Knowing When (and how much) Salt to Consume

Confused about whether you need additional salt in the summer or when you’re active? Or have you been avoiding salt because it’s been considered “bad for health”? 

What are the roles of salt? 

  • Salt is one of the six essential tastes or flavors. This means we need it for digestion to work properly, and it also makes food and meals taste “balanced/good.”
  • Salt is a required electrolyte for balancing water + fluids throughout the body
    • Salt helps to keep us supple and to create flexibility in the joints – no added salt dries us out and is depleting. This is because sodium holds onto water in the cell.
    • Sodium helps with water absorption from the gut. When you drink something that contains sodium and carbohydrate, you will have increased absorption of water and once it is absorbed, the water will be better retained. 
  • Salt aids in digestion and elimination of wastes
    • It’s a co-factor for transporting glucose (a simple sugar from broken down carbohydrates) across the small intestine lining to be absorbed.
    • It’s a co-factor for transporting amino acids (the building blocks of protein) into the cells to be utilized via the sodium-potassium pump in a ratio of 3:2, sodium : potassium. 
    • The salty flavor stimulates the appetite. 
  • Salt helps to support muscle contraction and muscle strength.
  • Salt helps to clear the subtle channels of the body of stagnation – these are often overlooked in modern western medicine, but are quite important in eastern medicinal traditions. 


* Salt is lost through sweat in varying amounts that are individual to you. What’s really interesting (depending on how you look at it of course) is that people that tend to be salty sweat-ers tend to crave salt more, potentially indicating they desire more salt because they lost more. But counter to this, consuming more salt leads to sweating out more salt in the skin. So it’s not yet entirely clear if you’re craving salt because you lost a lot, or you lost a lot of salt through sweat because you ate a lot of salt.

For highly active individuals, it’s really important to replenish salt and other minerals that are being lost through sweat. In addition to sodium, we also lose potassium, chloride, magnesium, calcium, iron, and others through sweat, and these minerals are all considered electrolytes, meaning they conduct an electric current when dissolved in water.

The electrolytes that are lost in the highest concentrations through sweating are sodium, chloride, and potassium, in that order. The others are lost in much smaller amounts. Because salt is primarily sodium and chloride, salt is needing to be replenished in the highest amount after sweating.

What about when I’m craving salt? Does that indicate I need to eat more of it? 

Not necessarily. Take a look at what foods or drinks  you are craving. Is your desire for salt satisfied by adding an extra ⅛ – ¼ tsp. per serving of mineral/rock salt to your meals during the cooking process?
An additional way to add extra salt to your diet is by adding rock salt and rock sugar in small amounts in warm water. You can then let them sit at room temperature if you don’t want to consume a hot drink. Or sign up for my newsletter. I’m sharing an easy homemade electrolyte drink this week.

If your cravings are not relieved by the above and you’re craving salty junk food such as chips, french fries and fried potatoes, pretzels and snacky foods, it’s likely that this is a craving representing imbalance in the body at the moment, and eating more of these foods is not going to sustainably satisfy the imbalance. 

Craving salt all the time might also indicate a need for additional zinc, and it would be good to check in with your nutrition professional to check your zinc levels and determine other symptoms of zinc imbalance – simply supplementing with additional zinc can lead to other mineral imbalances over time so it’s wise to work with an expert on this. 

Symptoms of too much and too little salt 

  • Too little sodium can lead to hyponatramia (low blood sodium), dizziness, muscle cramps, nausea, vomiting, loss of appetite, seizures, or coma
  • Too much sodium can lead to hypernatremia (high blood sodium), hypertension (high blood pressure), and nausea 
  • Too little chloride can lead to muscle spasms with loss of consciousness
  • Too much chloride can lead to hypertension (high blood pressure)

Quality Salts to Cook With and Eat

  1. Himalayan Pink Salt has the same potassium concentration as the human body – it also contains other trace minerals and electrolytes that are essential for fluid balance. 
  2. Redmond Real Salt (from Salt Lake City area in Utah) is similar to Himalayan Pink Salt and is also recommended.
  3. The last best choice is sea salt. Sea salt is very similar to table salt (sodium chloride), with a little more of the other electrolytes. It is less processed than table salt but our modern oceans are not as pure as they once were and thus, sea salt is going to be less of a good choice than mineral (rock) salt. We’re even starting to find microplastics in sea salt! 
  4. Table salt is the least expensive salt at the supermarket and made of sodium and chloride. It’s also what is used in nearly all pre-packaged, restaurant, and processed foods–Table salt is realistically more harmful than it is helpful. It has virtually all the other minerals stripped out of it, and has undergone intensive mining and refining processes. 

