Salt: "It just hit me."

Philip J. Goscienski, M.D.

August 2008

There's a catchy TV commercial in which a drenching wave inspires a chef to come up with a new recipe for low-sodium soup. It's good to know that at least one American staple has become a little healthier.

The alleged culprit in salt is sodium, which makes up about 40 percent of the content of the salt used in food preparation. It doesn't matter whether the product comes from the ocean (sea salt), a mine deep in the earth or commercial brine lakes; the sodium content doesn't change significantly. Gourmet cooks appreciate that salts from different sources, with varying amount of trace minerals, contribute unique flavors.

When early farmers learned that salt kept food from spoiling for months or years an enormous industry developed that literally influenced how we live and die. Salt became a medical villain in the early 20th century when physicians learned that a diet high in sodium contributed to high blood pressure in some population groups and was associated with stomach cancer in others.

Osteoporosis is a major problem among persons beyond middle age and it will likely reach epidemic proportions when today's youngsters reach their 50s and beyond. Inadequate diet and a sedentary lifestyle are the major reasons but sodium also plays a role by promoting calcium loss through the kidneys.

We can't survive without sodium but we don't need the hefty quantities in which it occurs in processed foods. Nutritionists recommend a daily intake of less than 2500 milligrams. Only two slices of pizza with sausage contain that much. The typical American diet contains more, sometimes a lot more. Most of it comes from snacks, fast food, processed meats and condiments. What we add at the table comprises only about one fourth of our day-to-day intake.

When your physician recommends a low-sodium diet it usually means about 1,000 milligrams of sodium per day. Without some help from a spice-savvy chef a low-sodium diet is about as appealing as eating cardboard. Yet among hunter-gatherer groups in Africa, for example, the usual intake is about 600 milligrams a day. In other words, what we consider an unpalatable sodium intake is the norm among those modern Stone-Agers. There is almost no hypertension (high blood pressure) among native Africans but it occurs in about one-third of their Westernized, genetically identical cousins.

No American is likely to suffer from cutting back on salty foods. They tend to also be high in fat. Giving up potato chips, pretzels, prepared dinners, most dairy products and processed meats could only have a beneficial effect. By the time you have reached low-sodium nirvana by getting to know your spice rack intimately you won't even enjoy salty foods anymore.

When you replace processed foods with fresh fruits and vegetables you not only lower your daily sodium intake but you boost a valuable mineral, potassium. Hunter-gatherers take in about 5 times as much potassium as sodium; we moderns do just the opposite. It's no surprise that even 70-year-old hunter-gatherers have almost no heart disease or osteoporosis. Has it hit you yet?

Philip J. Goscienski, M.D. is the author of Health Secrets of the Stone Age, Better Life Publishers 2005. Contact him at drphil@stoneagedoc.com.