The truth about salt and sodium in your diet. By Yuen Yi Ying
Do you know why high-sodium diets are bad for you? (Photo: Shawn Hempel / www.123rf.com)
1. High-sodium diets are really bad for the body
If you treasure your sight, don’t slurp all the soup that comes with your ﬁshball noodles (one bowl packs a whopping 2,113mg of the mineral). Excess sodium intake can result in blood pressure-related eye conditions such as retinal artery occlusion, where there’s a blockage in the vein that supplies blood to the light-sensing retina, warns Dr Lee Jong Jian, an ophthalmology specialist at Raffles Hospital. “These conditions may potentially result in a loss of vision.”
Restlessness, mood swings, nausea, and vomiting are other complications, says Dr Stanley Liew, deputy medical director and endocrinology specialist at Raffles Diabetes & Endocrine Centre. “When blood sodium levels rise, water moves out from the cells, causing them to dehydrate and shrink. These symptoms result from brain dehydration, which disrupts its functioning.” Left unchecked, you could experience drowsiness, confusion, ﬁts, and eventually coma – and death, he cautions.
2. Sodium is linked to potassium
High-sodium diets may be bad for you, but if you have low potassium levels, things could get worse, according to a study published in the Archives of Internal Medicine. It found that those with the worst sodium-potassium ratio (high on the former, low on the latter) have an increased risk of dying from heart disease. This could possibly be because potassium helps counteract the blood pressure-raising effect of sodium, says Dr Leslie Tay, general practitioner at Karri Family Clinic.
But it doesn’t mean you can eat more bananas (the fruit is notably high in potassium) to cancel out your salt intake, says Dr Tay. “It just doesn’t work that way.” Salt substitutes, like potassium chloride, aren’t suitable for those with high blood pressure either. It may have just 2mg of sodium per 5g, but potassium can cause heart palpitations, spelling trouble for these folks, warns Jaclyn Reutens, clinical dietitian at Aptima Nutrition & Sports Consultants.
3. Having low blood pressure is no licence to eat more
Hypertension – or high blood pressure – (which affects about one in ﬁve people here) occurs when excessive sodium in the body causes ﬂuid retention. This increases the volume of blood and taxes the heart, explains Dr Goh Ping Ping, consultant cardiologist and echocardiologist at Cardiac Specialist Centre. A diet low in the mineral (less than 1,500mg a day) is recommended for people who suffer from, or are prone to, high blood pressure.
However, the converse does not apply: Eating more salt is not recommended for those with low blood pressure, says Dr Goh. “You’ll need to ﬁnd out from your doctor what’s causing the condition to address the problem.” An underactive thyroid and anaemia are some medical conditions that can lead to low blood pressure.
4. The type of salt you use matters
TV chefs may have all sorts of ideas about why certain salts are better than others, but they’re usually not because of the sodium content. You, on the other hand, will need to consider this. Gram for gram, all varieties of salt (whether it’s sea, rock or table) have about the same amount of sodium, which gives salt its taste, Jaclyn explains.
However, the granules come in different sizes, so you’ll get less sodium in a pinch of sea salt (which has larger grains), compared to a pinch of ﬁne-grained table salt. Provided you don’t add more, sea salt could be the better option in this case, says Jaclyn.
If you replace salt with monosodium glutamate (MSG), you’ll consume less sodium (it has about a third of the amount in table salt), but because it’s synthetic, Jaclyn warns that some people may be allergic to it. Symptoms include headaches and bloating, and these can be triggered with just one tablespoon of soup that has been laced with the ﬂavour enhancer.
For a start, cut down on sauces and processed food in your diet. (Photo: ajauregui / www.pixabay.com)
5. Little sacrifices make a difference
Cutting back on sodium can lower blood pressure and the incidence of stroke and heart disease. Studies estimate that even a 1g reduction in daily salt intake can lower blood pressure by an average of 2mmHg, states the Health Promotion Board of Singapore. This can reduce the incidence of stroke by about 10 per cent and that of heart disease by ﬁve per cent.
What you can do: Steer clear of condiments and processed foods, which tend to have high amounts of sodium. According to the 2010 National Nutrition Survey, sauces and processed foods make up 97 per cent of your daily sodium intake.