The Effects of Salt and Condiments*

Salt and Condiments

Salt (sodium chloride, NaCl) has been consumed with food for thousands of years by various peoples of the world. The following questions arise concerning this use of salt: 1) How much salt is necessary? 2) What are its harmful effects? and 3) Is salt consumption an addiction, and if so, how can that addiction be broken?

The Need For Salt

There is no question that the two elements, sodium and chlorine, of which salt is composed, are necessary in human nutrition. However, these elements are present in sufficient quantities in natural foods such as fruits, vegetables, grains, nuts, and seeds. Why then do people desire to consume many times as much salt as would be naturally present, and why is there the widespread belief that salt pills are needed in the summer? The answer can be very simply stated (although it requires elaboration); namely, salt is addictive. An addiction to a drug is defined as a “habituation to the use of a drug, the deprivation of which gives rise to symptoms of distress, abstinence, or withdrawal symptoms, and an irresistible impulsion to take the drug again.” This definition can be extended to nutrients by replacing the word drug in the above definition with the phrase a nutrient in amounts substantially exceeding an optimal physiological requirement. Read separate article on addictions.

The Harmful Effects of Salt

Because excess of dietary salt has been associated with high blood pressure, people feel that if their blood pressure is normal, no limitation of salt is required. There are, however, a number of reasons that everyone should limit salt intake.

1 . Flexibility of Muscles. Every 9 grams of sodium chloride in body tissues binds one liter of water, which weighs over 2 pounds! Aside from its extra weight, that water clogs the tissues, thereby reducing flexibility of muscles. If you have ever experienced even minor swelling of your hands, you know how stiff your fingers become. Just think of how any extra water must limit the flexibility of all of your muscles—including those used to focus the eyes on near and far objects.

2. Strain on the Eliminative System. All the excess salt you eat must be eliminated from the body. During cool weather, the burden falls mainly on the kidneys. During hot weather, the sweat glands are also actively involved in removing salt. Why make things more difficult for eliminative organs and glands that are already strained by other factors such as pollutants and pesticides?

3. Impaired Digestion of Food. The presence of salt in food inhibits sufficient chewing. Just notice the degree to which you tend to prematurely swallow food that has been salted. Salt added to food leads to drinking with and after meals. Consuming water while food is in the process of being digested dilutes the digestive juices and impairs digestion.

4. Obstacles to Weight Loss. Because salt taken in excess becomes addictive, there is a craving for salt when it is expelled from the body. When weight is lost, it is usually accompanied by a release of salt. In addition, the reduction of caloric intake required for weight loss usually means a lower salt intake. The result is a craving for salt. Since salt is associated with the foods containing it, there is usually a craving for these foods. The self-discipline required to resist these cravings is easier to muster when the above mechanism is kept in mind. That is, such cravings are a sign of progress and disappear as the body stabilizes.

Retention of salt and its corresponding water can produce a weight gain without any change in the amount of body fat. Of course, the weight loss associated with the release of salt and its retained water is desirable but should not be misconstrued as resulting from a loss of fat.

5. Susceptibility to Electrolyte Imbalance. When the kidneys remove salt from the body, they “know” when to stop. That is, the kidneys will never remove so much salt from the blood that an electrolyte imbalance occurs. The sweat glands, however, do not know when to stop and can cause an imbalance.

If you consistently eat a lot of salt and then do heavy exercise in a hot, high-humidity environment, you may suffer a serious imbalance requiring some sort of replenishment. Whereas the ultimate answer is to gradually phase out excessive dietary salt, you must remedy an acute electrolyte imbalance promptly. The main symptoms of such an imbalance are abdominal cramps and nausea. Other symptoms are diarrhea, muscular cramps, impaired digestion, and general debility.

If you do feel the need to replenish sodium after heavy exercise in hot weather, resist the urge to buy commercial sports drinks, which contain artificial color and other objectionable ingredients. Just stir a small amount of salt in some orange or grapefruit juice diluted with water. This natural version of a sports drink should do everything the commercial drinks will do without the phony stuff.

In the absence of symptoms of electrolyte imbalance, it is best to gradually clear the body of excess salt by tapering it out of the diet over a period of months or longer. Eventually your perspiration will be almost like water—essentially free of salt. When your perspiration has no salty taste, it is a sign that your body no longer is excreting an excess of salt. As long as the perspiration is salty, so much salt may be eliminated during profuse sweating that a sodium-potassium imbalance can occur. As the excess is eliminated, such danger becomes decreasingly likely.

Why is Lowering Salt Intake Difficult?

When too little salt is added to food, it is easy to remedy this deficiency by merely sprinkling some on. When too much salt has been added in preparation, it is impossible to remove without specialized equipment. We do not like to waste food, and if it is over-salted to our taste, we tend to eat it anyway. Therefore, people consume more salt than they would select to consume. Thus we become used to the taste of salt in our food. When food without salt is eaten, it has an unfamiliar taste. Habit makes it difficult for us to experiment with using less salt than we are used to.

