Salt, essential for all animal life, has been a controversial food ingredient in the past few decades. First, we learned about the connection between too much sodium and high blood pressure, increased risk of stroke and cardiovascular disease.
Now we are starting to learn about other disorders caused by eating too much salt: kidney disease, possibly autoimmune disorders, and osteoporosis.
Just 8,000 years ago salt was a rare mineral extracted from underground waters and ocean ice. It was highly prized by almost all ancient cultures, and thus helped establish major trade routes between major continents. Wars were fought over salt.
Today, the average american consumes way too much salt, most of the time unbeknownst to him or her. It is estimated that on average, the modern diet consists of 9-12 grams of salt per day (which is about 40% sodium).
Salt is concealed in the majority of canned, packaged and processed foods – even those that don’t taste “salty.” It is used as a preservative and flavor enhancer. Our taste buds are so immune to the flavor of salt, that we usually sprinkle some nice freshly-ground sea salt on top of our meal. I’ve done it. We’ve all done it.
But the World Health Organization (WHO) only recommends less than 3-5 grams of salt per day. So while salt is absolutely essential to our health, we could benefit from reducing it significantly. The WHO estimates that 2.5 million deaths a year could be prevented if salt consumption was reduced to the recommended level.
Problem with salt alternatives
Many people are aware of the need to reduce their salt intake – and so are the food companies. Low-sodium alternatives to common packaged foods are sold everywhere you look.
But unfortunately, it’s not that easy. Aside from the otherwise unhealthy ingredients packed into processed foods, low-sodium products replace the sodium chloride with potassium chloride.
The chloride is still there, and it’s part of the problem: it yields a net acid load to the kidneys producing a slight metabolic acidosis, which promotes high blood pressure, osteoporosis, and kidney stones.
Luckily, if you’ve embraced paleo, there is very little chance that you would be eating any processed foods, packed with either salts or “low sodium” alternatives.
Your only source of excessive salt most likely comes from your beloved sea salt grinder. That’s my case, at least. And yes, sea salt is just as high in sodium chloride as regular table salt 🙁
How to gradually reduce salt
Our paleolithic ancestors did not have access to a lot of salt – it mainly came from the contents of meats and vegetables they ate. And while they had the ability to flavor their foods with herbs and roots, they did not have access to salt.
Loren Cordain, Ph.D, the founder of the Paleo Movement, says table salt and sea salt are not paleo.
It may be hard stop adding salt to everything you cook. We are so used to the flavor of salt, that food might appear very bland without it.
For me, it’s a gradual (and slightly difficult) process. But I know that I will thank myself someday when I am old and healthy 😉
Start by cooking all your recipes with half the salt you usually add. The following week, cut that in half again.
Start experimenting with different spices, and add more of them! They can mix very well with naturally occurring flavors in meats and vegetables, eliminating your craving for salt. Eventually, you will get used to it and enjoy the different notes and aromas found in natural foods.
What to replace salt with
Replace salt with herbs and spices. Add some onion or garlic for a burst of flavor. Everyone likes different things, so get some fresh herbs (or plant and grow them!) and play around by adding them to different dishes, without adding any salt. Jot down some combinations you’ve enjoyed – and incorporate them more often.
Here are some common combinations I’ve found to go well together:
Basil: witheggs and anything tomato.
Sage: with chicken, turkey, pork and vegetables.
Dill weed: withfresh vegetables, soups, potato dishes.
Black pepper: eggs, beef, chicken, vegetables.
Bay leaf: with beef, hearty soups, root vegetables, and tomato dishes.
Cinnamon/cloves: with pork, fruits, nuts, sweet potatoes, squashes.
Chives: eggs, leafy greens.
Garlic: almost everything!
Lemon: chicken, fish, fresh salads.
Can’t eliminate salt completely?
There are some dishes, once in a while, that you can’t tolerate without a little pinch of salt. I get it. While it’s best to eliminate table/sea salt completely, if you’re still having a little once in a while, there are ways to offset its negative effects.
From Chris Kresser the author of The Paleo Cure: “potential osteoporotic effects of a high salt intake can be offset by an adequate intake of calcium and potassium.” Potassium also plays a huge role in controlling your blood pressure, and most of us aren’t eating enough of it.
Our Paleolithic ancestors would get an estimated 10,500 mg of potassium a day. Today, the average american consumes only 2,500 mg. The lack of adequate potassium levels in the modern diet combined with the high sodium intake might be the real problem here. Perhaps salt wouldn’t be so detrimental to our health if we had a better sodium chloride to potassium ratio.
Regardless, if you are worried about the salt in your diet, it wouldn’t hurt to increase your potassium consumption. That should be pretty easy on a paleo diet. Potassium is found in:
- Sweet potatoes
- and many more…
Remember, a good balance of minerals, including sodium, potassium, calcium and magnesium is essential for proper functioning. So don’t think of salt as something bad and evil, just think of it as something we need to return to its proper balance, along with everything else!
What are some other tips for reducing salt and increasing potassium? I’d love to know! Share your tips below!