With a society increasingly based on convenience, ready meals and pre-packaged processed foods are ever more popular. These foods often contain a lot of salt, which has come under criticism by the medical community.

What the risks exactly? We take a closer look at the risks of eating too much salt and what you can do to avoid salt-related health problems.

What Is Salt?

Salt that we consume is usually the compound sodium chloride, sourced from seawater or underground mines. Salt is often added to processed foods as a preservative and to increase the taste in an inexpensive way.

People who are more likely to experience health problems related to a high salt intake are:

  • People who have elevated or high blood pressure (hypertension)
  • People over the age of 50
  • People who have diabetes
  • People of African American heritage

However, anyone with a high-salt diet is at increased risk of several health conditions and diseases including cancer.

The Risks Of Salt  

1. High Blood Pressure (Hypertension)

A high salt intake will put stress on the kidneys, which have problems keeping up with the excess sodium in the bloodstream. The body will hold onto its water in order to dilute the sodium in the bloodstream, leading to an increase in the fluid inside cells as well as an increase in the volume of blood flowing around the body. Increased blood volume can stiffen blood vessels and lead to high blood pressure (also known as hypertension) as well as stroke and heart attack.

High blood pressure is responsible for 66% of strokes and 50% of heart disease and in China it is responsible for over a million deaths a year as the leading cause of preventable death.

Hypertension is often known as “the silent killer” as there is usually an absence of symptoms.

Efforts to cure hypertension can include a healthy diet low in fat, salt and caffeine, increased exercise and good stress management. One study on hypertension found that reducing sodium in participants’ diets had a stronger effect than reducing red meat, sweets and saturated fats.

2. Cancer

The World Cancer Research Fund has concluded that a diet high in salt or salty and salted foods is a “probable cause of stomach cancer”.

Stomach cancer is the cancer with the third-highest mortality rate and is the fifth most common cancer in the world. Salt can cause lesions on the stomach which may then develop into cancer. The effects of the Helicobacter Pylori bacteria, another cause of stomach cancer, are also exacerbated with salt intake.

The World Cancer Research Fund recommends keeping your salt intake to under 5g per day, while the Center for Disease Control and Prevention recommends no more than 3.4g per day.

3. Heart Disease

One study in Finland found that adults who consumed an average of 12.7g or more of salt each day doubled their risk of heart failure over a 12 year follow up period.

An increased risk of developing heart disease was found in participants who consumed 6.8g of salt or more each day. In patients with heart failure, a high salt intake can cause fluid retention, bloating and swelling, shortness of breath and fatigue as well as other painful and unpleasant symptoms.

A 10 year study in the 1990s found that people who followed a reduced sodium diet were 25% less likely to have had a stroke or a heart attack, to have died from cardiovascular disease or to have had a procedure or bypass to correct cholesterol blocked artery. 

4. Osteoporosis

When people consume a high level of salt, the amount of calcium lost in urination increases. If the body detects a low level of calcium in the blood it will take it from the bones, leading to weaker bones and an increased risk of hairline fractures, broken bones and the bone-thinning effects of osteoporosis.

One study found that loss of bone density over a two year period was directly correlated with sodium found in urine, and that the relationship with bone loss was as strong as that for calcium intake. Reducing salt intake could also slow the loss of calcium that occurs naturally during the aging process.

5. Dehydration

Salt has a dehydrating effect which can in turn cause headaches, blurred vision, constipation, irritability and a dry mouth. It can also affect the condition of your hair and skin and cause a potassium deficiency, which is essential for balancing the effects of sodium on the body. Signs and symptoms of dehydration include sunken eyes, lethargy, increased mucus on the tongue and lining of the mouth, trouble urinating and constipation.

6. Edema

Related to dehydration, edema is the swelling in the body caused by water retention and blood capillaries leaking due to pressure. It often occurs in your hands, feet, arms and legs and can be painful or uncomfortable.

It may cause stretched and shiny skin, skin that stays dimpled when pressed, and increased size. Further complications may include skin ulcers, decreased elasticity of the joints, muscles and veins, difficulty walking and an increased risk of infection in the affected area.

List Of Foods With A High Salt Content

Foods that typically contain a high level of salt and sodium include:

  • Pre-packaged ready meals
  • Chips
  • French fries
  • Processed, cured and smoked meats such as bacon, sausage, burgers and salami
  • Canned meals such as chilli con carne, ravioli and meat in sauce
  • Salted nuts
  • Canned vegetables with added salt
  • Pizza
  • Bread

How To Reduce Your Salt Intake

There are several simple steps that you can take to reduce your salt intake. At first reduced salt foods may taste bland but it won’t take long (a week or so) for your taste buds to adapt- soon you’ll be wondering how you ever put up with super salty food!

  1. Stop adding salt to your food during cooking – Everyone’s taste buds are different, so leave the food out of the pot and let people add a bit at the table if they wish. This way you can ensure that your own food has no added salt.
  2. Purchase a low-sodium table salt to further cut down on your intake – These salts often have potassium added which helps to create a better balance within your body and are a great option if cutting out salt completely seems a bit much at the start.
  3. Cook from scratch – Ready meals that can be microwaved or oven-cooked often have a high amount of salt as it helps to increase the flavor and also works as a preservative. Cooking from scratch means that you know exactly how much salt you are consuming.
  4. Use more herbs and spices – Salt is often used to add and increase flavor; using more herbs and spices can fill the flavor-gap without adding health risks.
  5. Rinse canned foods – Foods such as peas, beans and sweetcorn usually have salt and sugar added to the canning water.
  6. Read the Nutrition Facts – Labels on food and ensure than your sodium intake doesn’t exceed 2300mg per day.
  7. Exercise – Sweating helps to process and remove some sodium from your body and it will also help to reduce blood pressure and your risk of heart disease. Exercise should not be used as a reason to eat more salt, however.
  8. Drink plenty of water – This will help to counteract the dehydrating effects of salt and sodium, and help the body to pass the sodium in your urine.

Conclusion

Consuming a high level of salt in your diet is a risk factor in developing a multitude of diseases and health conditions, including high blood pressure, heart disease and osteoporosis.

Ensuring that you manage your intake of salt through cooking at home, using herbs and spices to increase flavor and drinking plenty of water are all good ways to increase your health and reduce the risk of long term illness.

Hannah Canavan
Hannah Canavan
Researcher at DietProbe
Hannah is a health and lifestyle journalist with a passion for veganism and nutrition.
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