during the millions of years in which our ancestors evolved, it might have already been possible that we supplemented with salt anyhow.
Of course, I'm not talking about taking a pill that's filled with salt - making that argument would be sheer lunacy.
How did our ancestors use salt then?
I see three main possibilities:
Let's consider these options one-by-one:
First, supplementing with salt through mineral deposits - often called "mineral licks" or "salt licks".
Some animals - especially herbivores - will take extraordinary actions to supplement with salt.
These salt licks could be found anywhere on this planet, from mineral deposits on the Savannah, to salt deposits near rivers, mineral deposits in forests, and saltwater springs.
Salt licks consist of many different minerals, such as sodium, calcium and iron.
The counterargument against human using such salt licks is thus that we're omnivores, and may not necessarily have used salt licks.
In general, though, carnivores have an easier job of getting more salt: one liter of blood contains 1,500 milligrams of sodium - at least if you're considering human blood. Blood from deer is slightly higher in sodium, and 1 liter of blood would supply you with more than 1,500 milligrams of sodium.
And of course, our ancestors would not be wasting that blood.
That's a lot more sodium than low-salt proponents would recommend...
There are other possible sodium sources for humans though:
If you calculate the daily sodium intake calculations of our primate ancestors based on food the outcome will be completely wrong.
Modern humans are not the only ones going crazy for salt (in cinemas)...
Gorillas go to extremes to find deposits that are rich in salt (and thus sodium): they navigate dangerous areas such as volcanoes, thereby putting themselves at risk for hypothermia.
In other areas, gorillas consume eucalyptus bark which is up to 20 times as high in sodium content than the regular plants they consume.
And in yet other locations, gorillas consume 95% of their sodium from the stems from rotten wood. Spider monkeys do the same.
Other primate sources of minerals are surprise, surprise: mineral licks.
By mostly eating plant foods our primate ancestors finding ingenious ways to "supplement" their diets with additional salt.
And if our much less smart ancestors already supplemented with salt, then it's not surprising that human beings may have done the same.
I cannot emphasize this point enough: primates actively search for sodium in their environment - even up to the point of self-endangerment.
That pattern is true for other minerals as well:
If primates consume lots of foods that are high in calcium, for example, such as figs, they'll not seek out additional calcium-rich foods.
What's currently unclear, however, to what extent primates intentionally seek out specific foods. In other words, to what extent are primates conscious of their decisions to seek out one food rather than another - which is partially a philosophical question.
Then there's another evolutionary argument I'd like to make:
Thirdly, seafood, which was available during the time humans evolved, is richer qua sodium content than most land-based products.
100 grams of oyster flesh contains over 400 milligrams of sodium, for example. For mussels, that number ends up just below 400 milligrams.
Human beings and our hominin ancestors - the predecessors of human beings who had smaller brains in relation to lean body mass - have been eating shellfish for millions of years.
Eating shellfish entails having access to water. Having access to water, you guessed it, again implies having access to salt.
Now, it's true that not all water is saltwater. Nevertheless, the East Africa rift, where our homo sapiens species evolved, is littered by salt lakes.
While the geography of these locations is different today compared millions of years ago, it's safe to assume that saltwater lakes could also be found in the Africa Rift zone back then.
And there's more:
Primates sometimes also use seawater or saltwater when it's available - although that saltwater use may have pathogen reduction as its main purpose:
The question then becomes whether primates and humans are killing themselves by consuming more salt.
You'll find soon out whether that's the case...
The gist of my argument in this section is that salt was certainly available for human beings in our past.
The question rather is whether we used salt back then.
There's no way to definitively find out with our modern scientific methods whether humans really did use salt back then. But at least, I have established that the claim of the low salt ingestion proponents that ancestral human diets were certainly devoid of salt does not hold true.
So what's next?
I'll venture from pre-history to periods surrounding the first historical records.
Welcome to "civilization"...
Here we go:
Don't be deceived by salt's modern-day status as a mundane product.
During most of human history, salt was actually terribly expensive. Settlements and even states were built based on salt and its trade.
Salt was extremely essential for human beings after the agricultural revolution.
Less sodium is present in grains and vegetables compared to animal products, increasing your reliance on adding salt to your food.
Additionally, salt allowed for the preservation of food. For example, salted fish or meat lasts a lot longer than their non-salted counterparts.
By adding salt to fish, meat, or vegetables, the water content of these foods is lowered. Bacteria are also killed by adding salt to foods. These two reasons allow precious foods - which were definitely not plentiful for everyone back then - to be preserved much longer.
