The importance of salt in the diet

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The importance of salt in the diet
Salt is an essential nutrient with many vital functions. (salt cellar image by Edsweb from Fotolia.com)

Salt, an essential nutrient composed of the minerals sodium and chloride, performs vital functions in the human body. Sodium and chloride make up the fluid that surrounds your cells and are involved in numerous chemical processes. Salt is naturally present in nearly every type of food; even fruits and vegetables contain salt. Processed foods such as tinned soups and salted snacks contain added salt, usually in copious amounts. Whilst a minimum amount of sodium chloride is necessary for your survival, getting too much salt poses health risks.

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Function

Sodium and chloride are called ions because they contain a chemical charge. Concentrated in your extracellular fluid, they maintain an electrochemical gradient known as a membrane potential. Membrane potential requires a large amount of energy, and it is essential for numerous processes, including muscle contraction, heart function and the transmission of nerve impulses. Sodium chloride also regulates your body’s absorption of sugar and water to support healthy blood volumes and pressures.

Daily requirement

Adults require roughly 3.5 g of sodium chloride per day. This helps replace salt losses in sweat. If you are active, and particularly if you exercise in hot climates, you may require more salt in your diet. However, most Americans, for example, get well over the recommended 3.5 g per day, and too much sodium may increase your risk of diseases such as stomach cancer, kidney stones, high blood pressure and osteoporosis.

Sources

Salt is present in virtually every type of food. High-salt foods include breads and cereals, in addition to pickles, ham, crisps and soups. Sauces and salad dressings also contain large amounts of salt. Fruits and vegetables are low-salt foods. Examples include oranges, mangoes, tomatoes and carrots. If you wish to reduce your salt intake, snack on fruits and vegetables instead of packaged snacks, or opt for unsalted varieties of your favorite crisps. Unsalted crisps have 45 mg of salt per serving, compared to 3,000 mg in the salted variety.

Considerations

Deficiency of sodium chloride is rare, even if you are on a low salt diet, defined as under 2 g per day of sodium chloride. However, if you exercise for long periods of time in hot weather, take care to replace sodium losses with a salt tablet or sports drink. If you drink only water after hard workouts, you run the risk of developing a condition known as hyponatraemia, or low blood sodium. Hyponatraemia is characterised by dizziness, weakness and vomiting. In severe cases, coma and death may result.

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