The Big Evil
Salt has been given a bad rap over recent decades, getting the finger of blame for the western world’s run-ins with high blood pressure, heart attacks, stroke, and kidney disease. One health group went as far as to label it ‘the deadliest ingredient in our food supply’. Considering that saturated fat has been the proverbial whipping boy of the nutritional landscape, that’s high praise. The official guidelines of the NHS set the upper limit of salt at 6 grams per day, which works out at 2.4 grams of sodium. The average adult in the UK eats around 8 grams, putting him or her in the red.
It is worth noting that your average table salt contains about 387mg of sodium per 1g serving, so don’t get confused by the different numbers being thrown around. A teaspoon of salt is fine by conventional nutrition recommendations, but a teaspoon of pure sodium is playing with fire.
But how does the evidence really stack up? If it’s anything like the case of saturated fat and red meat, then it certainly warrants a second look. Although in this case, no-one’s arguing for a zero salt diet. It has its uses as an essential compound in metabolism.
- Major component of extracellular fluid
- Essential for maintaining the plasma needed for tissue perfusion and cellular metabolism
- Allows neurons to send messages to other neurons, making it an integral part of the nervous system
- Contributes to the synthesis of HydroChloric Acid (HCL), which helps break down food
In the case of a true deficiency of salt, you’d experience hyponatremia, which is made up of an assortment of nasty symptoms like nausea, headaches, seizures, and coma. So it’s not a matter of debate whether we need salt. The question is, how much do we need, and are we risking it all by not toeing the NHS line?
And the best place to start answering those questions, is by going a few million years back in human history.
Did We Evolve To Need Huge Amounts Of Salt?
Incase the paleolithic days seem like an unnecessary detour for you, this setting actually brings up contrasting points on the salt dilemma. Both the low salt and high salt teams have stakes in our evolutionary origins. And besides, it’s completely on brand for me to find a way to bring cavemen into the discussion.
There are a few claims that we evolved to seek out salt. Tales of early humans following wild animals to salt licks, then setting up camp around those salt deposits. Then there’s the Aquatic Ape Hypothesis, where apes became human by hunting fish and invertebrates across wetlands. This theory also argues that our ancestors migrated along bodies of water, keeping it on hand as their main food supply. The argument was initially honed in on the rich Omega 3 content of aquatic animals, but books like The Salt Fix by Dr. James Nicoloantonio, have since lumped salt into the mixer.
There isn’t much to back this theory up, because the sodium content of the likes of catfish, snails, and pondweed, is negligible. It just doesn’t amount to much. A kilogram of catfish contains 406mg of sodium, not exactly a large amount for that hefty serving size. And as a wider take on the Aquatic Ape, there’s better evidence pointing to large-scale hunting of megafauna. Animals that packed on far more calories, and weren’t as much of a nuisance to hunt down.
Catching fish tends to be a bit harder than simply poking a stick around. A practical take on hunting would assume humans seek the largest amount of calories for the least amount of effort. A trait that puts us at the mercy of processed junk today, but 10,000 years ago, would have pointed us in the direction of a woolly mammoth.
One study on the paleolithic diet appears to back that up, by estimating that preagricultural humans ate only about 768 mg of sodium, considerably less than even the miserly contemporary recommendations. Another study states that there is no evidence that paleolithic people sought out salt deposits. If we were to assume, with sound proof, that early humans were hyper carnivores, then it stands to reason that the bulk of our sodium intake was gleaned from the natural contents of meat. We weren’t licking salt blocks in between mouthfuls of mammoth steak.
Salt as an additive was likely absent for the vast chunk of human existence, before raging into view with the advent of agriculture. As far back as 6000BC, wars were being fought over salt deposits like the Yuncheng salt lake in China. Ancient Egyptians discovered the art of using salt as a preservative. Roman soldiers were sometimes paid in salt, leading to the word ‘salarium’, or ‘salary’. Salt was a critical resource across the globe till a few hundred years ago, transplanted by the arrival of sugar. It’s only in the modern era that it’s been given a bad name.
The Salt Controversy Of Modern Times
The implication of salt in the making of high blood pressure was the product of population surveys which appeared to correlate hypertension with higher salt intakes. There was also a study on rats in the 1970s, where they were fed salt and subsequently developed high blood pressure. This was backed up by the mechanism of sodium, which can redistribute fluid to extracellular space when increased abruptly, thereby increasing blood pressure. These facts laid down the foundation for government recommendations for salt intake, encumbered by the growing metabolic epidemic and a need to act.
But it’s mostly been another case of making a mountain out of junk science. It looks imposing from a distance, but the illusion quickly dissipates as you pull closer to inspect. The correlating line was drawn by conveniently including outliers, a sign of bad practice in scientific circles. Just how the line could point in the direction of salt morbidity. In reality, the study showed no evident correlation between high salt intake and hypertension. Regardless, it still managed to get thrown around as a death sentence for the sodium crew.
