Dave Shaw 's Opinion

NZ dietitian, performance nutritionist and health expert. Dave does his best to make sense of what we eat.

Dave Shaw: The war on salt

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You could be tricked in to eating more salt that you realise each day.
Photo / Thinkstock
You could be tricked in to eating more salt that you realise each day. Photo / Thinkstock

Our desire for salty food is at odds with our health. It's the spinoff from a dietary preference in the stone age era, clashing with the modern day food industry.

Do you want salt with that? Unfortunately, it's not a question food manufacturers are willing to ask. Instead, they have snuck loads of the stuff into our food supply - without us even realising, but much to our taste buds' liking.

Salt is the mineral that makes food taste bad when it's not there - or so you think. The problem is, it can be harmful when eaten in excess, especially in combination with a fast food diet. Too much can increase your blood pressure, leading to hypertension, which is a serious risk factor for cardiovascular disease and stroke.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) recommends we eat a maximum of 6g (about one teaspoon) of salt a day, New Zealanders on the other hand get closer to 9g. Thankfully, we have groups like the Stroke Foundation of New Zealand who continue to press the importance for the food industry to drop salt levels in many of the foods we eat.

But there is also debate that salt is not as harmful as you may think. After all, our body's need it to survive - it's critical for our nervous system and helps regulate fluid balance.

Which is why it's important to not lose sight of the bigger picture and turn salt - or any nutrient - into the scapegoat. It's impossible to improve our diets or health one nutrient at a time.

And here's the punchline, salt improves the shelf life of the foods it's in, but not the shelf life of the person eating it.

So should we be trying to cut down? I think so, though it's important to consider these two facts:

• Eating less salt lowers blood pressure, if only mildly

A powerful review demonstrated salt restriction has only a mild effect on lowering a population's blood pressure - although this can have huge benefits on the prevalence of heart disease and stroke. The biggest drop was seen in those who already had hypertension. The benefits of cutting back may be a guessing game, as everyone responds differently. But it's undeniable, a diet lower in salt than what we currently eat can be a huge boost to your health.

• Salt restriction can be both healthy and harmful

Keep in mind, high blood pressure won't kill you. It's a risk factor, not necessarily the cause of a disease. A study showed salt reduction had no convincing benefit on cardiovascular mortality in people with normal and high blood pressure. Strangely, if you have congestive heart failure, reducing salt by too much can increase your risk of death. This clearly shows the perfect diet is one that has some, but not too much salt.

Confused yet? Let's simplify.

If you've been told to reduce your salt intake, I recommend you do it. If you haven't, then try to remain within the WHO recommendation of no more than a teaspoon a day.

But if you eat a diet high in processed foods and takeaways, the likelihood is, you're hitting above your daily quota. What's worse, you may be getting too much sugar, refined carbs, processed fats and calories - a combination of nutrients better left for your last meal.

This can be somewhat managed by choosing foods with a lower salt or sodium content, which means label reading - sodium is another term for salt if you were wondering.

Read more from Dave Shaw: Don't be fooled by food labels

For me, comparing food labels is like winning the battle, but losing the war. I believe the best way to eat the right amount of salt is to look in the direction of real food. Foods in their whole form, that haven't undergone any tampering, are naturally lower in sodium and higher in potassium - a mineral that tends to dampen the effects of too much salt. Fruit and veg are great examples.

When you do this, instead of soaking your taste buds in a sea of salt everyday, you have the power to choose when and how much you want to add to your meal.

Test your knowledge here.

- www.nzherald.co.nz

Dave Shaw

NZ dietitian, performance nutritionist and health expert. Dave does his best to make sense of what we eat.

Dave works in public health and alongside some of New Zealand’s top athletes. Whether it's for vitality, performance, identity or spirituality, Dave loves the way food brings people together. He believes that no one diet is the cure for our growing rates of chronic disease, but a diet based on wholefoods is the perfect start. Always keeping up-to-date with current evidence and food trends, Dave is a relentless researcher for how we should eat and likes to challenge what we may think about nutrition.

Read more by Dave Shaw

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