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Why we need salt

Salt—sodium chloride —is a chemical compound needed by the body to help regulate our body fluid levels.  Our nerve, brain and muscle cells—in fact every type of cell in our body—need salt to stay healthy.

Most food we eat contains small amounts of salt. We often add salt to food to improve the taste. Processed food has very high levels of salt added by the manufacturer to improve the taste.

But consuming too much salt over time can increase the risk of high blood pressure, which in turn can lead to disease of the arteries, which can cause heart attacks, heart failure and stroke and kidney disease.

Too much salt

Our kidneys regulate the amount of salt in our blood to a very narrow range (135–145 mmoles/L sodium chloride). If we eat more than we need, the kidneys can excrete more salt in the urine to keep sodium levels to within this range. However, if we eat too much salt, our kidneys will retain more fluid and this can contribute to high blood pressure. At a basic minimum, an adult body only needs around 1–2g of salt (460–920mg sodium) per day to function. Most Australian adults have a daily salt intake of about 10 grams, which is many times the recommended maximum! How much salt should we have?

The National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) says that Australian adults should aim to consume no more than one teaspoon (5 grams) of salt a day (or 2,000 mg of sodium a day). Infants and children need less.
So for most adults we consume far more than we need, and we should reduce our salt intake, by altering our diet away from salt-enriched foods in favour of low salt foods. We should reduce:

  • Biscuits, muffins, cakes, pizza, burgers, pasta and noodle dishes
  • Meat, poultry especially processed meats and sausages
  • Bread, breakfast foods and other products made from cereals and grains.

Instead we should eat foods low in salt, such as:

  • Vegetables and legumes (beans)
  • Fruit
  • Milk, yoghurt, cheese and/ or alternatives (preferably reduced fat)
  • Lean meats and poultry, fish, eggs, tofu, nuts and seeds
  • Grain (cereal) foods, especially wholegrain and/or high cereal fibre varieties

It’s especially important to reduce the intake of processed and packaged foods that contain high salt levels. If you are going to eat processed foods, eat ‘No Salt’, ‘Low Salt’, or ‘Reduced Salt’ varieties. Check the Nutrition Information Panel (NIP) of the food packaging, and avoid products with more than 400mg of sodium per 100g. The best options are those products with less than 120 mg sodium per 100g.

But won’t reducing your salt intake reduce the enjoyment of food? Not once you get used to less salt in your diet, since taste buds are ‘flexible’ when it comes to salt—they adapt to a low salt diet, so after a while you won’t notice the difference.

If miss the salt in your diet, try adding spices and other flavour enhancers like lemon, garlic and chili, or herbs like parsley, oregano, thyme, dill, basil or a dry herb mix.

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