Most people are acquainted with modern methods of food preservation, such as vacuuming, canning foods, or freezing them. All these food preservation methods were not available 150 years ago.
Salt was thus indispensable to survival back then - the stuff had many more functions than food preservation:
Salt could be used to clean wounds, as a supplement to livestock, and functioned as a commodity. Throughout history, salt has even been used to mummify human beings - such as practiced in ancient Egypt.
Of course, I'm not here to tell you about mummification.
Instead, the fact that salt can preserve a human body should attest to how essential salt was in preserving food - the basis of civilization.
Written history actually records salt first being extracted 2,800 years ago in China.
One of the first written texts of extant Chinese history records many different types of salt as well as their production processes.
Before that time, a lake called "Lake Yuncheng" had already been exploited for thousands of years. The earliest exploitation of salt - that collects in that lake because the summer heat evaporates water - could go as far back as 6,000 B.C.
Around 600 B.C. in China, fish and soybeans were already fermented with salt.
Later on, in 450 B.C., iron pans made it possible to boil sea water to extract salt. That production process remained the most used extraction method for salt for thousands of years.
Salt taxes were also first instated in China before other places followed.
Taxing salt would be like taxing the air your breathe: you'll have to pay to survive...
Even the Bible contains references to the importance of salt.
The book advises:
"Season all your grain offerings with salt. Do not leave the salt of the covenant of your God out of your grain offerings; add salt to all your offerings."
Salt was also used on the offerings of animals, as you:
"are to sprinkle salt on them and sacrifice them as a burnt offering"
As only the best animals were to be offered, it can be extrapolated that salt had the status of a high-value product back then.
Other passages strike a relationship between salt and peace, and salt and intelligence. Maybe I should have consumed more salt as a kid...
Nevertheless, even though salt was precious, it by no means ever assumed the value of precious commodities such as silver, gold, and jewelry. Some online sources falsely claim that gold was traded on a one-on-one basis to salt, which is totally improbable.
But of course, salt was essential: its use did spread all over Eurasia over time...
Even in iron Age Britain, salt was extracted from seawater or brine.
Brine is water that contains lots of "sodium-chloride". Sodium-chloride signifies the combination of salt's two main minerals: "sodium" and "chloride" - I've mentioned them earlier.
To extract salt, seawater was held in pots and water was evaporated to create salt. Brine was used in the same process and was collected from inland (salt water) springs.
As expected, salt even played an important role in the supply chain of the Roman army.
Internet myths assume that Roman soldiers were paid in salt, which is certainly not true. Salt was nevertheless part of the ration of Roman soldiers, who could not rely on unsalted meats because of the fear of food-born illnesses.
No military supply chain means no projection of power...
Because of it's necessity, moreover, salt was a perfect means of taxation
For many centuries the French crown demanded its subjects to buy a weekly dosage of salt at a fixed (and highly inflated) price.
That tax was only abolished during the French Revolution.
Due to the essential role of salt in food preservation and preventing a sodium deficiency when eating a diet high in grains (and little meat), it can be estimated that sodium consumption was very high during much of recorded history.
In fact, from the 1800s to the Second World War, there's direct proof that human salt consumption was much higher than today.
Even army rations, which were never considered the healthiest diets, contained more than half an ounce of salt.
Half an ounce equals roughly two teaspoons, or one heaped eating spoon of salt.
You might be thinking: "well, maybe they used those two teaspoons over the course of a month, or perhaps a week".
The amount of salt was used on a daily basis by American soldiers in the British-American war of 1812.
Salt was also of great import during the American Revolutionary war, but insufficient salt could be collected to fully supply the American troops.
As a result, meat could not be preserved and cattle had to be moved into the encampments to be slaughtered and then eaten immediately.
And these daily salt ration are not outliers...
In the Mexican war of 1838, 0.64 ounces of salt was given to soldiers every day. The Civil war period saw similar amounts allocated to troops.
Six-tenths of an ounce is more than one tablespoon of salt that's added to our food every day.
McDonald's or Burger King suddenly does not sound as bad anymore (at least, for it's sodium intake)...
During the Second World War, American prisoners of war had access to a whopping 145 gram of salt per week, equaling 5 ounces.
Human salt consumption thus used to be categorically higher for two millennia.
So why did a high salt intake eventually finally fall out of favor?
Again: the invention of the refrigerator after the Second World War.
From the post-war period to the 2000s, salt intake grossly remained the same in the US. Sodium expelled through urine remained measured at around 3,500 milligrams. Keep in mind that the 3,500 milligrams does not include sodium lost by sweating.
