Too much salt: What are the consequences of consuming too much salt for health?
Salt and sugar are two flavor carriers that are indispensable in the kitchen and are found in almost all foods. Most people are aware of the negative effects of sugar on health and try to live sugar-free. But what about the salt? Our body relies on sodium and potassium for nerve transmission, muscle contractions and other functions. For this reason, we need salt to survive – but only in small quantities. Excessive salt consumption negatively affects our health and can damage our arteries, kidneys, cardiovascular system and even our brain. How much is actually too much and what happens if we regularly eat too much salt?
Table salt, also called sodium chloride, consists of about 40% sodium and 60% chloride. In bread or in a salad – it is an indispensable part of our diet. The mineral is of great importance for the water balance, digestion and bone structure. Unfortunately, many scientific studies have shown that we eat too much of it every day. Excessive salt consumption is one of the main reasons for blood pressure, cardiovascular diseases and increases the risk of stomach cancer and osteoporosis. About 1.5 million people die a year from an overly salty diet.
How much salt is allowed per day?
Most people don't know exactly how much salt is allowed and healthy a day. The amount of salt per day recommended by the German Nutrition Society for adults is 6 grams, which corresponds to about 1 teaspoon. According to a study by the Federal Ministry of Food and Economy, men in Germany consume around 10 grams of salt and women 8.5 grams per day. This means that more than 70% of the population consumes too much of it. However, our body does not need more than 2 grams to function. And if you think that you can easily reduce your salt consumption by not using the salt shaker so often, you are very wrong. About 80% of our salt intake comes from the foods we consume. These would be, for example, bread, cheese, cold cuts, ready meals, sauces and even pies and cakes.
The consequences of too much salt for our health
- High blood pressure – About 20 million Germans suffer from high blood pressure. While you know most of the risk factors for hypertension such as being overweight, chronic stress, high-fat diet or too little exercise, the high salt consumption is often underestimated. However, numerous studies worldwide have confirmed the connection between high blood pressure and too much salt. Little is known that not all people react equally to the mineral – some are “salt sensitive” and others are “salt resistant”. In salt-sensitive people, the increased salt consumption leads to high blood pressure, but not in salt-resistant people. Unfortunately there are still no tests for this and you can only find out whether you are sensitive to it, only if you already have hypertension. In addition, too much salt worsens the blood lipid levels in the body, which is an additional burden on the heart and nerve cells.
- Cardiovascular diseases – Regularly exceeding the recommended amount of salt per day increases the risk of cardiovascular disease in adults. In a study carried out in the USA, the salinity in the urine of around 3000 men and women between the ages of 40 and 60 years was examined at 3 points in time. Those who consumed too much salt had a 23.2% chance of heart failure. The risk among the people with the lowest consumption was only 13.3%. For a stroke it was 6.4% versus 2.8% and for a heart attack – 10.9% versus 7.8%.
- Too much salt affects kidney function – The toxic metabolic products in our body are excreted through the kidneys. They also play an important role in the salt and water balance. Excessive salt consumption can increase protein levels in the urine, which in turn is one of the main factors in kidney disease and kidney stones. Especially in the elderly who suffer from kidney weakness, too much salt can lead to a stroke or heart attack.
- Water retention – If we eat too much salt, there will be an excess of sodium in our body. This binds with the water from the cells and upsets the water balance. This in turn leads to swollen hands, feet or elbows. Water retention (edema) could also occur on other parts of the body, such as the face. Edema is one of the main symptoms of heart failure and should never be underestimated. Depending on the severity, it can be treated either with a healthy diet or with prescription medication.
- Too much salt increases the risk of stomach cancer – The increased salt intake attacks the gastric mucosa, which in turn is associated with a higher risk of stomach cancer. A 2011 study found that people who overeat salt were 68% more susceptible to gastric cancer than those with low intake.
- Fatigue and difficulty concentrating – Who would have thought that too much salt could even affect our brain functions? A study by the University of Colorado in 2018 found that memory and levels are much lower in people with increased salt intake. In addition, the risk of dementia in old age is 30% higher.
What are the symptoms of high salt intake?
- Abdominal distension – Excessive salt consumption is one of the main reasons for uncomfortable and painful abdominal distension. You don't even have to eat too much salt every day – just a single sodium-rich meal can negatively affect the body's water balance. Foods with a high sodium content mainly include ready meals, canned goods and junk food such as hamburgers, pizza etc.
