The Truth About Salt: Is It Really so Bad for You?

Photo: Stocksy/Ina Peters

Salt baths, salt lamps, and even salt rooms have taken the wellness world by storm. But when it comes to salt in our diets, it's often considered the enemy—even though we do need it to survive.

So how much salt do we need, really? And how much is too much? Like, is it that big of a deal to season your homemade chili and breakfast scrambles with a little something from the salt shaker? 

To find out, I spoke with two registered dietitians who filled me in on the nitty gritty of salt nutrition. And both agree that some people are consuming too much of the stuff—but that doesn't mean you should try to cut it out of your diet completely. (Good news for those with a pricey bag of Himalayan pink salt in their pantry.) 

Read on for all the salt rules you should be following.

Photo: Stocksy/Suzanne Clements

The difference between salt and sodium

According to One By One Nutrition founder Georgie Fear, RD, one of the main causes of salt confusion is that people use the words "salt" and "sodium" interchangeably. No, they aren't exactly the same thing. Sodium, which is linked to heart disease and stroke risk, is one of the minerals that make up salt.

"Salt is sodium chloride...the amount of sodium in salt is 40 percent," Fear says. (What about pink salt? It has nearly the same amount of sodium chloride as table salt, but it also contains small amounts of additional minerals.) "Limiting salt is a way to limit the sodium we take in, [but] you don't weigh out salt and think [it's all] sodium," the nutritionist adds. 

The sodium to keep an eye on is in processed foods. According to Fear, most people actually only get 11 percent of the sodium in their diet from their salt shaker. So if your diet's rich in whole foods—but you've got a habit of sprinkling a little sea salt on your avo toast—you probably don't have to stress about it. 

Photo: Stocksy/Lauren Naefe

How much sodium should we be getting?

When it comes to tracking your sodium intake, the golden number to keep in mind is 2,300 mg, the FDA's max suggestion for sodium per day. But it's important to note that less isn't more because, according to Fear, we need sodium for a balance of electrolytes. If you don't have enough and your blood pressure is too low, you'll get dizzy and light-headed. (That goes double if you work out intensely and drink a ton of water.) 

On the other hand, when you overdo it with sodium, your body sometimes holds onto water and gets bloatedThis is where the mineral's bad rap comes from—it actually can result in some pretty serious health issues if you overconsume it on the reg. "Getting rid of the extra fluid puts more work on your kidneys and your overall system," says Lisa DeFazio, RD. "If there is too much salt or sodium in your blood or circulatory system it holds onto water like a sponge.  All the water puts extra pressure on your arteries, kind of like when you turn on a hose full blast and it stretches out the hose."

Photo: Stocksy/Suzanne Clements

The verdict on salt

With all that in mind comes the million-dollar question—is salt healthy or unhealthy?

Both Fear and DeFazio agree that, just like most things, balance and portion control are the names of the game. The bottom line, according to Fear, is to read labels, check for sodium, and try to keep your intake slightly under that 2,300 mg/day threshold. Restaurant food can be another major sodium source. So if you're going out to eat, DeFazio suggests looking up the menu's nutrition information online.

That said, those who are generally in good health and cook most of their meals from scratch shouldn't stress. "If someone doesn't have high blood pressure, there is not a ton of reason to worry about salt," Fear says. "Limiting salt is helpful to reduce blood pressure, but it is also not as helpful as losing weight and exercising."

So, instead of banishing your salt shaker forever, remember that it's more effective to check your food labels before channeling your inner Salt Bae.

For more nutrition myth-busting, check out the hydration misconception experts want you to stop believing, and the truth about whether you can really get enough protein from a vegan diet

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