Get full access to Outside Learn, our online education hub featuring in-depth fitness and nutrition courses and more than 2,000 instructional videos when you sign up for Outside+.
“The cure for anything is salt water; sweat, tears or the sea.”
— Isak Dinesen, winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature (Actually, the real name of this Danish author is Baroness Karen von Blixen-Finecke, but back in the early 1900s, women had to use male pseudonyms to get published.)
To salt or not to salt? Somehow, that’s still the question. I’m sure you’ve heard a thousand times that reducing your salt and sodium intake is a healthy practice. Or worse, if you’re someone who has struggled with high blood pressure, hypertension or heart disease, you’ve also been told reducing your sodium intake is going to save your life. Unfortunately, this is oversimplified — to the point of actually being bad health advice.
The Moment Salt Became a Four-Letter Word
Let’s back up to where this information came from. Without boring you with a huge history lesson, the government implemented new dietary guidelines in 1977. They hired a bunch of politicians and businessmen to sit on a board and make decisions on how the country should eat for health. Why wouldn’t they fill this board with doctors and health professionals, you ask? I have no idea. You may have heard this story before, but the outcome of this was restrictions placed on three main areas: saturated fats, sodium and cholesterol. Let me show you where the “science” came from to support these changes.
The guidelines were based on poor science on all counts — we’ll rename it: “The Health Dumpster-Fire of 1977.” A guy named Lewis Dahl, M.D., conducted some research on mice (not humans!). When rodents were fed about 100 times the salt intake of an average human (the human equivalent of 500 grams daily), they showed high blood pressure. Well, that’s not shocking. What is shocking is somehow this study was taken straight to the committee and put into practice without a second thought. Yes, this one study on overfeeding sodium to rodents is what our Recommended Daily Allowances were based on.
What did we see happen next? Since these dietary recommendations were implemented, we’ve seen a 400 percent increase in diabetes, heart disease, hypertension, obesity — and the list goes on and on. Since then, the guidelines have amended their stance on cholesterol. (It only took 28 years.) Unfortunately, even in the face of scientific studies that do not support it, the recommendation to limit sodium still stands. It takes time to change or overturn decisions like this. And in the health coaching field, it’s extremely aggravating when the information is out there but the “rules” haven’t caught up yet.
So what’s the take-away here? That one bad scientific study by one man and a bunch of mice somehow led to misinformed guidelines being put in place nationwide — and, as a result, the health of our country has declined for three decades. According to the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES), which are the largest population studies conducted on sodium and health benefits, we know the following:
- Lower sodium intake correlates with higher all-cause mortality, or dying sooner.
- Higher sodium intake correlates with longer life, lower all-cause mortality.
- Every single meta-analysis shows no statistical benefit to lowering sodium.
- High sodium intake coupled with high carbohydrate intake does show higher heart disease rates.
- High sodium intake with proper hydration seems to be the sweet spot.
Four Reasons Sodium Is So Important
Now that we know salt isn’t evil, let’s look at why it’s actually a crucial part of your diet:
- Cellular communication. Think of sodium as the messenger between every cell in our body. Without sodium, every cell membrane in our body would be unable to communicate or to pass the chemicals and elements needed for cell function.
- Nerve function. You know that lethargic feeling after a hard workout? Almost feeling like your brain isn’t quite “on?” You just depleted a bunch of your sodium through sweating, and it needs to be replenished. Most people think this is the need for carbohydrates, but most of the time, you are just too low in electrolytes for your brain to function.
- Digestion. We don’t typically think of sodium as being good for our digestion, but in our guts, hydrochloric acid is super important for the breakdown of foods. Salt or sodium chloride delivers the majority of the chloride ions for healthy levels of hydrochloride acid. Without this, digestion will suffer. If you consult with a holistic or homeopathic doctor, many times advanced gut and digestion problems are treated with hydrochloric acid tablets — these aid in clearing out our gut atmospheres. Even ailments like acid reflux and heartburn are treated this way, but all along, we might have been able to solve these issues with a higher sodium intake.
- Minerals. We always hear about our macronutrients, but what about our micronutrients? Sometimes these are forgotten. Minerals like chromium, iron, potassium, zinc and iodine naturally found in sea salt and natural earth salts are so important to brain function, mood and nervous system function. This is why choosing your salt source is as important as the amount you intake.
Where Should You Get Your Salt/Sodium?
I would suggest avoiding heavily refined salts and instead look for Himalayan sea salts, other sea salts and other unrefined sources. There is a great brand from Utah I like to recommend called Redmond Real Salt. Amber and I also partnered with LMNT, a zero-sugar electrolyte supplement made specifically for us active types. The founder literally said he was disappointed with the products previously available on the market, so he made his own — and I thank him for that. LMNT makes a wide variety of flavored electrolyte packets that can be added to bottles of water. They taste delicious and make chugging all that daily water a lot more interesting. One packet provides a great source of sodium, potassium and magnesium blend. I know I supplement with all three of those minerals anyway, so it fits perfectly for my lifestyle.
A quick word on table salt, or sodium chloride: It’s not “bad,” and most of it is also iodized (because most Americans don’t have enough iodine in their diet). But I don’t like to make table salt my main source of sodium. If you don’t use table salt or think you’re low on iodine in your diet, try adding some fish, grass-fed or raw dairy, whole eggs, and grass-fed red meats instead.
How Much Should You Consume?
Everybody’s needs vary slightly, but 4 grams of daily salt/sodium intake seems to be the sweet spot for the average American. Of course, Oxygen readers are not exactly average — we sweat a lot. We push ourselves more than the average Joe. Your needs also will depend on the climate you live in and your carbohydrate intake, but studies show benefits from 4 grams up to 7 grams daily.
If you go above that, make sure your activity matches your intake. Not sweating much today? Don’t consume as much sodium. You’re headed out for a long hike, run, cycle, etc.? Maybe it’s a good day for an extra electrolyte packet or salt on your steak and veggies.
If you’re participating in our Built in 60 program, it’s a lower carbohydrate lifestyle plan. One of the most important things to add when restricting carbs is going to be salt and electrolyte sources because we don’t have the same “retention” signals that we would have with higher carbs. When we eat carbohydrates, there is a retention signal sent to our kidneys to hold onto sodium. With less of that signal being sent, you’re going to be passing more sodium in your urine. This is normal and also why a lot of people on a low-carb or keto-type diet will notice a large drop in water at the beginning of the plans. Living this way, we need to make sure we have even more electrolytes in our diet.
So don’t be shy with salt when you’re cooking anymore. We all know salt brings out the flavor in our (sometimes boring) vegetables, so add to your liking. I promise, it’s OK!
Looking to build agility, balance, endurance and strength? This winter, we are pairing 13-time fitness cover model and All-American collegiate track and field athlete Amber Dodzweit Riposta with her husband, Andrew Riposta, a holistic health coach, nutritionist and lifelong sports enthusiast.
So what are you waiting for? This 60-day program designed exclusively for Oxygen will help you build lean muscle and burn fat through progressive workouts with minimal equipment — and the accompanying holistic nutrition protocol will help to accelerate your efforts.
Join Built in 60 today!
We independently source all of the products that we feature on oxygenmag.com. If you buy from the links on our site, we may receive an affiliate commission, which in turn supports our work.