How to Cut Out Salt

It is very important to reduce dietary salt gradually. Prepare foods without adding any salt or using any ingredients containing added salt. Eat a few bites, chewing as long as possible. You may find that the taste is alien, but that is how any change initially feels. Soon, you will begin to taste the true flavor of the food. Then, after you have given the food a bit of a chance, add salt. Over time, reduce the amount of salt to a minute sprinkle. You will be surprised at how little salt it will now take to satisfy you.

Interpret any craving for salt as the body's withdrawal symptoms caused by its attempts to eliminate an excess. As the body gradually adapts, your interest in salt will continually diminish. Eventually, anything beyond a relatively small amount of salt will be distasteful.

Caution About Insufficient Dietary Salt

Do not try to cut out salt completely. Remember that these days, many vegetables are deficient in natural minerals including sodium. Many of the body functions require a certain amount of sodium, which may need to be supplied by sprinkling a judicious amount of salt on your food.

Condiments

Condiments such as salt, vinegar, pepper, mustard, spices, etc., all have effects that go beyond their generally acknowledged purposes. The desired purpose is (a) to enhance the flavor and/or odor of food to make the food more enjoyable, and (b) to increase the appetite for subsequent foods.

In fact, the tongue is a sensor of essential nutrients. Two factors operate here: (1) most commercially grown foods lack the essential nutrients because they are artificially forced to grow on devitalized soil and/or (2) the tongue loses its sensitivity by exposing it to extremes of taste.

In both cases, condiments are commonly used to artificially achieve the level of stimulation desired. Unfortunately, the addition of these artificial stimulants (for whatever reason) desensitizes the sense of taste and leads to a vicious cycle. The resultant effects are excessive thirst, improper chewing, irritation of the digestive system, perverted appetites and cravings for non-nutritious foods.

Weaning yourself from condiments will quickly reverse the addiction to them. After your tongue recovers its full sensitivity, you will consider most condiments to detract from the enjoyment of food.

To start, try the following experiment: Buy the best vegetables you can (try a health-food store), and make a salad. First try the salad without any dressing. Notice the taste of the food and to what extent you chew the food to extract the nutrients and their flavor. Then put on dressing in the accustomed amount. Now notice how the experience changes. It is likely that you now will chew the food much less and taste less of the true flavor of the vegetables.

Effect of Spices, Mustard, Vinegar, MSG, and Nitrates

Weight-loss “experts” frequently advise those attempting to lose weight to substitute spices, vinegar, soy sauce, etc., for more caloric ingredients. Unfortunately, spices, vinegar, and MSG (monosodium glutamate) have an irritating effect on the lining of the digestive tract. The discomfort accompanying this irritation is increased when the stomach is empty and the lining rubs against itself. Eating food separates the lining and, therefore, relieves the discomfort. After a while, through the process of association, the discomfort is simply experienced as hunger. As previously stated, true hunger is a physiological need for food characterized by pleasant sensations—not pain. In short, spices, vinegar and MSG, while low in caloric content, increase the need for more willpower required for weight loss.

MSG. Monosodium glutamate is irritating not only to the digestive tract but also to nerve and muscle tissue throughout the body. Unexplained headaches and muscle spasms can be caused by MSG. It should be noted that MSG is a naturally occurring constituent of soy sauce and an artificial additive to many low-calorie foods.

Nitrates. Unpleasant effects caused by nitrates include digestive irritation and sharp pains in the lower extremities such as the toes. Since nitrates are concentrated and excreted via the urine, the urinary tract and the prostate are bathed in these highly irritating chemicals.

Vinegar. Vinegar (acetic acid diluted to about 5%) is a poison twice as toxic as ethyl alcohol. The fatal dose of vinegar is about 14 oz. Some vinegars primarily contain malic acid, which is not poisonous.

Spices. Hot spices such as pepper or chili pepper have a powerfully irritating effect on the digestive system, especially the tongue. Repeated use of these spices desensitizes the sense of taste to the point that food without spice has little or no taste. Thus, increasing amounts of spice are required to produce any “enjoyment” of food. If spice is eliminated, the sense of taste soon returns.

Adding spice to food while reducing food intake is self-defeating because it reinforces the misconception that small amounts of simply prepared food cannot be enjoyable. It also produces a ravenous appetite that requires extra willpower to control.

Because spices greatly exacerbate digestive irritations, hemorrhoids, and prostate conditions, they are to be avoided for that reason alone. Mustard is quite irritating to mucous membranes and is especially irritating to the urinary tract and prostate.


*From Robert Chuckrow, The Intelligent Dieter’s Guide, Rising Mist Publications, Briarcliff Manor, NY, 1997.

Stedman’s Medical Dictionary, The Williams & Wilkinson Co., Baltimore, 1966.

Robert H. Dreisbach, Handbook of Poisoning, Lange Medical Publications, Los Altos, CA, 1969, p. 155.

©Copyright 1997 by Robert Chuckrow


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