From the 1950s to 2007, moreover, urine-excreted sodium was lowered by more than four grams in Japan.
Similar trends can be expected for other developed countries.
Salt also became very cheap for the very first time.
While salt is extremely abundant in the earth, that fact has only been known for two centuries.
The dramatic increase in the supply of salt can be attributed to a gradual perfection of industrial processes. Watch the following video to see how many tons of salt can be produced in a small area nowadays
Sadly enough, most industrially extracted salt end up being denatured.
If you'd like to see a salt production process that results in the kind of salt that humans have consumed historically, watch the following video about traditional salt production.
That French salt is called "Celtic sea salt" or "Sel de Guerande".
So, now you know how we ended up where we are today in terms of our human salt consumption.
I'm not done yet though:
How about salt consumption in modern "hunter-gatherer" societies in the 20th century?
There are a few historical anomalies qua salt consumption.
Traditional African societies that still persist today, such as the Maasai and Hadza, do not add salt to their diets.
The same is true for an Amazonian tribe, the "Yanomamo Indians", who are traditionally known as a "no salt" culture. The problem emulating with that culture, however, is people in that culture only have an average life expectancy of 40 years.[122; 276]
The "renin-angiotensin system" which regulates fluid and blood pressure in these Indians is extremely activated - hinting at the body's extreme drive to preserve as much sodium as possible.
Interestingly enough, the same study investigating the Yanomamo Indians also considers several other indigenous populations from Xingu Brazil, Kenya, and Papua New Guinea.
These three other cultures have much higher sodium excretion values than the Yanomamo Indians, hinting that three other primitive cultures did in fact added sodium or salt to their diets.
These three populations are literally called "isolated populations" - hinting that they did not come in contact with the developed world. And yet, these cultures nevertheless consumed salt.
Just looking at supplemental salt will not give you an adequate picture of someone's sodium intake. Why? The Maasai consume lots of salt through drinking cow's blood - thereby massively increasing their sodium intake.
And there's yet another contextual factor that's important:
Fortunately, additional case studies of hunter-gatherer's cultures salt intakes exist:
The Eskimos, American Indians, and Laps also don't seem to have supplemented their sodium intake from food.
Other historical sources, on the contrary, do claim that American Indians consumed (lots of) salt. Salt was created from brine - also known as salt water. Brine was collected in pans, put on a fire, which left Indians with salt after the water had evaporated.
Australian aboriginals may also have added sodium through consuming specific plants (pig face leaves), and collected salt from desert deposits.
The use of desert salt additionally makes it more unlikely that humans would have never used salt deposits such as salt licks.
So what's the outcome of this section's argument?
The medical literature's assumption that traditional hunter-gatherer tribes did not add salt to their diets cannot upheld.
On the contrary, some societies did add salt to their diets, while others did not.
On a worldwide basis today, most people have an intake of 7,5 to 12 grams of salt per day, which translates to a maximum of 5,000 milligrams of sodium.
Let's summarize my main argument so far:
Salt consumption was possible during prehistory, then increased massively during most of civilization, and has actually been reduced dramatically in the 20th century. Hunter gatherer societies may have consumed salt too.
By the way: do you want to receive a free shareable infographic that contains my 10 best practical salt tips? Subscribe below:
For billions of years, salt was rarely found on the direct surface of the earth.
Of course, there are large deposits of salt in lakes, the ocean, and in salt deposits, but high quantities of salt are not everywhere.
Many organisms therefore strive hold onto salt in their bodies.
As a human being, sodium is very important for the basic functioning of your body and specifically your cells as well.
Most sodium can actually be found outside your cells, while another mineral called "potassium" is mostly found inside that cell.
The levels of salt in your blood are located at 140 mmol per liter. A same amount of sodium is located outside your cells. That sodium level is almost 10 times as high as sodium found in many other places, such as inside (muscle) cells.
Human beings mainly lose sodium through your urine.
Sodium loss due to sweating is a complicated subject. The amount of sodium loss can vary with age, workout intensity, sex, the environment, the amount of muscle mass and fat you carry.
Different people also have different salt tastes. The higher the latitude of a given population, for example, the more likely they're able to taste sodium.
You can have enormous sodium losses in a short period of time while sweating.
When working a shift during a hot summer day, for example, you can lose almost 6 grams of sodium - to be compensated by a whopping 15 grams of salt. When playing football, almost 7 grams of sodium can be lost in just an hour of play at the maximum intensity.
As a side note: you can train yourself to excrete less salt when sweating.
