For the last five or so decades, telling patients to cut way back on salt passed for medical wisdom. The message, most often delivered to the 40+ set or anyone with less than ideal blood pressure numbers, was simple: salt was the devil. But is that really true? Not necessarily. Although salt has gotten a bad rap and most doctors over-correct by red-lining the stuff altogether, strict control is only required in occasional cases. Here’s some food for thought, and a few ideas on how to manage salt sensibly without creating mineral imbalances or sacrificing taste:

Your body needs sodium, so don’t cut it to the bone.

Sodium is an essential mineral that plays a critical role throughout the body, helping to regulate your muscle, heart, nervous system, as well as brain function, blood flow and fluid balance. Signs you may have slashed too much? Bouts of low blood pressure, profuse sweating, and dehydration, as well as fatigue, cold extremities, decreased exercise performance, erectile dysfunction, sleep disturbances, and cognitive issues. Too little salt can even contribute to fat accumulation by dysregulating insulin.

Dump processed foods.

I’m not saying you can’t overdo it with salt. The easiest way to do that is by eating processed foods. Sodium levels in everyday processed foods like cured meats, deli meats, soups, canned foods, bread, cereal, vegetable juices, condiments and spaghetti sauces are crazy high in sodium, and the quality is of the table salt variety, that is to say, crazy low. At the other end of the aisle, those processed foods engineered to be ‘low salt’ aren’t the answer either. You’ll get the same crap ingredients, minus the salt, that put you at increased risk for insulin resistance, diabetes, obesity, and cardiovascular disease in general. By contrast, the naturally-occurring sodium you’ll find in whole foods, and just about everything in a plant-based diet, should easily provide the daily 8 to 10 grams of salt your body needs.

Step away from the table salt.

Regular table salt that most of us grew up on is highly processed and lacks minerals, but you’re marginally better off consuming it than no salt at all. And iodized table salt is slightly healthier than non-iodized. But generic table salt of any flavor is packed with unappealing, unhealthy junk like anti-caking agents, sugar and assorted suspicious chemicals. Again, although table salt may be slightly better than no salt, it can mess with blood pressure, so use it only in a pinch (as it were) – or better yet, not at all.

Don’t even consider salt substitutes.

OK, so you may be thinking, no table salt, no low-salt processed foods, what about those sensible-sounding work-arounds, the salt substitutes? Won’t they fill in the missing flavor? In a word, no. They’re actually the worst of all possible worlds, adding a metalic taste and potassium chloride to the mix, too much of which can trigger dangerous kidney problems and potentially fatal heart issues in people with cardiac conditions. If that weren’t enough, potassium chloride does not play well with a number of standard-issue prescription meds and over-the-counter drugs (as in, potentially fatal interactions), so cross salt substitutes off your list as well.

This is how you rock your salt.

For optimal health, pay attention to the kind of salt you use. The smart money is on unrefined salt. Unrefined salts, like Celtic salt and sea salt, contain few if any additives, which is always a plus in my book. They also contain more than eighty valuable trace minerals. Compare that to refined table salt that’s been bleached, baked and ground into shimmering white crystals lacking real nutrition. My favorite? It’s Pink Himalayan salt. Not only do I like the larger, flavorful granules, but pink Himalayan salt is mined from clean sources, deep inside the earth. It’s considered the purest, best kind of unrefined salt, free of ocean contaminants. Be advised however that while most people tend to gravitate towards less costly, coarse unrefined sea salt, there are some concerns about trace amounts of heavy metals and plastics in the ocean leaching into it. As sea salt is made by evaporating seawater, it’s essential that you look for salts harvested from the cleanest waters possible. And consider diversifying your salts to minimize the potential pitfalls. Try blending sea salt with Himalayan salt, or mix with sea kelp flakes, season to taste, and enjoy.

Bottom Line: Though salt can’t really be considered a ‘health food’ per se, our bodies do need it – just not in massive amounts. Buy the best, cleanest, unrefined salt possible, ditch table salt and processed foods, and your body will find its natural balance. Another bonus: You’ll help keep your blood pressure in check and your food tasty!

If you want to dig deeper on the benefits of salt, I recommend this book, The Salt Fix: Why the Experts Got it All Wrong and How Eating More Might Save Your Life.

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