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.

What Does a Balanced Meal Look Like?

How to Make a Balanced Meal  

One of the things I hear on repeat is that ‘meals just don’t taste good’ which often leads to dissatisfaction in a number of ways. Your taste buds aren’t satisfied so you reach for more even after you’re no longer hungry, nibbling on this and that and ultimately being dissatisfied and frustrated at overeating — or in some cases, undereating — because of it. 

OR

You’re needing to eat a certain way to heal your digestive system, but “it’s so boring” and “it just doesn’t taste good.” And you resist the healing effect that should be taking place.   

OR

You want to eat intuitively, but you’re overcome by cravings for “junk foods” and comfort foods and simply don’t want to eat “healthy foods.”

The Balanced Plate

One of the best ways to solve a lot of the problems listed above is to build meals that are balanced. This means your meal includes the six primary flavors of sweet, salty, sour, bitter, pungent, and astringent

But it also means there’s a balance of those flavors, in the ideal-for-you proportions. A way that tends to be both nutritious and simple to apply is dividing those six flavors into categories of building and lightening foods. 

You can ask the question of each food ingredient, will this build my body or lighten it?, to help you.

Here’s a good list:

Building Foods (comprising the flavors of sweet, sour, and salty)
Whole Grains
Sweet Vegetables (often root vegetables)
Dairy
Oils
Sweeteners
Fruit
Animal Protein

Lightening Foods (comprising pungent, bitter, and astringent flavors)
Beans and Legumes
Nuts and Seeds
Green Vegetables
Spicy/Bitter/Pungent Vegetables – such as radishes, horseradish, spicy turnips, onions, garlic, and hot/spicy peppers, eggplants
Fresh Herbs
Spices

An Ideal Ratio for Your Balanced Plate

What’s an ideal ratio of building and lightening foods? This can depend on the person, but not as much as you might think. For most, aiming for a ratio of 60% building foods and 40% lightening is ideal.
In the process of doing this, you’ll also nearly always incorporate the six flavors, and meals start to taste better, you enjoy them more, and you notice that you’re feeling satisfied without reaching for more — or struggling to eat because nothing tastes good. 

Omnivore Balanced Plate

To make a basic meal that contains meat or eggs, it’s good to think about splitting the 60/40 ratio into the different components. I recommend 20% meat or eggs, 20% whole grain, and 20% sweet vegetables, like carrots, peas, or zucchini. Then the 40% can be mostly leafy greens, like romaine lettuce with a drizzle of vinaigrette dressing, a small handful of chopped nuts or seeds, and a pinch of fresh basil or mint.
When you add in the oil/fat, spice and seasoning components, depending on your preference for the meal, it will be complete, satisfying, and balanced. 

Plant-Based  or Vegan Balanced Plate

To make a basic meal that’s free from most animal products, split your 60/40 ratio into a whole grain, a sweet vegetable, a legume, and a green/astringent vegetable. Start with 30% whole grain, and 30% sweet vegetables, like any of the examples above or fennel, sweet potato, or corn. Then the 40% can be split between 20% legume, tofu, or tempeh, and 20% leafy greens, like cabbage with a nut-based dressing, and a pinch of fresh basil or mint.
When you add in the oil/fat, spice and seasoning components, depending on your preference for the meal, again, it will be complete, satisfying, and balanced. 

One Idea, Many Variations

The beauty of this Balanced Plate idea is that ultimately, it can apply to any type of food, cuisine or flavoring profile. It worked out just fine when I made a Lasagna, rolled up ingredients into a Sushi Burrito, make homemade Pizza, pasta or noodles, and more.

It also helps to keep this idea in mind when you’re eating out. When your preferred dish on a menu isn’t quite as balanced as this, is there a way to make it a little more so by choosing a specific side or leaving off/adding something? 

But I’m an athlete training for a race and need lots of food! Does this balanced meal ratio apply?

Yes, it does! There are two frequent meal scenarios that athletes tend to get into before recovery or performance starts to suffer. Either there’s not enough of the lightening / green vegetable component to most meals OR there’s too much of it, and not enough of the whole grains, root vegetables and (for plant-based athletes), beans or legumes. If you think one of these might apply to you, see if you can add in more of what’s missing, and see how you start to feel. 