How Much Salt Should I Eat/Drink?  

The answer to this is that it depends on you, and it’s not super easy to gauge just exactly how much salt you need. I recommend ⅛ teaspoon per person cooked into meals at breakfast and ¼ teaspoon at lunch and dinner as a starting point. If you add no additional packaged/processed foods and no other salt in meals, you will inherently meet the lower end of the recommended daily amount per day using these amounts. 

Most of us are adding additional inherently salty foods to our meals such as olives, pickles, etc., or eating foods that have salt-added as part of the processing, so still keeping with the suggested amounts to add when cooking meals, you’ll likely still be within the recommended sodium amount. 

If you’re a salty sweat-er, or highly active, gauge your desire for salt, and whether it’s relieved by adding additional high quality mineral salt to foods rather than through snack foods, or mix up a batch of the electrolyte homemade electrolyte drink, if you’re a newsletter subscriber, to drink throughout the day or during workouts.

Next Steps

This is by no means a comprehensive review or personalized advice. I encourage you to reach out to me for more personalized support, especially if you need assistance with how to adjust your salt intake in and around exercise or based on your symptoms of imbalance.

“Healthy” versus Healthy For YOU

Is this kale salad healthy? Yes.
Is it healthy for YOU? That’s individual.

Eating Right For You

A common Ayurvedic proverb states that “When diet is wrong, medicine is of no use. When diet is correct, medicine is of no need.

Ayurveda is often considered the mother of medicine, and the oldest medical system in the world. Regardless of whether that is entirely true, Ayurveda is a traditional medical system originating in modern day India. Traditional Medical Systems, including Ayurveda, Traditional Chinese Medicine, Western Herbalism and others, use energetics of foods, herbs, and your body to arrive at balanced and optimal health in your whole self. Meaning mind and body (and soul).

The Why: Energetics Explained

Energetics means the quality that is present in the environment, your body, or the ingredient, and the effect it has on whoever is being exposed to it. The most basic energetics to work with are hot, cold, (and thus heating or cooling), and wet, dry (and thus moistening/dampening, or drying).

In most places in the northern hemisphere, the energetics of the environment make fairly big shifts with the seasons. Late winter and early spring tend to be cool or cold, and wet or damp, summer, depending on where you are located, is often hot and dry, or hot and humid (damp). Etc.

When we’re using a food as medicine approach, the best way to achieve balanced and optimal health is by eating in a way that has the opposite quality of the body or of the seasonal environment that we’re a part of – eating in this opposite approach then provides balance for the body to be at, or return to equilibrium, where health occurs.

So in the hot, dry weeks of high summer (where I live), we can return to balance by eating meals that are cooler and more wet/soupy/moist.


An example is sipping on a cucumber infused water (cooling, moist) on a hot summer’s day, or having a mildly spiced coconut-based curry (cooling, moist, easy to digest) instead of pungent and spicy carne asada tacos (heating/pungent) on corn tortillas (drying) with tomato and jalapeño-based salsa (heating/pungent). 

Likewise, using energetics to determine the right food for you vs. what’s considered “healthy,” means tuning in to your own symptoms. 

an example of cold + dry: raw walnuts

Energetics of Your Body

In addition to eating in tune with the weather outside, or the season, it’s equally and sometimes more important, to adjust meals to what’s going on in you. 

Do you tend to be a hot and dry person? Or how about cold and dry? Warm and wet? Or cool and wet? 

Dry symptoms include: having dry skin, hair, scalp, or digestion by way of constipation (either not having a bowel movement daily, or small, dry, difficult to pass bowel movements), having gas, bloating, and achy, popping joints. 

Wet symptoms include: a wet, phlegmy cough, mucous, sluggish digestion, or feeling like food just sits in your GI and smolders after eating, fungal overgrowth, a heavy coating on the tongue, swelling in the lower legs or hands, retaining water, excess weight gain that you just can’t lose. 

