Salt’s humble image has undergone a sea change since the days of the Dandi march. Now it comes in an assortment of amped-up “healthier” variants. Iodized or not, low-sodium or normal...the confusion this simple and essential (even this is now being debated) food ingredient seems to churn up is bewildering, to say the least. So what’s the truth? Is salt good or bad for you? The truth, as is often the case, lies somewhere in between.
In spite of the flak it has been getting, a little salt is indispensable for a healthy, balanced diet. “Salt in the human body is essential for life as it activates our brain cells and keeps our digestion humming,” says Ramesh Hotchandani, senior consultant, nephrology, Moolchand Medcity, New Delhi. “We also need sodium to help regulate the body’s water balance, keep muscles functioning and conduct nerve impulses,” he adds.
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But how much do we need?
Thankfully, this is one answer experts are unanimous on: “The recommended daily allowance of sodium intake is 2,400mg, which equals 5g of salt, or 1 tsp. People living in coastal belts, those in hot, humid climates, and those sweating it out in gyms need more to compensate for excessive sweating and the perspiration involved,” says Hotchandani. More doesn’t mean a lot, though—an extra 2-3g, or half a teaspoon, is more than adequate.
Low sodium or not?
In low-sodium salt, potassium salts replace some or all of the sodium chloride. Before using this as a substitute, you should note that while it can be useful to those prone to hypertension, the high potassium content means people with kidney problems or congestive heart failure cannot use it.
Devi Shetty, chairman and senior consultant and cardiac surgeon, Narayana Hrudayalaya, Bangalore, says: “About low sodium, my simple advice is for you to take just adequate quantity of salt so that the food tastes good. Avoid asking for extra salt if you suffer from high blood pressure or heart problems. Normal people need not restrict sodium intake and it can be dangerous to restrict sodium in the absence of any medical illness. After all, sodium is an extremely important constituent of the human body and you can’t deprive the body of it without any medical reason.”
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“In fact, arbitrarily shifting to a low-salt diet (for a healthy person) may result in lower blood pressure and may also cause depletion of body fluids, resulting in dehydration,” adds Ashutosh Shukla, head, internal medicine, Artemis Health Institute, Gurgaon.
So whom is the low-salt stuff for?
“People suffering from blood pressure, oedema (swelling in the body parts), liver failure, kidney failure, congestive heart failure, nephrotic syndrome with kidney dysfunction and cirrhosis of liver function require a low-salt diet,” says Hotchandani.
What happens if there isn’t enough?
“Salt depletion in the body occurs during sweating, persistent vomiting or diarrhoea, especially in hot weather,” says Shukla. “This may lead to fatigue, dehydration, low blood pressure, muscle cramps and weakness in (the) muscles. Extreme conditions may cause fits, coma, loss of perspiration, diarrhoea, vomiting and so on,” says Hotchandani.
“People should avoid excess salt by all means, but never stop taking it (all of a sudden); reduce it slowly so that (the) body gets used to it,” he says. “Also, it is important to drink lots and lots of water (2.5-3 litres) to remove toxic waste from (the) body,” he adds.
Also, people with kidney problems who face difficulty eliminating excess potassium from the body need to be especially watchful. Since potassium and sodium balance each other in your body, changes in one can affect (the) metabolism of the other. So their salt intake must be medically supervised, as it may need adjusting from time to time.
How to shake the salt habit
• Drink more water. Excess sodium needs water to be excreted from the body.
•Don’t keep the salt shaker on the table, or choose one with smaller holes.
• Eat fewer cured or processed foods such as bacon, sausages and cheese. Cut down on the salted nuts, popcorn, packaged soups and mixes, chutneys, pickles and papad.
•Steer clear of ajinomoto or monosodium glutamate-rich Chinese dishes.
• Use salt with discretion. Many condiments already contain salt. If you’re using soya sauce, pizza seasoning, chaat masala, ketchup, stock cubes or salad dressings, do not add extra salt.
•Onion, garlic and lemon juice can reduce the need for “salt to taste” .
•Make herb salts. The extra flavour helps you go easy. To make your own, finely chop herbs such as coriander, parsley, mint, oregano, thyme and basil, and mix with table salt in a 6:1 ratio. Or make gomashio, a Japanese sesame salt—five parts roasted and ground sesame seeds with one part salt.
• A word on the popular alternative, rock salt. It has slightly less sodium and higher potassium than regular salt, but the difference is not significantly more.
IS IODIZED INDISPENSABLE?
India is one of 100 countries that has banned non-iodized salt in the belief that this is the most effective way to prevent iodine deficiency. Yet , it seems, this remains a controversial issue for some experts.
“Although the total requirement of iodine for an adult adds up to less than a spoonful, it is necessary for iodine to be included in our daily diet. Salt works as a very effective medium,” says Chandrakant S. Pandav, professor and head, centre for community medicine, All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS), New Delhi, and regional coordinator, the International Council for Control of Iodine Deficiency.
“Besides, iodine also protects the developing foetus from brain damage (iodine deficiencies can reduce IQ by an average of 13 IQ points),” adds Luc Laviolette, regional director of Micronutrient Initiative (MI), an international non-profit organization based in Canada.
Opponents of iodized salt say it would be better to draw attention to the fact that milling and polishing of rice and other grains removes iodine. They point out that cereals, millets, pulses, leafy and root vegetables, spices, jaggery, nuts, fruits, milk and milk products, eggs, fish and even tap water contain iodine in its natural, absorbable form. A number of organizations advocate a healthy, balanced diet and clean drinking water instead of medical fortification.
Research by scientists at the University of Manchester in collaboration with others from Europe, published in the ‘Journal of Neurology, Neurosurgery and Psychiatry’, suggests that eating fish may be good for adult grey cells. They found that higher levels of vitamin D synthesized in the skin following sun exposure — also found in foods such as oily fish—are associated with improved cognitive function in older men. “Previous studies exploring the relationship between vitamin D and cognitive performance in adults have produced inconsistent findings but we observed a significant, independent association between a slower information processing speed and lower levels of vitamin D,” says lead author Dr David Lee. PTI
In Tamil Nadu, the 5g of salt that schoolgoing children consume through the midday meal scheme gives them their daily dose of iodine. Notably, it provides them a third of their day’s iron requirement as well. This “double fortified salt” (DFS) is produced by the Tamil Nadu Salt Corporation, using technology developed by the Micronutrient Initiative. DFS is also sold in some government-subsidized fair price shops in the state. The Micronutrient Initiative is now trying to make DFS more widely available in India. Its benefits, says Luc Laviolette, regional director, include “better cognitive development for children, which leads to better school performance, and increased energy (by reducing anaemia), which leads to increased productivity.” Anaemia is a concern for both men and women in India, but especially for women, who have greater need of iron. Kavita Devgan
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