You'll need to condition yourself to more heat over a period of days to achieve that effect.
Once you lose lots of salt through exercise you'll also start craving salt. The body thus regulates its own salt cravings to avoid a sodium deficiency.
But you might be thinking right now: "how do I know whether I have the right sodium intake?"
Let's consider the sodium content of different foods.
It's not very easy to get a clear picture of the sodium content of foods, because sodium is added to so many products.
Let me explain:
The pattern to be observed is that many foods are actually very low in their sodium content by nature.
Overdosing on sodium through
tubers and vegetable consumption:
a story that never happened.
No wonder processed foods are the main source of sodium intake in the US.
Your salt mill is thus not the biggest problem...
So how does sodium stay in your body or get excreted?
Your kidneys actually make sure that the sodium levels in your body stay around the right level. If you're healthy, higher sodium levels detected by your kidneys result in more sodium being excreted.
Two hormones, called "aldosterone" and "angiotensin II " - names which you may immediately forget - cause your body to hold on to sodium and water if sodium levels become too low.
How and where sodium is exactly stored in the human body is actually not completely known yet.
So what happens if you overdo salt?
Let's find out...
I'll first consider the symptoms of sodium deficiency (from bad to worse):
Vomiting or diarrhea are often the causes of sodium deficiency - because you can quickly lose lots of sodium under these circumstances.
Other causes of a sodium deficiency are water loss, skin burns, sweating, and taking medication that leads to water loss (diuretics). Several diseases that I won't go into here can also cause low sodium levels.
If you're drinking lots of water without any added salt, you're eventually diluting the amount of salt found in your blood vessels, possibly decreasing your body's total sodium levels as well.
If you're holding onto lots of fluid in your body due to cardiovascular problems, you can end up with a low sodium content of the blood as well.
With a mild deficiency in salt, such as 135 "mmol" per liter of blood, you'll (probably) won't notice any symptoms. "Mmol" is a measurement for the (relative) weight of a given substance.
Go lower than 135 mmol per liter and you're getting in trouble.
Lose too much sodium, and you'll eventually be dead...
Your body thus certainly needs some sodium.
Let's secondly consider the symptoms of sodium overdose (from bad to worse):
An overdose of sodium occurs when you get over 160 mmol per liter. Problems already start once you go over 145 mmol per liter though.
Overall, disorders to the "sodium system" of your body become more common once you get older. Avoiding to have slightly higher sodium levels than normal thus becomes more difficult as you're aging.
The section you've been waiting for...
Why read my articles anyway if you're not getting some benefit out of them, right?
So let's get to it.
Oh by the way, after treating the benefits and side-effects of sodium, I've included a "neutral" effects section. Neutral entails an effect can be good for some people while being bad for others.
Remember my earlier disclaimer: I use the terms "salt" and "sodium" interchangeably because I'm assuming that everyone in the modern world ingests more sodium by adding salt to their diets.
(I'm thereby assuming that you're not consuming lots of animal blood, which again, is very high in sodium content.)
I'll first consider the benefits of an optimal salt intake.
That's it, the full list of sodium benefits...
Of course, salt consumption does not just have benefits.
It's not wise to approximate the extremely high levels of salt consumption your ancestors consumed before the early 20th century. Let's, therefore, look at the side effects of getting too much salt:
In fact, the (possible) side-effects of overdoing salt may be just as important:
So that's it. The full lists of sodium benefits and side-effects.
Of course, the world is not black and white. T
here are some instances in which salt consumption is undetermined:
Neutral cases wherein salt is neither beneficial nor harmful, or its effect of depends on the context:
You now know of salt's "neutral" effects as well.
Excessive inflammation underlies many modern diseases, such as heart disease and diabetes.
Even though there's an association with increased salt intake and inflammation, it's very probable that people who are overweight tend to consume more salt while obesity itself is causative of increases in inflammation.
Obesity thus explains inflammation instead of your salt intake. Other reasons exist for the association between salt intake and inflammation as well, such as the fact that people who tend to consume more salt also eat more poorly.
Still worried about salt's side effects?
No need to. Let's lower your chances of having problems with sodium consumption in the first place...
For regular people who don't have access to daily hospital IVs, it's only possible to ingest potassium through food.
The amount of potassium you can get from supplements is negligible.
The reason for that impossibility is that supplements may only contain a limited amount of potassium due to possible side-effects that occur when you ingest great quantities at once.
Potassium supplements can be problematic for your gut function and may cause kidney problems. These supplements have even caused fatal overdoses in the past.