- You are always thirsty – Water is withdrawn from the body by eating salt-rich foods and this leads to thirst. A recent study concluded that although you get thirsty from too much salt, you drink less water than usual. Instead, your appetite for salty snacks is increased, which can trigger cravings.
- Strong headache – If you suffer from headaches often and for no apparent reason, you may want to reduce your salt intake. Some US researchers have found that the more salt you eat, the stronger and more common the headache.
- More desire for fast food – Salt allows flavor enhancers in processed foods such as pizza, chips, burgers, etc. to develop their aromas better. The high salinity overexerts our taste buds and the more salt we eat, the greater our desire for fast food. To break out of this vicious cycle, nutritionists recommend avoiding all spices for at least a week.
- The food tastes bland and boring – As already mentioned, the high salt consumption ensures that you get used to salty food. This in turn means that food and dishes taste less intense over time. In this case, too, it is advisable to use fresh herbs and spices instead of salt.
- Muscle cramps – If we eat too much salt, the ratio of potassium to salt in the body changes and the result is painful cramps in the calves or muscles.
Reduce salt consumption – helpful tips
Contrary to the craving for sweeteners, the appetite for salty dishes is not innate, but a simple habit that can change over time. Below we have a few tips for you that will help you reduce your salt consumption.
- Read food labels – If you want to try not to eat too much salt, you should learn to read the food labels correctly. The first thing you need to do is avoid processed foods and convenience foods from the refrigerated section as much as possible. Compare the salinity of the products using the nutritional table, because sometimes the differences between the different brands are quite large. However, some manufacturers give the sodium content per 100 grams and that could be a little confusing. Foods that contain from 120 to 300 mg of sodium per 100 grams are fine. Better to leave out everything about these values. Many German supermarkets have already recognized the dangers of excessive salt consumption and have committed to reducing the salt content in private labels by up to 20%.
- More fresh food and less canned food – Fresh fruits and vegetables are low in salt and full of nutrients and vitamins. All canned vegetables such as peas and corn contain salt and should be avoided. If this is not always possible, rinse the vegetables thoroughly with water. For pasta it is also recommended to rinse it off with water after cooking.
- Away with the salt shaker – Only after all the other spices and herbs can you find out whether the food really needs some salt. So try not to salt your dishes and use more fresh herbs like basil or rosemary. After 2-3 weeks you will notice that the meals taste much more intense and better.
Food with a high salt content
About 80% of our daily salt consumption comes from processed foods and not from the salt shaker at all. It's no secret that fast food foods contain a lot of salt. You have already covered the recommended 5 grams for the day with a frozen pizza. Surprisingly, 2 pieces of canned matje fillet contain 8 grams – almost double! However, many people did not know that in some cases cornflakes or cakes can even have a higher salt content. For example, butter cookies have the same amount of salt per 100 grams as chips. In which products is there too much salt?
- Light products – Light and semi-fat products such as yogurt or cream cheese not only have a higher sugar content, but also contain a lot of salt.
- Bread and buns – Most Germans have a sandwich on the table in the morning. Now, according to the Federal Office for Risk Assessment, such baked goods make up about 30% of our daily salt consumption.
- Sausages and meat products such as salami, ham, bratwurst, salt is added to make them long-lasting. They cover about 22% of our daily needs and contain many other flavor enhancers – glutamate, phosphate and sodium nitrite, which are bad for our health. A healthier alternative is, for example, Mortadela, which compared to low-fat salmon ham, which contains about 6 grams per 100 grams, only 1.7 grams.
- Cheese and dairy products – A check of the nutritional values is particularly worthwhile for the cheeses. With only 0.6 grams of salt to 100 grams, mozzarella and cream cheese are the healthiest option. Gouda cheese comes to about 2.6 grams and Gorgonzola – to 3.8 grams. If you want to reduce your salt consumption, you should avoid feta, cheddar and halloumi cheese.
- Ready sauces and dressings – Depending on the manufacturer, pasta tomato sauce from a glass can contain up to 4 grams of salt per 100 grams of product. And before you treat yourself to a BBQ sauce with your steak at the next barbecue party, remember that the salt content in just 1 tablespoon is 1.2 grams.
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