Are you having too much salt without realising?

Emma Brown - Nutritionist | 28 Feb, 2019

It's Salt Awareness Week – each year this week is dedicated to raising awareness about salt and the possible adverse effects it can have on our health.

Salt is an important mineral in our diet and we do need some salt to survive as it is important in fluid regulation. Insufficient salt in the blood can lead to hyponatremia, a potentially life threatening condition, however this is rarely caused by too little salt in our diet as we only need a small amount. More commonly we are consuming far too much salt, which has various other adverse affects on our health.

Salt and health

Having high levels of salt in our diet can lead to increased blood pressure, which in turn may increase the risk of cardiovascular disease or strokes. This is because excess salt can cause blood to thicken, which can put pressure on our arteries. People who are overweight are at an increased risk of high blood pressure anyway, so having an excess salt intake is a big no no.

What about weight gain?

Salt itself doesn't contain any calories, so it doesn't directly lead to increased fat stores and weight gain. However there are a couple of reasons why salt can impact on our weight:

  1. Water retention – salt is an electrolyte that plays an important role in fluid regulation in our cells. Too much salt in our diet can result in an increase in extra cellular fluid, due to the body trying to regulate the balance of water to sodium. Retaining water can mean you don't see a shift on the scales.
  2. The foods it is in – salt tends to be most prevalent in processed, high calorie foods such as cheese, processed meats, crisps, chips and pizzas. So chances are if you're having too much salt, you may well be eating too many highly calorific, fatty foods which can result in excess calorie consumption and weight gain.

How much should we be eating?

We should be eating no more than 6g of salt per day – which is 2.4g of sodium. But the average daily intake of salt in the UK currently is estimated at 8.1g per day – much more than the maximum recommendation for health. The good news is that salt intake has come down quite a lot in recent years as people have become more aware of the risks of consuming too much. However we still have a way to go to reach that magic 6g!

How to reduce our intake?

You may think that not adding salt to your food or limiting your intake of products like pizza, cheese, chips and canned goods is enough to ensure your salt intake is healthy. In many ways, yes, this is a great step as these are some of the mostly common high salt foods. But the truth is that salt is present in many foods today and it is important be aware of possible hidden amounts if you need to reduce your salt intake for health reasons.

I've listed below some of the most common salt-containing foods, and maybe some of the lesser known ones:

Classic high salt foods to limit

  • Cheese
  • Processed meats such as bacon, ham, sausages and salami
  • Chips
  • Breaded/coated chicken pieces
  • Crisps
  • Olives
  • Gravy and stock cubes
  • Soy sauce

*There are varieties of these foods which have been developed in recent years to contain less salt, so where possible opt for the reduced salt version.

Foods that may be surprisingly high in salt

  • Bread
  • Canned soups and beans
  • Ready made pizzas
  • Sandwiches
  • Cooking sauces
  • Breakfast cereals
  • Biscuits
  • Pastries
  • Ketchup
  • Ready meals

You might not think the foods listed above contain much salt, but there can be hidden salt in all of them. Always check the labels and opt for the reduced salt version of foods if you can.

Nutritionist Emma Brown (ANutr), MSc Human Nutrition is passionate about how food science applies to the human body, and how the nutrients in what we eat affect us and ultimately have an impact on our health.