The sale of high-dosed potassium consumer supplements is therefore currently forbidden.
Food is your only option...
But why worry about potassium in the first place? Aren't you reading a blog post about sodium?
But you can simply see potassium as a "counterbalance" against sodium. There's no understanding of what sodium does in your body without understanding potassium as well.
Let's consider the potassium intake of traditional societies:
If you only include the sodium and potassium intake from food, your ancestors ingested about 7-10 times as much potassium as sodium.
I'll place that number into context later. Stay with me...
So, what are potassium rich foods?
Animal products are listed in bold...
The list with the highest potassium content foods...
Disclaimer: dried products have been excluded from the list because they score much higher in potassium content than their non-dried counterparts. I've also included the highest potassium listing per food type, so the average potassium content per food is lower than the numbers listed above.)
As you can see, tubers, spices, vegetables such as tomatoes or spinach, and fish have the highest potassium content.
Over 10 grams.
To put that 10 grams in context, the average modern human has enormous problems getting to the 4-gram threshold. In fact, 98% of people don't consume enough potassium to meet the 4-gram threshold.
So even if our ancestors may have had a higher sodium consumption than low-salt proponents assume, one thing that's for sure: they definitely had much higher potassium intakes than modern humans.
Why worry about potassium anyway?
Let me make a quick list of potassium benefits:
So, why are modern humans consuming so little potassium?
There's one clear reason:
We're consuming far fewer tubers, leafy greens, and other vegetables than our ancestors.
These high-potassium foods have been replaced by foods that contain way less potassium, such as grains.
Wheat, for example, contains ~360 milligrams of potassium while sweet potato contains the same amount.
"Wait, what? That's the same amount of potassium?"
There's a catch:
You need a far greater quantity of potatoes to ingest the same energy density - measured in calories.
While I'm not an anti-carbohydrate advocate, 100 grams of wheat contains 70 grams of carbohydrates against 20 grams in sweet potatoes.
Consuming 100 grams of carbohydrates from potatoes makes you end up with far greater potassium levels in your body than when you would be consuming grains...
"How about potassium overdoses?"
It's extremely rare to consume too much potassium in a day.
One reason potassium from foods is different than potassium from supplements is that almost all potassium-rich foods are slowly broken down. Even fish, which is generally high in potassium, is broken down far less quickly than potassium supplements.
You additionally need to be careful with potassium supplements if you've got a health problem with excreting potassium.
Potassium-rich foods do not trigger that excretion problem.
I totally binged on eating too many
tubers and vegetables - said no-one ever.
But let's get back to the topic of consuming 10 - 15 grams of potassium per day.
In the U.S., men currently get 3 grams on average per day, while women consume somewhat more than 2 grams.
Modern people thus consume less potassium and end up with a higher sodium to potassium ratio.
Traditional cultures also consume much less sodium in relation to potassium - at least if you exclusively look at the foods consumed. Remember that it's not known whether our ancestors had access to sodium 500,000 or 1,500,000 years ago.
But at least our ancestors did consume lots of potassium to counterbalance the possible side-effects of a higher sodium consumption.
You now know what to do...
Not sure about your personal sodium intake?
Read the next section to gain more clarity...
It's essential to find out how you're responding to an increased sodium intake. Many of the effects of salt cannot be fully understood without knowing how you individually respond to salt.
Adding (more) salt to your food may:
There are two main sodium lab tests, testing the sodium levels in your 1) blood and; 2) urine.
Let's first consider the sodium urine test. In the urine test, you're simply collecting urine for a certain period (or just once), which is then tested for its sodium content.
Measurements over a single 24-hour period are not maximally reliable either.
For the best result, sodium needs to be measured over several days, as sodium excretion varies between different days.
Let's consider another reason why multiple measurements are necessary:
Remember that your intake of other minerals such as calcium or potassium may compete with sodium absorption? Phrased differently, if you ingest tons of calcium and potassium in a given day, more sodium may be removed from your body through your urine.
If you want to be 100% sure of your sodium intake, you'd have to measure your urine levels. The urine sodium lab tests the golden standard right now, even though it's not easy to use.
The test is especially burdensome for laboratories, especially when you measure the urine sodium content for several days.
And although this point should be self-evident, please keep in mind that the sodium lab test does not measure the salt you excrete through your skin into account.
About half the sodium you consume on a daily basis is excreted through the urine in the following 18-31 hours. Only negligible amounts of sodium leaves your body through your backdoor...