One Final Caveat

These percentages are not meant to be exact or obsessively measured. When you look at your plate, does about 60 percent of it contain a grain, sweet root vegetable, and maybe an animal protein or dairy? And does about 40 percent of it look like it’s green vegetables and maybe beans and a sprinkle of toasted nuts? That’s what we’re aiming for here. 

When you begin to eat more meals that have a balance of the flavors in ideal proportions, you’ll also notice that ongoing digestive symptoms may begin to reduce and eventually go away. And because meals simply taste better without being elaborate or extra complicated, cravings and over- or under-eating begins to be less of an everyday issue.

Much of my nutrition practice is focused on individuals and athletes with digestive health issues such as leaky gut, food allergies and intolerances, chronic GI distress, malabsorption of foods and nutrients, and inflammation. If you’re tired, stressed, and not really sure what to eat to help or hurt anymore, I invite you to reach out to me for more personalized support.

The Six Tastes for Balanced Meals and Digestion

For a long time, it’s felt appropriate to share a food as medicine approach to eating in this space, but I’m not so sure I’ve adequately explained how to do this other than to share meals that are largely based on whole, minimally processed from-nature ingredients. 

I know you want to eat food and meals that taste good, and are also good for you, but it’s important to recognize that everything we eat also has an effect.

That effect can be incredibly subtle or super obvious and I don’t mean just the effects of the caloric, macro or even micronutrient content of your meal, but because each subtle flavor within a food and meal will affect your body and your mind. 

Particularly when you eat in the same pattern of meals and flavors day in and day out. 

The Six Flavors 

There are six primary flavors within foods and ideally, all six flavors are incorporated into main meals, and at least four flavors are enjoyed at breakfast when we tend to eat a smaller amount. The six flavors are: sweet, salty, sour, bitter, pungent, and astringent

Now, what foods have which flavor? And what are their effects? 

Sweet 

The SWEET taste comes from foods that contain natural sugars: sweet root vegetables like carrots, squash, beets, all fresh and dried fruit, whole grains, natural sweeteners like honey, maple syrup, and molasses, and fresh dairy products such as milk, butter, and ghee. 

The sweet flavor builds tissues within the body, calms the nerves and nervous system, and relieves hunger. It’s the flavor you likely reach for when you’re eating to soothe an emotion or for comfort. This is natural since the flavor of our first food of milk is sweet. That food-memory association between sweet food, love, and being comforted is particularly strong. 

If you are dry, thin, nervous, anxious, scattered, or have nerve disorders, more naturally sweet foods are indicated and may be missing in adequate amounts in your meals – these are the whole grains, root vegetables, sweet fruits, and natural sugars. 

Salt 

The SALTY taste comes from foods that are naturally salty including seaweeds like kombu, arame, wakame, and nori. Some water-based vegetables are also naturally a little salty including celery, tomatoes, zucchini, and cucumbers. And of course, natural salt such as sea salt or pink mineral salt provides this flavor. Adequately cooking our foods in salt, and adding in a teaspoon per serving of dried seaweed when cooking beans or other stewy meals is an excellent way to build the salty flavor into a meal that will help us to retain the water we consume and have tissues that are more deeply hydrated, as well as provide a natural source of iodine – a critical and often missing nutrient for optimal thyroid health. 

If you are dry, drink plenty of water but are still dehydrated, experience constipation or find that the meals you cook taste “flat,” incorporating the salty flavor during the cooking process, rather than at the end, can be especially helpful. 


Sour

The SOUR flavor comes from foods such as lemons, lime, vinegars, unripe fruit, and fermented foods such as yogurt, pickles, kimchi, sauerkraut, sourdough bread, soy sauce and tamari. Many individuals either avoid sour foods or over-do them in meals. Both not enough and too much can cause problems. Adding in just a little squeeze of fresh lime juice or a little spoonful of apple cider or white wine vinegar at the end of cooking meals is frequently just enough of the sour flavor to lubricate tissues and stimulate the digestion process.