As for the high blood pressure rats, they were fed with the human equivalent of 500 grams of salt. Not exactly a dose we are at any risk of emulating. A sudden spike in dietary salt might cause an initial elevation in extracellular fluids, but that quickly gets negotiated by the kidneys ramping up their sodium excretion. The effect is negligible after a few days. The body is perfectly capable at handling fluctuations in natural ingredients.
Despite the invasion of salt-packed processed foods, there isn’t much solid evidence to incriminate it as a driving force behind hypertension. In theory, you could take in so much salt that the body begins to shut down. There are incidences in China of people committing suicide by drinking heavily salted water. But these are extreme cases that can’t be replicated in any dietary setting.
Meanwhile, the pendulum has begun to shift the other way with subsequent research exposing the dangers of inadequate salt intake. A 2011 study showed a low-salt zone which increased incidences of heart attacks, strokes, and death. In 2012, a study found that people on low-salt diets had higher plasma levels of cholesterol and triglycerides. Low-salt was also linked to the immediate onset of insulin resistance and Type 2 Diabetes. The ranges displayed here would fit in nicely with anyone following the American Heart Association’s guidelines of a maximum sodium intake of 1,500 mg. The 2011 study, on the other hand, demonstrated that the lowest risk was found at the drastically higher range of 4 to 6 grams per day.
There appears to be a dose-dependant relationship of salt to health, with the greatest risk being displayed at the low-end. Meanwhile, ‘excessive’ salt intakes only increase risk by a marginal amount. The global consumption of salt over the last few centuries has been in the range of 1.5 to 3 teaspoons per day. This works out at around 3.45g to 6.9g of sodium, which works out quite nicely with the low-risk zone from the 2011 study.
While that appears to be a safe bet for your salt allocation, there are confounding factors that should serve to skew the numbers.
The Variables That Change Your Requirements
Hard training depletes sodium through sweat, and endurance athletes are continuously shown to be at risk of hyponatremia, otherwise known as sodium deficiency. It would be practical to balance the demands of intense training with an extra gram or two of sodium.
The Fix – Add ⅔ of a teaspoon of salt in an intra workout drink, or take it in the form of electrolytes (a blend of sodium and other minerals). Take this in addition to your normal salt intake of 1.5 – 3 teaspoons.
Ketosis also depletes sodium by increasing aldosterone, which causes the kidneys to excrete sodium. Especially in the early stages of fat adaption, this can lead to a sodium deficiency, forcing the body to fire up the adrenals to counter the threat. That has the effect of conserving sodium, but also wasting potassium, the mineral which normally balances out the drawbacks of high sodium.
The Fix – Add an extra ⅔ of a teaspoon of salt during the first 2-3 weeks of a ketogenic diet, while making sure you’re topping up on potassium. There’s no need to look further than beef, which has around 350mg of potassium per 100g servings.
This vital mineral acts as a counterweight to sodium, helping to reduce blood pressure and water retention. It could be easily argued that hypertension in a high-salt diet isn’t due to the salt itself, but the lack of potassium to buffer it up. And the western diet, stacked with refined ingredients, is lacking in potassium.
The Fix – Eat plenty of red meat to buff up your potassium levels, and you’ll mitigate most issues with a high-salt diet.
There are always vegetables, but I can’t make a habit of recommending them.
The Carnivore Diet
How do these recommendations fit in with an all-meat affair? You don’t have to worry about getting enough potassium, by virtue of the abundance of red meat on your plate. But you can run the risk of spiking the heart rate by getting too liberal with the salt shaker. The carnivore cocktail is already a potent stimulant, and if you’re running it over the long term, it’s worth making sure you don’t add unnecessary stress. If your electrolytes get out of sync, that’s extra stress.
Beef itself has around 80mg of sodium per 100g serving, which lines up with the general recommendation of a 1:3 sodium to potassium ratio. An extra half-teaspoon of salt can be enough for optimal blood flow.
The Fix – Moderate salt on a carnivore diet, keeping your intake to ½ of a teaspoon of salt, going higher in the case of added exercise or the induction period.
So How Much Do You Need?
It’s impossible to draw a definitive line in the sand for salt requirements, because it relies on many confounding factors. Not just the activities you participate in, but the amount of potassium you match it with. That said, it’s safe to say that the arguments for low-salt diets are unfounded and even downright dangerous. You’re better off erring on the side of too much, than having too little.
75% of the western world’s sodium intake comes from processed food. Which bring along an armada of hazardous substances, such as vegetable oils, plant toxins, and sugars. Take processed food out of the picture, and there’s nothing to worry about.
Excess amounts of sodium can be easily counteracted by the kidney’s ramping up sodium excretion, averting any potential disasters. If anything, the side effects of too much salt are going to be much milder than a dose of hypertension. There are much worse things doing the rounds in the nutritional sphere.
1.5-3 tsp of salt per day
+ ⅔ tsp to minimal requirement for hard exercise
+ ⅔ tsp to minimal requirement for keto or carnivore induction
+ ⅔-1 tsp of salt per day for carnivore
Maintain at least 3500mg of potassium per day, ideally in a 3:1 ratio to sodium.
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