Hot symptoms include:  rashes, hives, skin flare-ups, having a hot temper, reflux, heartburn, feeling consistently frustrated or easily angry, night sweats, excess sweating, inflammation, feeling overheated

Cold symptoms include: circulatory constriction, feeling routinely cold, experiencing cold hands and feet, poor digestion or need to take supplements to properly absorb food and meals, feeling emotionally heavy, depressed, or sad, lack of motivation, and fatigue

From those lists, you can probably determine how you feel generally, or from day to day. Eating foods that have the opposite energetics to what you’ve experiencing can be extremely helpful. 

Oatmeal with cinnamon, stewed peaches and tahini

An Example of How to Shift Preparation of a Meal

Let’s take a look at an example of a simple shift at breakfast time. 

Say you’re experiencing lots of dry symptoms (dry skin and hair, constipation, extra gassy, and bloating, as well as popping joints). And you also have poor circulation in your hands and feet, and generally run cooler. Your current energetics are cold and dry.

Instead of eating your routine breakfast of dry muesli and chopped nuts mixed in with cold yogurt and raw fruit, a more balanced and “good for you” breakfast with similar ingredients is a cooked oatmeal (or cooked muesli), with the fruit stewed or cooked in, and some warming spices added – spices such as cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger, allspice, or a sprinkle of cloves. And if you’re consistently experiencing constipation, gas and bloating, leave out the cold, dry nuts for a few weeks. Instead, a simple shift is to cook the oatmeal with a spoonful of ghee or sesame oil to provide moisture, warmth, and an easy to digest fat source while you’re returning your system to balance. 

Summary

The simplest way to describe the process of choosing what to eat and how to prepare meals based on energetics is that like attracts like and opposites provide balance.

What often confuses or sidetracks people is that when we’re out of balance, we tend to crave what makes us even more imbalanced. It’s the like attracts like part of that statement above. And, it can be easy to confuse intuitive eating and eating based on our cravings.

Next Steps

If this topic is intriguing to you, check out another article I wrote on the topic, regarding seasonal eating during late winter and spring. That article gives several spice options for adding more gentle heat to meals, and helping out your digestion.

Within my nutrition practice, I specialize in endurance athletes and digestive imbalances. If you routinely struggle with any of the above symptoms,  I encourage you to reach out to me for more personalized support.

Transitioning Your Eating into Spring

When it comes to eating and ingredient choices, eating in tune with the seasons can go a long way towards creating an internal environment that leads to lasting health.

You know you don’t choose the same foods on a hot, sticky summer day as you do in the middle of winter. But what about a blustery spring day when the options at the farmers market (or grocery store) can be a little lackluster?

Below are a few tips for transitioning your eating into spring, as well as a deeper look at the why behind them.

Tips for Eating in the Spring

  1. Avoid congestive foods – these are generally foods that are heavy, cold, and wet.
    This includes refined grains and sugar, dairy (especially cold, sweetened dairy products, like ice cream, and fruit-sweetened yogurt), processed / pre-packaged meals and takeout, high fat foods, excessively salty foods (miso, soy sauce, restaurant meals), wheat products – a heavier grain that is inflammatory when digestion is compromised.
  2. Add in more dark leafy greens!
    What grows in spring? GREENS! Early spring greens tend to be bitter, pungent and cleansing. They’re perfectly designed to balance us after a winter of heartier fare.
  3. Sip on warm beverages rather than cold water and drinks.
    For many individuals with compromised digestion, this tip will always be true, but spring is a time of year when this is true for everyone.
  4. Sip on dandelion and/or burdock tea.
    These are bitter, detoxifying roots, and are nearly always included in any herbal “detox” formula. They support healthy liver function and help the body get rid of unwanted waste products and excess moisture.
  5. Try to eat three meals each day with little snacking.
    Or if you’re quite active, four balanced meals with no snacking in between. Giving the digestive system time to rest by about 3.5-6 hours after each meal really supports its ability to fully digest the last meal before the body has to begin digestion again.
  6. Get Moving!
    Getting your heart rate and circulation up and breaking a sweat regularly is an excellent way to promote optimal detoxification – of environmental toxins and pollens, of hormones, of inflammatory substances from foods. Moving promotes lymph flow, which when stagnated leads to congestion, mucous, retaining water, and sluggish digestion.
    If you’re already active, and perhaps training for a spring race, make sure you balance some of that heavier training with slower movement, and gentle yoga or daily self-massage that can gently move out some of the extra inflammation that can accumulate during this season.
  7. Up your spices!
    In the springtime, spices help the body to warm up and remove mucus. They also promote optimal digestion, and help to digest more difficult foods such as beans and legumes.

