Ideally we should be eating less than 5-6g of salt a day, but many of us eat over 10g, according to Irish Heart Foundation (IHF) dietitian Orna O’Brien.
“That’s more than doubling our recommended daily cut-off target. It’s not just the salt we add during cooking, however.
“That only accounts for about 15-20% of what we take in. Most of the salt we eat comes from the food itself, occurring naturally or is added in processing.”
In Ireland the biggest sources of salt in our diet are processed meat and fish, bread and bread products, breakfast cereals and other processed foods, she says.
“Our eating patterns have changed over time. As well as battered fish and breaded meats we also have a much bigger intake of packet foods, soups, sauces, tinned foods, takeaways and ready meals – everything from readymade lasagne and instant noodles to the Friday night takeaway.”
Added to the list of high-salt foods are sauces, ketchup, gravy granules and stock cubes.
“Stock cubes are really high in salt. We are also snacking more now on things like crisps, popcorn and nuts.”
Our tastebuds getting used to too much salt is also a problem.
“When that happens you then need to add that extra salty hit to make it taste like it did years ago when you had a lower salt intake,” she says.
The IHF isn’t the only organisation concerned about our high salt intake. SafeFood has been reporting on the topic too.
“It is probable that increasing calorie intakes, reflected in rising levels of overweight and obesity, are now an important factor contributing to high salt intake and may be cancelling the impact of recent modest changes in the salt content of processed food,” one of their reports stated.
Why shake the habit?
But why is shaking the salt habit so important? What consequences does high salt intake have for our health?
“In the short term, too much salt will make you retain fluid but in the long term, high blood pressure will be the biggest consequence,” Orna says. “That’s because eating too much salt can make it harder for your kidneys to remove fluid, which then builds up in your system and increases your blood pressure.”
She points out that one in three adults have high blood pressure (a silent killer) but only half are aware of this. “There is a huge amount of people out there that just don’t realise they have it and therefore aren’t having treatment for it,” she adds.
The recommendation is that anyone over 30 should be getting their blood pressure checked regularly and should always ‘know their numbers’.
“This means knowing your blood pressure, blood sugar and cholesterol levels and your weight. If you don’t know these numbers you don’t know what to do about it. Blood pressure should be 120 over 80.
“Having high blood pressure exerts more force on the lining of our blood vessels and damages them. It makes the lining more irritated so it is easier for plaque to build up leading to narrowing of your arteries and increasing your risk of heart disease and stroke.”
High blood pressure has other consequences too.
“Smaller blood vessels are easily damaged and as well as those around the heart we think of things like your kidneys, your eyes, your fingertips and feet. These are places where you tend to get less blood flow and this obviously increases your risk of getting chronic kidney disease, vision impairment and issues with circulation in the peripheral parts of your body.”
Raised blood pressure is the biggest cause of death worldwide so it is a serious issue. She points out that there are some other non-heart-related ones that often don’t get noted.
“A high-salt diet also pulls calcium from your bones,” she says. “This is important particularly for women as it increases your risk of bone fractures and osteoporosis. Lastly, there are links between high-salt intake and stomach cancer.”
While there is a range of salt substitutes available, she says, where potassium replaces the sodium element they may not be suitable for some people.
“It’s a bit of a minefield working out what’s good and what isn’t,” she says. “In some cases those low-salt substitutes may not be as flavoursome so people tend to shake more on in order to get the same flavour ‘hit’. As well as that they are not suitable for people with kidney disease because of the high potassium content.”
Rock and a hard place
What about the new types of salt, now more readily available? Are they better or worse for us?
“You have your rock salt and your pink Himalayan salt now. In terms of flavour you can notice a difference in flavour depending on where they come from. The rock salt comes from mining rocks not from the sea but they all act the same way nutritionally and chemically in our bodies. They are made up of sodium and chloride and have the exact same impact on one’s blood pressure as a typical old fashioned table salt.”
Getting into cooking at home can come down to planning, Orna states.
“It’s about starting a new habit, sitting down and planning and saying ‘what kind of meals do I like’. Even renting a cookbook from a local library or buying a cookbook can be a way to get motivation. If you’re looking for low salt recipes, anything with the DASH (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) diet is a good place to start.
“Write out a shopping list of what you need to make those dishes. Don’t shop when you’re hungry. Batch cooking on a Sunday is good too. It takes a stress out of your week knowing the main element of your cooking is done for the week.”
Fancy trying an experiment?
Try a little experiment for a month to see if cutting down on salt makes a difference to your health. Have your blood pressure checked, make the salt-reducing changes suggested above for four weeks, check your blood pressure again after a month and notice how your blood pressure reading has gone down.
How do we go about shaking the habit? There are two elements to this – one that concerns the individual and one that relates to the food industry, she believes.
Here are Orna’s tips:
1 Have patience as you try to cut down. Taste buds get used to a certain level of salt, so if you take that away suddenly you really feel it. It takes our taste buds about three to six weeks to adjust to a lower intake of salt. Having that knowledge helps you to expect that taste change and helps you to have patience.
2 Go back to basics – cook more at home. If you cook at home you are automatically going to have a lower salt intake. Go for a cut of the lean meat or fish rather than breaded chicken goujons or battered fish. Choose a plain darne of salmon, for example.
3 Be aware of salt in ready-made sauces. Making a Bolognese sauce in the kitchen involves effort but learning to do it will cut out a lot of salt. Look for lo-salt options when it comes to stock cubes too.
4 Don’t automatically add salt during cooking. Learn to get creative with other flavourings, up the pepper, garlic, onion, spices, herbs, even squeeze in some lemon or lime juice to up the flavour.
5 Keep the salt cellar off the table. This can be a political issue in some households. It would need to be a family decision that you are going to try to support one another in this cutting down.
When it comes to thinking salt reduction, Orna dwells on the positive – what we should do rather than what we shouldn’t. “It’s best to frame it from the point of view of what we should make sure we are including in our diet.”
She recommends the following:
“It comes down to getting back to basics,” Orna says, “cooking more at home, having a wholefood, plant-centric diet, eating more unprocessed and whole foods so that you’re getting the fibre, vitamins and minerals that your body needs.”
Eating out – low-salt choices
Irish people are also eating out more, so Orna says it’s about making healthy low-salt choices when you are doing that.
“Know the foods that are high in salt and make healthy choices. If out, eating meat or fish, go for something that hasn’t been processed too much. Choose a lean bit of meat over sausages or bacon. Remember though that you are always going to have a higher level of salt, sugar or fat when you’re eating out.”
However, there are other factors at play when it comes to our high intake of salt
“We have to think of the influence of industry and the environment,” Orna says. “These are factors that we can’t necessarily control. There is amazing marketing out there pushing products that are high in fat, salt and sugar.
“[Combatting it] is about being clued in to labels. That will help you to make an informed choice when you shop. Most labels now show a traffic light system, ie what’s low in salt, medium and high. Avoid anything that’s over 1.5g of salt per 100g.”
The Irish Heart Foundation has a handy shopping card that will help you with reading labels. See here for more information.