For a long time we’ve heard that having too much salt in our diets is a bad thing - and rightly so, as a high salt intake is a significant risk factor for stomach cancer as well as one of the most powerful influences on blood pressure - and with it your cardiovascular and dementia risks.
Salt is made up of two substances – sodium and chlorine - and it’s the sodium that can affect your blood pressure. This is because the sodium you eat affects how much water your kidneys extract from your blood.
The more sodium there is in your blood, the less water your kidneys will extract. As a result, your blood volume increases and because your circulation is essentially a closed system of tubes, up goes your blood pressure.
There is, however, another side to the coin - potassium. The delicate balance between sodium and potassium governs the degree to which the kidneys extract water from the blood.
So while sodium is persuading the kidneys to leave water where it is in the blood, potassium has the opposite effect.
The moral of this story? Keep your salt intake down and make sure you eat lots of potassium-rich foods. It’s Salt Awareness Week this week (from 20th - 26th March), led by World Action on Salt & Health (WASH) and Consensus Action on Salt & Health (CASH), so perhaps take the opportunity to find out how much salt is in the foods you eat, and see where you can cut back.
Cutting back on salt
If you’re cutting back on salt you may notice the lack of the flavour to begin with - but do persevere. Your taste buds will adjust within a couple of weeks and you’ll not only be more sensitive to the taste of salt, you’ll also become more aware of other flavours too.
Foods high in salt
Salt is used extensively in the foods that we buy so you need to be vigilant and familiarise yourself with foods that are particularly high in salt or sodium, especially:
processed meats like bacon, ham, sausages and salami
pickles and curry powders
microwave and frozen ready-meals
tomato ketchup, soy sauce and mustard
tinned and packet soups
stock cubes and gravy granules
In the kitchen
use low-sodium alternatives to salty sauces and stocks
lemon or limes help to bring out any salty taste in food
use alternatives seasonings to add flavour to your food like fresh or dried herbs, spices, ginger, garlic, vinegar, pepper and chillies
At the table
try adding alternative seasonings to your food, such as lemon or lime juice, herbs, spices, vinegar and pepper
use a low-sodium salt – varieties can have up to two-thirds less sodium as well as high levels of potassium
Upping the potassium
Potassium can actually help to control blood pressure so it’s a great substitute for sodium. Low-sodium salt brands often contain relatively high levels of potassium so that’s a good option if you still want to use salt but great natural sources of potassium include:
certain fruits – especially bananas, oranges, tomatoes, apricots and currants
almonds and macadamia nuts
milk and eggs
tuna and salmon
bran and wheat germ
certain vegetables – especially potatoes, sweet potatoes, asparagus, spinach, cabbage and sprouts
Potassium supplements are not recommended as these can lead to excessively high potassium levels - you should instead simply increase your intake of potassium-rich foods.
A word of caution
Although increasing potassium in your diet can help to control your blood pressure, you should of course talk to your doctor or specialist first if you are already taking blood pressure lowering medication.