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"I can proudly say that my diet is now low in salt."

Put down the salt shaker, Carla. Source: iStock.

If I could bring one condiment with me to a desert island, it would be salt. I’d be sprinkling it all over the coconuts, fish and seaweed, let me tell you. And oh, the joys of soy sauce! I’m Chinese, so of course my veins are pulsing with dark, delicious soy sauce.

So, you can imagine my devastation when I was advised to go on a low-salt diet. Low-salt? More like the low-will-to-live diet! The doctor should have just said, “Hey Carla, everything you eat will now taste like ash… have a nice day!” UGH!

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I didn’t reduce my salt intake for any weight-loss or “wellness” purposes. Rather, my renal specialist advised me to do it after I was diagnosed last year with having a chronic kidney disease called IGA nephropathy, a symptom of which is having high blood pressure.

I can proudly say that my diet is now low in salt, and it wasn’t as hard as I thought. Here’s what you need to know if you think you should do the same.

Should you also cut back on salt?

According the Heart Foundation, Australians eat too much salt. Their recommendation is to stick to 6 grams of salt per day, which is equivalent to about 1.5 teaspoons, or 2300 milligrams of sodium. Yet according to their research, “the average Australian consumes about 9 grams of salt every day”.

Michele Chevalley Hedge, qualified nutritionist and founder of www.myfamilywellness.com.au, agrees. “Australians eat too much salt in processed food and takeaway foods,” she observes.

I love you, salt, but I have to leave you. Source: iStock.
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What happens to our bodies if we eat too much salt?

Eating too many salty foods can ultimately lead to dire consequences, and it’s all to do with blood pressure.

“Too much salt can lead to high blood pressure or fluid retention and this can cause the heart to work too hard. If your heart works too hard, blood pressure goes up and can increase risk stroke and heart failure,” says Michele. (Post continues after gallery.)

High blood pressure (or hypertension) occurs when “the long-term force of the blood against your artery walls is high enough that it may eventually cause health problems, such as heart disease”, according to the Mayo Clinic.

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Other possible complications from high blood pressure are aneurisms, heart attacks and kidney diseases.

Total bummer. Source: iStock.

Doctor Dee Chohan, medical expert, explained exactly how the sodium in the salt causes high blood pressure. “If you have too much salt, your kidneys cannot remove excess fluid,” elaborates Doctor Dee. “That leads to high blood pressure, which leads to our elastic arteries becoming stiffer and harder.”

Okay, I’m concerned. What sort of salty foods should I avoid, then?

Doctor Dee believes that takeaway and processed foods should be on the top of our “food to avoid” list.

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“Studies have shown that 80 per cent of the salt we eat comes from processed food, such as burgers, junk food, things like potato chips and other snack foods. Only 20 per cent of our salt intake comes from food that we’re cooking ourselves at home, from scratch,” explains Doctor Dee.

No more takeaway for me.

There’s hidden sodium in many common foods, and Doctor Dee believes that this should be made more explicit on the labels.

“Two slices of white bread can contain a fifth of your daily salt intake,” she gives as an example. “By breakfast, people have already had so much salt – and that’s before they add the salty peanut butter, or the jam which might contain salt.”

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And as tempting and harmless as they may seem, those mini chip packets are more dangerous to your health than you would expect.

“Just a small, tiny 40 gram packet of potato chips would contain over 10 per cent of your daily sodium intake,” warns Doctor Dee. “People will easily eat two of those, just while watching TV.”

Low-salt lifestyle tips.

 Put down the salt shaker.

My renal specialist gave me the best advice – just stop adding salt to food. Put it this way – if I was eating a pile of salt, I would still grab the salt shaker and sprinkle more salt on it. My health forced me to break this habit, both at home and when I was out. Sometimes, my husband hides the salt shaker from me. Addicted, much?

Become your own masterchef.

Put down the salt, Poh!

“The best way to be healthy,” says Doctor Dee, “is if you basically cook at home. I know it’s annoying, but that’s the best way to be healthy. Cook extra food, freeze it and then take it to work for lunch.”

By having takeaway food for lunch and dinner, Doctor Dee explains, you can double your intake of salt, “without even realising”.

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Admittedly, I have found it frustrating to spend so much time cooking my own food. But, I try to see it as an investment in my own health. I’m slowly accepting that cooking will be part of my life, and I’m trying to enjoy it.

Beware of pre-prepared ingredients, especially sauces.

As I made a big effort to monitor my salt consumption, I began to notice the prevalence of salt in common ingredients. Did you know, for example, that those little jars of pre-prepared minced garlic contain salt? As does tomato paste and ready-made stock.

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I’ve also had to say goodbye to a lifelong friend: soy sauce. Doctor Dee advised that in countries where there’s a high intake of soy sauce, such as Japan, “they have huge rates of gastric cancer”. If you must use soy sauce, Doctor Dee recommends sourcing a low-salt variety.

Use herbs and spices to add flavour.

Jamie Oliver loves his fresh herbs.

To add flavor to your cooking, Doctor Dee has this suggestion: “Have more things like garlic, onions and spices so that you end up needing less of the salt.” Yum! I also love to use fresh herbs in my cooking.

If you must use salt, make sure it’s the good stuff.

Michele believes it’s all about quality.  “The quality of the salt is key. Good quality sea salt is loaded with minerals.”

Doctor Dee suggests Himalayan pink salt and sea salt, as they have other vital minerals in them. (Post continues after gallery.)

But… doesn’t everything taste like shit?

At first, yes. Everything tasted like bland sludge. But after a few days, food became tasty again, mostly because I noticed the other flavours that I used to drown in salt. For example, I started to really taste the tomato and herbs in home-made pasta sauce, instead of just getting an overall salty impression.

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For me, it was a matter of getting used to the way food tasted without salt, and also breaking the habit of shaking salt on everything. Once I was past that barrier, food began to taste “normal” again.

These days, when I do eat the occasional takeaway meal, the food tastes extremely salty to me. I take this as a positive reminder of how far I’ve come.

But remember: you still need to eat a little bit of salt.

Michele explains that a small amount of salt is still essential for a healthy diet. “Although there is lots of concern around salt, keep in mind, we need enough good quality salt to increase our stomach acid, an essential part of healthy digestion.”

Related: The very unexpected health benefit of eating salt.  

Doctor Dee agrees. “Too low salt is dangerous, at the same time,” she warns. “If you’re drinking too much water and only eating, say, a salad and a bit of unsalted tuna as a lunch, then that’s not enough salt in your diet. With the excess water, that can lead to too much fluid in the bloodstream. That can lead to brain swelling, headaches, seizures and even a coma. So the actual amount of sodium we should have per day is 1600 milligrams. You need to be in that happy medium.”

Do you think you eat too much salty foods? Can you share any tips on having a reduced-salt diet?