Some criteria for this 24-hour urine test are of essential importance:
The upside of this urine lab test is that you do not need to rely on memory to determine your sodium intake:
the urine test can correctly establish how much salt you've previously ingested.
Why not keep a simple food log?
There's a catch with memory:
When people are asked their food intake of that or a previous day they've got a bias in their recall.
Urine tests counter that bias.
Databases that can be used to calculate your sodium intake - such as the ones I've used - can also be biased and off, which further complicates using food logs to calculate your exact sodium intake.
You might be thinking: "really, but should you not be looking at a potassium urine test, instead of sodium?"
Potassium is a very interesting case, as potassium is a better predictor of your chances of dying (regardless of circumstance) than sodium.
However, I am writing a sodium-centered article, and diving deep into potassium tests would not do justice to this blog post's subject.
For the best results, you would need to consider your potassium intake as well of course.
The "sodium blood test" is not a sodium-only test, but is usually part of a blood panel that investigates several variables such as sodium, calcium and potassium.
A normal outcome on the blood test is around 140 mmol per liter.
Now we're back at the topic of a sodium deficiency or overdose...
Under 135 mmol per liter, you'll have low sodium levels. In that case, please look at the sodium deficiency symptoms I've included earlier. Score over 145 mmol per liter and you're having an excess of sodium in your blood.
For these tests to be valid, you will need a normal amount of fats and proteins in the blood. Having excessive or low protein or fat content in your blood can skew the outcome of the blood test.
Also make sure you're discussing whether you need to take your medications (if you do so) when the blood test is taken.
Why include both a sodium blood test and urine test?
Simple, they test sodium in different parts of your body.
While I'm not going into full detail here, if you've got low sodium blood levels and high sodium urine levels your body may not store sodium properly. High sodium blood levels and low sodium urine levels point at a different problem: sodium accumulation.
So, should you call your physician?
Fortunately, a blood and urine test are not the only possibilities you have:
Keeping in mind how you feel regarding your salt intake is of essential importance.
Simply test how you're doing on less or more sodium.
It's hard for people to do sodium lab tests very often. Just watching for sodium deficiency symptoms or sodium consumption side-effects may be the best strategy for most people. Your overall performance and well-being should also be considered.
Testing different sodium levels is really easy because to manipulate your intake you usually only need to control for salt that's added to your food.
Furthermore, you can simply estimate how much you're sweating on a daily basis. If you're sweating a lot, you'll need a higher salt intake.
No matter how high your current intake of sodium through food, I would always experiment with different salt intakes and observe how you feel.
If you're not sweating a lot, you can experiment with a total sodium intake of 3, 4, 5, or 6 grams a day.
To achieve the 3 grams of sodium a day, you'll already need to add some salt to your food (or drink straight salt water, like a boss.) To test what 6 grams do to your body, simply add more salt to your food.
Test each intake for a week or two until you find your sweet spot.
Again, simply watch how you perform, feel, sleep, and do in life.
Couldn't be simpler...
So, how am I doing with my salt intake?
You'll find out soon...
So now it's my judgment day.
In fact, I'll not just calculate my sodium intake--I'll also include my potassium intake.
Let's have a look at my food intake during one higher-carbohydrate diet in the later summer months:
My breakfast at 6 AM would consist of:
The spices and algae are taken in like a shot.
Yes, I know a spice shot is very weird but it gets the job done in under a minute - all the spices I wanted to ingest, very inexpensively.
Meal content: 1,730 mg of potassium; 717 mg of sodium.
"Lunch" at 11 AM consisted of:
Lunch is a quick meal I'm often eating in the summertime while I'm writing this blog.
Meal content: 3,002 mg of potassium; 384 mg of sodium.
"Dinner" (2 PM) was made up of:
Meal content: 6950 mg of potassium; 1820 mg of sodium.
And no, that 900 grams of organic spinach is not a typo.
Spinach is actually one of my favorite meals, because I can let the spinach defrost during the day, then easily cook it with coconut oil and salt. I'll finally let pan cool down again in water, and eat the spinach in a minute or two.
Yes, I'm lazy...
Is that fully mindful eating?
Would I recommend other people eat like me? No.
But this eating style gets the job done quickly when I'm these writing articles.
Of course, when I'm eating out with others I'm more mindful of my activity. In general, however, because I'm getting this business off the ground I'm trying to get the eating job done as quickly as possible.
The day's total: 11,680 mg of potassium; 2,931 mg of sodium.
I'm not getting an extreme amount of movement each day. I did not sweat heavily during movement either.
I only really sweat when spending an hour in the sun in the afternoon--morning sunlight exposure did not make me sweat. Overall, the amount of sodium I would be losing on that particular day would be minimal.
