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Let's Talk About Salt

9th March 2020

It's not just the salt you see that's the problem

It’s Salt Awareness Week and this year’s theme is Hide and Seek!

We all know we should be adding less salt to our food, but salt is also added to lots of products before we even add salt, e.g. breakfast cereals, sandwiches, takeaways...the list goes on.

It isn’t always obvious, but just because you don’t personally add salt to your food and just because it doesn’t necessarily taste salty, it doesn’t mean salt isn’t in your food. And when eating at a restaurant, it’s impossible to know how much salt is in the food because chefs add different levels of seasoning each time they prepare a dish.

How much should we be eating?

The Government recommends that adults eat no more than 6g (2.4g of sodium) of salt a day, which is about a teaspoon. Currently, we consume 8.1g a day, which is about a third more than the maximum recommendation, so we still have some way to go.

Why is it dangerous to keep eating too much salt?

  • It can contribute to high blood pressure
  • It increases the amount of urinary protein, a major risk factor for developing kidney disease and cardiovascular disease
  • There's a relationship between eating too much salt long term and an increased risk of gastric cancer
  • It's a major factor in controlling the amount of calcium in the urine and calcium lost from the bones. Because calcium is important for bone strength, too much salt can lead to bone weakening and therefore osteoporosis. High blood pressure caused by a high salt diet can also increase the risk of osteoporosis by increasing the rate at which calcium is lost from your bones
  • Cutting down salt will help to reduce the amount of excess fluid in your body
  • Whilst salt is not a direct cause of obesity, it's a major influencing factor through its effect on soft drink consumption: salt makes you thirsty and increases the amount of fluid you drink
  • Many people from ethnic minorities living in the UK, including people of Black African and South Asian descent, are particularly sensitive to the effects of too much salt and therefore are at higher risk of associated health conditions.

Why are we eating more than the recommended amount?

Many people don't realise they are eating too much salt. That's because for most people, about 75% of the salt in our diet comes from processed foods. It’s not just in ready meals, soups and sauces; look out for everyday foods such as some breads and cereals, as well as sweet foods containing salt.

Food doesn't necessarily have to taste salty to be salty and that's one of the reasons it can be difficult to reduce your salt intake; it's often already in the food we buy and we can't just take it out!  Try to read food labels to make sure that you are making low-salt choices. They may show the salt content as a percentage of your reference intake (RI), or have colour-coded nutrition information to show whether the salt content is:

  • Green (low)
  • Amber (medium)
  • Red (high).

Try to eat high-salt foods only occasionally, or in small amounts, and aim to mainly eat foods that are green or amber.

Alternatively, you can use the free health app, FoodSwitch which tells you which foods are less salty.

Quick wins

  • Reduce the amount of salt added to food in cooking and at the table and try using alternatives for seasoning such as black pepper, herbs and spices. It won't take long for you to adjust to the taste
  • Avoid eating too much processed food as this accounts for 75% of our salt intake, e.g. bread, pies and pastry products, ready meals, soups, sausages, baked beans, pizzas, stews
  • If possible, make meals from scratch, using fresh and frozen ingredients, e.g. homemade bread, homemade pies, casseroles, fresh meat and products with no added salt
  • For snacks, try eating unsalted nuts or homemade fruit bars
  • Remember to check the nutrition labelling when shopping, and look for products that contain less than 1.5g salt per 100g.

When eating out, try to make smarter choices, e.g.

  • Pizza: choose vegetable or chicken toppings instead of pepperoni, bacon or extra cheese
  • Pasta dishes: choose one with a tomato sauce with vegetables or chicken, rather than bacon, cheese or sausage
  • Burgers: avoid toppings that can be high in salt, such as bacon, cheese and barbecue sauce, and opt for salad instead
  • Chinese or Indian meal: go for plain rice. It's lower in salt than pilau or egg fried rice
  • Sandwiches: instead of ham or cheddar cheese, go for fillings such as chicken, egg, mozzarella, or vegetables like avocado or roasted peppers. And try having salad and reduced-fat mayonnaise instead of pickle or mustard, which are usually higher in salt
  • Breakfast: instead of a full English breakfast, go for a poached egg on toast with mushrooms and grilled tomatoes. If you do have meat, have either bacon or a sausage, but not both
  • Salad: ask for dressings or sauces on the side, so you only have as much as you need. Some dressings and sauces can be high in salt and fat.
Sources: NHS, Action on Salt, FoodSwitch, British Heart Foundation.
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