Broccoli Olive Sourdough Pizza – emphasis on the broccoli topping!

The Why: Energetics of Early Spring

First, look at the energetics of the season, or the energetics of the weather outside today. Energetics means the quality that is present in the environment, your body, or the ingredient, and the effect it has. The most basic energetics to work with are hot, cold, (and thus heating or cooling), and wet, dry (and thus (moistening/dampening, or drying).

In most places in the northern hemisphere, late winter and early spring tends to be cool or cold, and wet or damp. When we’re using a food as medicine approach, we do so by eating in a way that has the opposite quality of the body or of the seasonal environment that we’re a part of – eating in this opposite approach then provides balance for the body to be at, or return to equilibrium, where health occurs.

So in the cool, damp weeks of early spring, we want to eat meals that are warm and perhaps slightly drying in nature. One of the easiest ways to work with this component is by eating all meals cooked, and adding in more spices as we’re preparing foods. In terms of spices, nearly every common cooking spice will be drying in effect. Many of them will also be warming, and some will be more warming, or just plain hot, than others –like garlic, chilies, onion, and ginger.  

Energetics of Your Body

Now take a look at what’s going on in your body. Do you tend towards having symptoms of spring allergies, mucus, a wet phlegmy cough, swelling of the lower legs, retaining water, lack of appetite, or sluggish digestion where you eat and feel full for hours, like food is heavy and just sitting in your belly? This means you can use more warm and drying foods and spices! 

Key spices to incorporate into meals in late winter and early spring season include black pepper, cinnamon, ginger, cloves, nutmeg, horseradish, cayenne and chili in small amounts, garlic in small amounts, fenugreek, mustard seed, cumin, turmeric, ajwain, rosemary, thyme, sage, and oregano.

Putting Them Together: Cook with Three Spices


One of the best ways to start spicing your foods without it becoming an overwhelming task is to choose three spices to use in each meal. For breakfast, if you’re having something warm and porridge-like, such as oatmeal, incorporating a trio of spices in the total amount of ¼ – ⅜ teaspoon is just about right.

A couple combinations to start with include:
⅛ teaspoon each of ginger, cinnamon, and nutmeg
⅛ teaspoon each of ginger, anise seed, and cardamom
⅛ teaspoon each of ginger, turmeric, and cinnamon

In midday and evening meals, we can slightly increase the total amount of spices to about ½ – ¾ teaspoon total per person.

Some Spring Spice Combinations include (amounts per serving):
¼ fresh garlic clove, ¼ teaspoon each of rosemary, and oregano
¼ teaspoon each of cumin, mustard seed, turmeric
¼ teaspoon each of fenugreek, sage, and rosemary
¼ teaspoon each of fresh ginger, turmeric, and a pinch of black pepper

If you’re using other people’s recipes to cook with, adjust the spicing according to what you’ve learned above, particularly about your body. Most modern recipes over-rely on heating spices and condiments. 

An example is a recipe with several cloves of garlic, chilies, several tablespoons of fresh ginger, tamari, soy sauce, or miso, all in one. This is a recipe that’s probably going to burn us up internally, even if you and the season is running cold! You can tame the recipe and spice level by slowly reducing the amounts of each spice, or switching an ingredient out for one that has a milder effect of the same quality, such as using a pinch of black pepper instead of a ½ teaspoon of cayenne, or using 1-2 teaspoons of finely grated fresh ginger in a recipe that calls for 3-inches of the fresh root.

Signs of Balance and Imbalance

Ultimately, the goal is to feel good in your body and mind in each season. 

During this time of year, signs of balance include slowing down more than other times of year to rest more, having steady energy throughout the daylight hours, maintaining a healthy immune system and response, and eating to nourish yourself with no signs of impaired digestion.

Signs of imbalance include over committing, feeling depleted throughout the day, stagnation (mentally or physically), depression, mucus in the respiratory system, overeating  (especially high sugar, extremely rich, or cold foods), and having heavy, sluggish digestion with reduced or no appetite.