Notice, additionally, that I'm using an 8-hour eating window. My overall calorie intake was not extremely high either, again, because I'm not moving extremely much.
In the past, I used to exercise 4-6 times a week for 2 hours a day. Nowadays my net daily amount of exercise comes closer to 10-20 minutes, using the same frequency.
Additional movement is added on top of that exercise...
So what's the assessment? How was I doing that day?
In general, I think the sodium intake is fine. The potassium intake - even though I'm consuming more than 99,9% of other human beings in the developed world, could still be higher.
I'm a 200 - 210 pounds man. I don't exactly know my weight because I haven't weighed myself in ages.
Adding in more vegetables or tubers could definitely improve my overall potassium profile. I'd probably do well by replacing some animal proteins with more potatoes.
Overall, I'm felt very good on the diet listed above. Of course, I would eat different foods on different days.
There's yet another experiment that I want to carry out soon: eating way more salt.
Remember that people in the 19th and 20th century often consumed more than 10 grams of added sodium per day.
Some health experts still recommend very high salt consumption levels today (at least, in some instances.)
While I'm skeptical of extreme sodium intakes, I'll update this blog post in the future after I'm done with my high-salt experiment.
(Nerd section: one expert called Ray Peat has influenced my thought in some regards. Peat argues that salt is essential for maintaining blood volume and that the blood pressure lowering effects of salt do not translate in better health. Although I'm somewhat oversimplifying, moreover, Peat also claims that salt is essential to energy production, maintaining a high metabolic rate, and lowering inflammation and stress. What's fascinating is that Peat connects a higher metabolic rate to the slowing of aging. I could not vindicate all of Peat's claims pertaining to sodium, although his blood pressure thesis has influenced my position. For a very erudite Peat-inspired explanation of salt, read the "Are You Still Restricting Salt" article.)
Why am I going to test a higher salt intake?
Again, an intake of 3,000 - 5,000 or 6,000 milligrams per day of sodium seems to yield the best health outcomes. I'm a heavier person at ~200 pounds of body weight, and yet, I'm consuming a sodium content placed towards the lower end of the optimal spectrum.
In a sense, that optimal intake is not surprising. Many nutrients follow a "U-shaped" curve, where both a very low and very high dose are associated with greater risks, while the middle area under the curve promotes health benefits.
Some magnesium and potassium is good, and more magnesium and potassium are better. If you continue increasing the dosage of these minerals, however, the benefits go down again and the mineral may even become harmful after a certain point.
Now that I've scrutinized my own sodium intake, let's consider an addendum: chloride.
Remember that salt consists of 40% sodium, and 60% chloride.
I cannot write about salt without also considering chloride seriously.
The elephant in the room has arrived...
Chloride should not be confused with "chlorine". Although related, chloride and chlorine have a different chemical structure.
I won't go very deep into the topic, and yet, I have to because it's a low-hanging fruit.
Remember that salt mostly consists of chloride - ~60% in fact.
It's very interesting to see many articles on the web that treat the topic of salt not spending any minute on the topic of chloride.
Chloride is sometimes called "the queen of the electrolytes", taking the second place after sodium as a carrier of electricity in the bloodstream. Your body's cells, specifically those in your blood, are rich in chloride.[246; 247]
Chloride and sodium intakes, moreover, are not always tied to each other.
If you just want to add more sodium to your body, you can also add form such as "sodium phosphate" and "sodium bicarbonate". By ingesting sodium bicarbonate you're consuming sodium without the added chloride.
You thus don't necessarily have to use salt if you want to increase your sodium intake.
It is hypothesized that chloride itself plays a major role in regulating blood pressure.[229; 230; 231; 233; 234] In fact, that role of chloride may even exceed the role of sodium in blood pressure regulation - data already known at the beginning of the 1900s.
If you supplement with sodium chloride, for example, your blood pressure rises to a much greater extent than when you supplement with sodium phosphate - indicating a key role of chloride in blood pressure regulation.
Chloride has other roles in your body as well:
Kidney function is directly affected by chloride in an absence of sodium.[238; 239; 240; 241; 242; 243] Low chloride levels may be associated with higher risks for dying of heart disease, just as is the case with lower sodium intakes.
There's an overlap between many the effects that have traditionally been attributed to sodium, and chloride's specific effects.
The entire war on sodium may thus be misguided.
If you're cutting down on sodium you're thus generally also cutting down on chloride, and vice versa. Of course, that relationship is directly applicable to salt.
