As the title suggests, there might be a problem with taking in too much salt on a raw food diet. For clarity sake, I am referring to table salt or even sea/Himalayan salt as an additive to the food (NaCl).
It is commonplace to use salt to enhance the flavor of food in our society. Most food in North America is salted, often heavily, in order for people to like it. Humans can clearly develop an affinity towards salt. And it makes sense that some people may find it helpful in their raw journey, to use some salt in their food in order to make it more enjoyable for them.
As some raw fooders may have noticed, they become much more sensitive to salt when they go all raw or even high raw. It may not have even been previously a problem for them, and then all of a sudden, there is a huge difference in the way they feel with and without the addition of salt. Some people on an 80/10/10 diet might just notice a change when they eat gourmet raw food as opposed to their usual diet at home.
The problem may not be so much the salt, but rather the balance of electrolytes in the body on a raw food diet. But how does a raw food diet differ from a SAD (Standard American Diet) and why does salt become a problem only in this instance?
Don’t Blame The Fruit and Vegetables
A raw food diet, chalk full of fruit and vegetables, is going to be high in potassium (K). Fruits such as bananas, but even mangoes and avocado, have some of the highest levels of potassium, as do some leafy green vegetables and even nuts and seeds. So it’s entirely fair to hear the question, “but isn’t that too much potassium?”
According to Oregon State University:
“The Food and Nutrition Board of the Institute of Medicine did not set a tolerable upper intake level (UL) for potassium because adverse effects from high dietary intakes of potassium have not been reported in healthy individuals.”
And, for the most part, kidneys seem to be pretty efficient at eliminating the potassium from our bodies, since potassium overdose (hyperkalemia) has not been consistently shown to be related to high intakes of potassium. However, in this report, a person following the Gerson Therapy for cancer treatment did develop severe hyperkalemia, and it was hypothesized that the high levels of potassium had to do with it.
However, it appears that there is more to the story. There happens to be a relationship between the excretion of potassium from the kidneys and the excretion of sodium in the kidneys. And this is where salt becomes involved.
Na+ ions from salt (NaCl) are excreted by the kidney when they are in excess amounts in the body. What happens when you eat excess Na+ is that your body starts to retain water, and your blood becomes higher in volume (hypervolemia and hypertension). Your kidneys decide to stop recycling the salt they currently have and they start to excrete the salt in the urine. When your kidneys do so, they in turn, stop excreting K+ (potassium) out of the body. This can result in hyperkalemia.
Why do the kidneys do this? There is a very close relationship between sodium and potassium in the body. In current scientific literature, it is evidenced by the sodium-potassium pumps located in the cell wall, which exchange one ion for the other. In the kidney itself, there is what is called an Na-K-ATPase pump.
Na-K Pump (video)
But new evidence has come out, that is disputing the existence of the sodium-potassium pumps, in favor of a new theory:
“[…] the cell is honeycombed by a fragile, invisible skeleton consisting of a latticework of protein and lipid (fat or fat‐like) molecules. An electron current may flow through part, or all of this, “skeleton” which functions almost as one gigantic molecule and resembles a ball of steel wool or a sponge. As shown by magnetic resonance imaging, water in the pockets of this sponge‐like “skeleton” is structured water; molecules nearest the skeleton are in orderly arrangement while those at a greater distance are more random. As extracellular fluid diffuses through the cell, rapid exchange of ions occurs. Ion and water concentrations are controlled by the “skeleton” which chooses potassium over sodium.”
This article, which relates this theory to how Gerson therapy works, defines the new theory and how it relates to healthy tissue cells:
“The proteins of the cell are able to exist in either of two different configurational states: a normal configuration, and a damaged configuration. The two different protein configurational states induce two different sets of water structuring and cation association states. In the healthy cell, the cell proteins have their normal configurational state in which negatively charged sites on the protein matrix have a large preference for association with K rather than Na, and cell water is highly structured so that its solubility for both K and Na is low. The result is high cell K and low cell Na concentrations.”
So in a healthy cell, there is a natural affinity towards potassium inside the cell because Na+ cannot dissolve in structured water. However, in a damaged cell, the cell loses its preference for K over Na, and also loses its water in structured form. Could the kidneys have similar characteristics? More studies are certainly needed.
How much is too much salt?
According to this paper written by the National Research Council (US):
“[…] a minimum average requirement for adults can be estimated under conditions of maximal adaptation and without active sweating as no more than 5 mEq/day, which corresponds to 115 mg of sodium or approximately 300 mg of sodium chloride per day.”
They go on to say that:
“In consideration of the wide variation of patterns of physical activity and climatic exposure, a safe minimum intake might be set at 500 mg/day.”
A quarter teaspoon of sea salt amounts to almost 600 mg of sodium. Conversely, 15 ounces of spinach contains about 300 mg of sodium.
And apparently, the problem in most cases, is excess salt, not a lack of it. This paper which looked at the salt intake of the Yanomamo natives also found that the body’s hormones naturally adjust to the decrease in salt intake to levels that it is hypothesized were habitual for primitive man. However, there may have been other deficiency symptoms connected to the low levels of sodium in the natives’ diet, namely iodine. Iodine is a trace mineral that is often found in salt or added to salt, and is associated with problems such as goiter. These natives did show signs of subclinical iodine deficiency. Iodine deficiency may be a problem amongst salt-free raw fooders, according to Don Bennett, DAS.
But besides going over your daily requirements for salt, there are other more serious problems associated with excessive salt intake, such as stomach cancer, heart disease, stroke, osteoporosis and kidney disease.
Does a raw diet have enough sodium?
Can you get enough sodium without adding in salt? The answer is yes you can, but you will need to purposely add in certain foods that are high in sodium, such as tomatoes, spinach or celery, in order to meet baseline numbers of 115-500 mg/day. You will also need to consider adding in other foods or supplements for some trace minerals. Adding in small or occasional amounts of salt could be fine as well, although how much on a raw diet becomes more ambiguous when you factor in the high intake of potassium.
For great salt-free recipes that are delicious and actually TASTE salty, see my recipe book here.