If you tend to run extra warm or frequently experience hot, agitated emotions, experience acid indigestion or reflux, have loose or sticky, incomplete stools, rashes, inflammation, or itchy, acne-prone skin, you may be over-doing the sour taste in your meals. 

Pungent

The PUNGENT flavor comes from hot and spicy peppers, black peppercorn, onions, garlic, ginger, mustard, horseradish, wasabi, raw radishes and turnips, asafoetida, cinnamon and cloves. 

This flavor increases heat and stimulates digestion and metabolism. As such, you should incorporate it into your meals in slightly larger amounts if you are routinely cold, experience poor circulation, or have low digestive fire –meaning you don’t digest or tolerate foods well

But for many others, too much pungent flavorings causes extra heat, excessive sweating and inflammation, skin rashes, acne, or eczema, agitated emotions, acid indigestion or reflux, and loose stools and diarrhea. 

If you tend to be a person that’s eternally on the move, both physically or mentally, and find it difficult to slow down your mind or pause for a relax break or day, it’s safe to say you may also benefit from cutting out too much of the pungent flavor — take a couple weeks without onions, garlic, and spicy peppers and then take note of how you feel.

Bitter

The BITTER taste is one many of us avoid. That’s unfortunate because the actions of bitter are to stimulate the digestion process by telling the body to begin releasing essential digestive acids and enzymes. The bitter flavor also helps the liver performs its routine detoxification process (necessary to get rid of waste products, excess hormones, and toxins), and it lightens tissues that are puffy and retaining water. 

Bitter foods include aloe vera, dandelion leaves and root, dark leafy greens, all vegetables in the brassica family, burdock root, eggplants, Jerusalem artichokes, sesame seeds and oil, dark chocolate, coffee, and fenugreek seeds.

Like the pungent flavor, we want just a small amount of bitter flavors in our meals — not an excess. Where many people tend to consume too much bitter is in the form of coffee. Coffee is a stimulant, and caffeine can be particularly troublesome for the liver, especially if you have hormonal imbalances. Try to reduce your coffee intake to no more than one to two 8-oz. cups in the morning if you enjoy coffee regularly. 

Astringent

The ASTRINGENT taste comes in beans and legumes, cruciferous / brassica vegetables such as kale, cabbage, broccoli, and brussels sprouts, unripe bananas, pomegranates, cranberries, and most herbs and spices including basil, bay leaves, caraway seeds, coriander, dill, fennel seeds, marjoram, nutmeg, oregano, parsley, rosemary, saffron, turmeric, vanilla, coffee, tea, wine, and alcohol. 

The astringent flavor helps us to absorb water, and dry and tighten tissues. I’ve used an alcohol-based (astringent) toner on my face a couple times a day for years, and to no surprise, I’ve also tended to experience frequent dry skin. The astringent nature of my facial toner is a wonderful example of what happens internally when we consume astringent foods. This can be excellent and necessary, in small amounts! 

If you experience chronic diarrhea or varicose veins, two examples of the tissues not being able to hold onto their fluids, astringent foods or herbs may be beneficial in slightly larger amounts. On the other hand, if you have routinely dry skin, or a dry internal condition like constipation, eating and drinking less astringent foods will be helpful. 

Six Flavors in Balance

Above all, a great way to begin to understand the effect of the different flavors and particular foods is to really pay attention to the flavor of the foods you are eating. Can you taste the sweetness when thoroughly chewing a whole grain or a steamed carrot? Can you pick out the drying, astringent effect as you take a sip of black tea, coffee, or wine? Do you notice how you internally heat up after a sandwich with spicy mustard or a bowl of particularly spicy soup? And then what do you notice in the minutes or hours afterwards?

When you begin to eat more meals that have a balance of the flavors, you’ll also notice that ongoing digestive symptoms and food intolerances might begin to reduce and eventually may even go away. And because meals simply taste better without being elaborate or extra complicated, cravings or over-eating begins to be less of an issue.

Much of my nutrition practice is focused on individuals and athletes with digestive health issues such as leaky gut, food allergies and intolerances, chronic GI distress, malabsorption of foods and nutrients, and inflammation. If you’re tired, stressed, and not really sure what to eat to help or hurt anymore, I invite you to reach out to me for more personalized support.