A downside is that the correlation between high sodium and chloride foods is not perfect. You can thus not logically derive a food's chloride levels from its sodium content.
The chloride contents of foods are not measured frequently either.
Your chloride intake is thus not something you can easily control, as many food databases do even not include chloride in their lab analyses of thousands of foods.
Focusing on sodium as the "prime evil" in the blood pressure debate nevertheless remains dangerous, moreover, as some institutions now advice to replace sodium-chloride (salt) with potassium-chloride.
Why could that decision be misinformed?
Well, if chloride is responsible for raising blood pressure instead of sodium, then replacing sodium-chloride (salt) with potassium-chloride won't have a positive effect on blood pressure at all.
Blood pressure levels will stay the same...
How to dose chloride then?
In the sodium debate, I'm thus calling for both a potassium revolution as well as chloride revolution.
A higher potassium consumption should be stimulated, and more research into the effects of chloride ought to be carried out.
Instead of seeing the "salt debate" as settled, it would be better to understand the fundamentals better first - and only then make epistemological claims...
Oh by the way, you've almost reached the finish line.
There's one more step...
In this section I'll look at which salt you should consume if you do so...
Not all salt is created equal.
So how do I determine the best salt source?
I consider the number of minerals in salt other than sodium and chloride negligible. All salts are also similar in the sense that they mostly contain sodium and chloride.
So minerals are not the distinguishing factor for choosing the best salt. For me, the most important variable for choosing salt becomes low toxicity.
One such toxin is called "lead", a heavy metal that's very hard to remove from the body.
Lead can already be toxic in truly minute amounts.
Even though pink Himalaya salt - which is extracted in Pakistan - is natural, it may contain excessive levels of lead. Not all Himalaya salts contain some lead, but some do.
Natural salts can thus still be high in toxin content...
As it cannot be expected that you, as an individual consumers spend the money to lab test every individual bottle of salt they buy, I'm excluding Himalaya salt from my list of salt recommendations.
Darker salts generally contain toxins as well, as does Celtic sea salt. I'm currently using that latter salt, but won't be buying that type again because of my findings while doing the research for this article.
Overall, regular table salt seems fine as it's generally low in toxins. Keep in mind that table salt is the only salt that's iodized and that you need to make sure you're consuming enough iodine when opting for a natural salt.
(Also remember that natural salts may have less of an effect on blood pressure than table salt)
One limitation to my project of rating different types of salt is that there's not a lot of evidence either in favor or against different salts.
Nevertheless, going off little data is better than having no data at all, and I'm thus recommending to avoid some salt types.
You can see my top-1 salt recommendation below:
There's no second recommendation.
Just a top-1...
Two independent samples those Murray River Gourmet salt flakes, coming from that same environment, showed low levels of toxins such as lead, arsenic, and mercury.
Right now, that salt is simply the best choice...
The avoid list of salts that have been tested for a higher heavy metal content are:
Yes, some of these outcomes are a surprise, even to me...
Again, the recommended Australian salt I've listed before has been tested twice (in different samples) to contain few toxins.
Now you know which salt to buy.
What's left to discuss?
By the way: do you want to receive a free shareable infographic that contains my 10 best practical salt tips? Subscribe below:
Let's return the recommendations of the World Health Organization (WHO), American Heart Organization (AHA), and others. These organizations recommended that you take in about 1,500 to 2,300 milligrams of sodium per day.
Those recommendations have been propagated for decades. That debate is not just medical, but also political.
In a sense, such salt recommendations can still be justified in the face of pre-historical humans and traditional societies possibly having low salt intakes.
I hope my argument demonstrates, however, that it's certainly not self-evident that (pre-)historical hunter-gatherer societies are necessarily tied to having low salt intakes.
That argument is a big problem for the low-sodium proponents.
The solution is simple:
You can do it...
Sure, changing your salt habits takes some effort.
But once you understand the drill it's simple.
Hit the sweet spot once and you can do that ten or a hundred times.
Your health will thank you in the long run.
Small change, big impact...
Alea iacta est (the die is cast).
This is a post by Bart Wolbers. Bart finished degrees in Physical Therapy (B), Philosophy (BA and MA), Philosophy of Science and Technology (MS - Cum Laude), and Clinical Health Science (MS), and is currently a health consultant at Alexfergus.com.
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 Compliled from Nutritiondata.com, foods highest in Potassium
 USDA Food Composition Databases; Nutrients: Potassium, K(mg); Food Subset: All Foods; Ordered by: Nutrient Content; Measured by: 100 g
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