We all know that salt is an essential ingredient of life. It helps maintain the electrolyte balance of our cells. It helps transmit nerve impulses. It aides muscle contraction and relaxation. Our blood is 0.9 percent salt.
But as with most anything, says Dr. Mahmoud Alikhan, cardiologist with the St. Joseph Medical Center, moderation is the key - and too much salt can be unhealthy.
How much salt does a typical healthy adult need?
The average American eats about 5 to 10 grams of sodium chloride in his daily diet, and that is too much. What we need is just about 2 to 4 grams of salt.
On the other hand, we have to be careful: In our society, salt is a source of iodine, and if people become too drastic in their cutting back of salt, it could become problematic.
What happens when your diet includes too much salt?
There is an intricate interdependence in the body and with salt. Like anything else, too much or too little is bad. Too much salt and the blood pressure goes up, and heart disease comes along. When you have too much salt, it goes out in the urine, and when it goes out in the urine, it takes along calcium, and when calcium drops, the body compensates by taking it from and weakening the bone, so it is important to keep salt intake low. People with osteoporosis - who have weakened bones anyway - should, in particular, eat a low-salt diet.
What is the link between salt and high blood pressure?
It is a pretty complex interaction, but the practical part is that sodium increases water retention, which increases the pressure.
As people grow older, they have weaker hearts and all that sodium-laden blood is harder to keep pumping. Somebody with very good heart compensation may go out to eat with their families and will come back having eaten all that salt and they will have swollen feet and fluid in the lungs. It's the salt.
Are there certain populations for which a high-salt diet is particularly risky?
Those who have hypertension or heart conditions.
Aside from not salting your food, are there other ways to cut back on salt in our daily diets?
Avoiding salt means more than not simply salting your food. It also means avoiding foods that already have high amounts of salt. For example, Chinese food with monosodium glutamate is high in salt. Salted, pickled fish, canned goods and many soups are problematic. Eating out generally has its own disadvantages, because you can't control the amount of salt in the cooking.
Check labels: If any food label says it contains more than 300 milligrams per serving, that is a high-salt food and anything with 300 grams of salt per serving is something to avoid.
Are there any foods in particular you would avoid?
I would learn about the salt content of anything you love to eat. Some people are surprised to discover that their favorite foods are high in salt. Camembert cheese is not low in salt. Even milk has sodium in it: eight ounces of milk have about 100 milligrams of sodium, which is about 220 milligrams of salt. Gatorade has 110 milligrams of sodium.
How do you personally make sure you are eating moderate amounts of salt in your daily diet?
We make sure to use more pepper than salt at the table, and we avoid pickled foods, bouillon cubes, salty chips and nuts, lunch or cured meats (there is no such thing as low-salt ham).
When we were tilling the soil, perhaps eating salt was necessary, but with current technological advances, it is no longer necessary to eat so much salt. And after awhile, people get used to a low-salt diet, and they don't even miss it.
Holly Selby is a former reporter for The Baltimore Sun.