Pass the Salt Please

Sarah Food for Runners, Superfoods for Runners 2 Comments

Salt. Apparently, North Americans consume over twice the amount they are “supposed to” despite years of being told to limit salt intake (taking in ~3,400mg daily as opposed to the recommended levels of 1,500mg daily)¹. Of course, we’re runners and we lose salt when we sweat, so we’ve been told we can have a bit more… But overall…

Salt… It’s kinda… Bad for us… Right?!!

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Actually no. Not really.² It’s more complicated than that (surprise!). When debating optimal levels of sodium content in our diets, there are 3 main areas to consider. One, the type of salt/sodium. Two, where the salt/sodium is coming from. And three, how much salt/sodium we actually require.

Before I dive in, let me just point out that all salt is made up of primarily sodium and chloride in a ratio of roughly 2:3 (both sodium and chloride are electrolytes lost in large quantities through sweat). Therefore, 1 tsp (5g) of salt equals just over 2g (2,000mg) sodium. Just in case you were wondering.

Type of Salt

Although all salt is technically sea salt (it all originated from the ocean, whether it be from ancient sea beds that are now mined, dead seas, or modern oceans) – there is a large difference between refined sea salt and unrefined sea salt.

Refined is stark white, has been stripped of all trace minerals, contains additives and anti-caking agents and actually has an aftertaste. However, unrefined sea salt is flecked with colour, contains over 60 trace minerals, contains absolutely no additives or anti-caking chemicals and doesn’t have an aftertaste. Celtic/Gray salt comes from a modern ocean in France, Himalayan/Pink salt comes from an ancient sea in Pakistan and the salt I use (and have been using ever since I began “eating to run”), Redmond Real Salt, comes from an ancient sea in the USA (Utah).

Salt Sources in our Diet

The general population consumes salt in three main ways.³

  1. 11% comes from being added into cooking and baking, and added at the table;
  2. 12% comes from what naturally occurs in plant-strong, whole foods; and
  3. 77% comes from packaged, processed foods.

I think you can clearly see the crux of any salt problem here. We shouldn’t be eating packaged, processed foods – for so many reasons other than high sodium content, these foods will do nothing good for our health, let alone our desire to run well.

When it comes to baking and cooking with real salt, I salt my foods to taste. If a half teaspoon of salt in one batch of hummus didn’t taste like enough (it’s not, my recipe calls for twice the amount), I’ll use 1 teaspoon without reservation (or maybe more, like I said, I salt to taste – and I know I absolutely use more salt on long run days, especially in the warmer months). It’s interesting to note that our sodium appetite is finely regulated by the brain – not public policy ², speaking of which…

Salt Requirements

Some may say I consume too much salt – and it’s true that I’m not shy in using it in my cooking and baking. However, I’ve long advocated that the recommended intake levels for sodium are too low. And indeed, studies are now finding that between 3,000mg-6,000mg actually result in more favourable health results than too little (below 3000mg) or too much (above 6,000mg to 7,000mg).2,4  

Considering the current daily average intake of sodium is between 3,400mg to 4,000mg per day, I believe the focus is better put on quality of foods we are eating.

What about salt requirements as a runner? Sodium is the main electrolyte lost in sweat and in exercise that lasts longer than 90 minutes, it has been found that sodium added to food or drink post-exercise will help to restore hydration levels more quickly. How much? It depends on how much you sweat and sodium losses vary greatly from runner to runner. The Institute of Medicine recommends a sports drink containing 460 to 1,150 mg of sodium per litre water for recovery and rehydration post-exercise5 – that’s between a ¼ and a ½ teaspoon of salt.

Wait! One more thing… What About Iodine?

I recently opened a cookbook authored by a popular blogger I admire. In the first few pages, she recommended choosing iodized sea salt. Now, in all my years of eating plant-strong, natural, whole foods… I’ve made a point of avoiding salt with iodine added and ensuring I use only 100% real sea salt (nothing added). I was confused with her recommendation. So I looked into it.

Iodine is required for a healthy thyroid, and was added to table salt back in the early 1920’s when large incidences of goiter (abnormal enlargement of the thyroid gland) were found in America’s Pacific Northwest. Iodine is present in the soil food is grown in (thus is present in foods grown in rich soils), however at that time it was discovered the soil had become deficient in iodine. Public policy decreed potassium iodine be added to table salt. This addition of iodine appeared to solve the problem as incidence of goiter dropped dramatically in the following years.

Here’s the thing. If you are eating a natural, healthy, balanced and plant-strong diet that is full of variety, you are likely getting enough iodine and don’t need to use iodized salt6. If you include seaweeds in your diet, it is even more likely you don’t need to use iodized salt (seaweed is a great natural source of iodine). Personally I have not used iodized salt for years. As it happens, unrefined sea salt does contain trace amounts of iodine.

Harvard Medical School pondered this question of whether or not the use of non-iodized gourmet salts (unrefined sea salt) would result in insufficient iodine intake. So far, this question has not been the object of scientific study. However, the National Health and Nutrition Examination Surveys did report a sharp decline in average iodine intake between the early 1970s and the 1990s, but it never fell below the level required for good health and is now on the rise again.³

It’s interesting to note that packaged, processed foods and ‘take-out’ or fast foods do not use iodized salt (commonly, non-iodized refined salt is used) – so no, there is no “benefit” of getting your iodine from eating convenience foods. 😉

So what does it come down to? Eat real, whole, plant-strong foods and you may want to choose to include seaweeds and fish in your diet.

Eat clean, run strong, be well… Cheers, Sarah

Sarah J Cuff, RHN

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1. https://www.heart.org/HEARTORG/GettingHealthy/NutritionCenter/HealthyEating/Sodium-Salt_UCM_303290_Article.jsp, accessed April 25, 2014.
2. http://demystifyingmedicine.ca/food_choices_20140127.html, accessed April 25, 2014.3. , accessed April 25, 2014.
3. http://www.health.harvard.edu/newsletters/Harvard_Womens_Health_Watch/2009/November/sodium-salt-and-you, accessed April 25, 2014.
4. http://ajh.oxfordjournals.org/content/early/2014/03/26/ajh.hpu028.1, accessed April 25, 2014.
5. Austin & Seebohar, Performance Nutrition: Applying the Science of Nutrient Timing, Human Kinetics, 2011, page 84.
6. http://www.drweil.com/drw/u/QAA400874/Why-Buy-Iodized-Salt.html,accessed April 25, 2014.

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