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Shake Salt Out Of Your Diet!

Recently there has been much publicity about the high content of salt in many foods and it's effect on our health. Salt has always been an important part of our diet and was once traded pound for pound with gold in Timbuktu as caravans started across the Sahara. But unless you've just run a marathon or you live in the desert, you actually only need a small amount of salt every day!

Salt is a major source of sodium, which is essential for maintaining the water balance of all tissues and fluids in our bodies. The problem is that most people consume more than is required. In fact, we currently eat an average of around 12 grams of salt a day - twice as much as is currently recommended for a healthy diet.  In addition, based on body weight, the average salt intake of children is even higher than that of adults !

Why cut the salt?

A high salt intake increases the amount of fluid retained by the body. This raises blood pressure, which, in turn, contributes to an increased risk of strokes and heart attacks. People with high blood pressure are three times more likely to develop heart disease and stroke, and twice as likely to die from these diseases than people with normal levels. In England alone, high blood pressure contributes to more than 170,000 deaths a year. Salt also has an effect on bone demineralisation (osteoporosis) and kidney disease.

Why do we eat so much?

Surprisingly, most salt in our diet does not come from over use of the 'salt-cellar' at the dining table or during home cooking. The fact is, that about 75% of our intake now comes from the salt found in processed foods. This is not limited to obviously salty foods like crisps and snacks either. Many people do not realise that bread, biscuits, cereals, cakes, soups and ready prepared meals are often high in salt content and may account for nearly 40% of our salt intake ! For example, some cereals provide as much salt as Atlantic sea water (1g sodium/100g).

Meat and meat products often contribute another 20%. In fact, a recent food survey by the Food Standards Agency revealed that many popular ready-meals are very high in salt, with one meal in the sample containing 98.3% of a whole days salt quota of 6g! 

Be salt savvy!

By far the easiest way to cut you salt intake is not to add it to food, either while cooking or at the table. However, as this only accounts for around a quarter of our salt intake, it is equally important to look at labels when buying processed foods and choose those with less salt content. 

The problems is, that looking at labels for salt content can be very confusing ! Currently most, but not all, processed foods are labelled in terms of sodium in grams per 100 grams of the product. But, in order to calculate how much salt food contains, you must multiply the sodium content by 2.5. For example, if a packet of crisps contain 0.4g of sodium that is equal to 1g of salt. 

However, reducing salt intake is only one aspect of a healthy diet. Studies show that the greatest decreases in high blood pressure is seen when a diet rich in fruits, vegetables and low-fat foods is combined with a low salt diet. Increasing physical activity is also associated with reductions in blood pressure, especially aerobic exercise.

A lifetime of salt

From birth to one year, babies need virtually no salt at all. Regardless of how bland the food tastes to you, there is no benefit in adding salt to their foods. Once your child becomes a toddler, be aware that many ready-prepared food marketed at children and their lunchboxes are high in salt. For example, one portion of some popular 'lunchable' meals, combined with a packet of crisps, can add up to a whopping 4g of salt - more than the entire daily recommended amount for a young child !

Preferences for particular tastes develop early in life so, by keeping salty foods to a minimum, children are encouraged to develop good habits into adulthood. These lessons could prove useful in older life, because as we age our taste buds tend to become less sensitive, tempting us to add more salt to our foods without realising it.

Recently, the government have recommended a reduction in salt intake for adults to 6g per day, roughly equivalent to one level teaspoon. For the first time, they have also set guidelines for children, proportionate to their needs (see chart). With salt in the spotlight, many within the food industry are now making moves to improve the nutritional value of their products. So while there is no way at present to tell who might develop high blood pressure from eating too much sodium, becoming 'salt aware' consumers could be of benefit to us all. 

Helpful tips:

• Wean yourself off the salt-cellar - take it off the table during mealtime

• Try using other flavourings such as fresh, frozen or dried herbs, spices, chilli, garlic, pepper, vinegar etc. instead of salt.

• Be aware that salt substitutes are not always salt free.

• Rock salt and sea salt have no health benefits to table salt.

• Remember that salt taste receptors take time to adjust, so food may initially taste bland. However, within 2-3 weeks the taste receptors become more sensitive and high salt foods often then become unpleasant.

• Choose fresh and fresh-frozen foods over canned and bottled goods. Salt is used widely as a preservative in non-perishable items.

• Eat plenty of fruits and vegetables, which are naturally lower in sodium and fats.

• Try to reduce your intake of processed foods and highly salted snacks. Check labels for a similar lower-salt alternative. 

Most people don't realise that they are eating high levels of salt in everyday foods such as bread, breakfast cereals and pastry products, yet up to 75% of their salt intake comes from processed food.

The 'target intakes' of grams of salt per day, which we should all aim to keep below, are as follows:

Age - Grams of Salt

0-12 mths -less than 1g

7-12 mths - 1g

1-3 yrs - 2g

4-6 yrs - 3g

7-10 yrs - 5g 

11yrs and over - 6g

What to watch for on labels

All of the following terms on food labels indicate sodium: brine, baking soda, soda, baking powder, salt, mono-sodium glutamate, sodium chloride, NaCl and any other sodium compound.

1g sodium = 2.5g salt

Written by Karen Le Cornu, Jill Fa at 00:00
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