Salt, like so many other things in nutrition, is a controversial subject. Much of the so-called ‘information’ should be taken with a pinch of salt, if not a fistful. In many other dietary approaches, we are warned to limit the intake of salt. These warnings come with threats of anything from blood pressure to heart attacks, very often with little scientific evidence to support their stance. In recent years, along with saturated fat and meat, salt has been made out to be something of a villain. Salt on keto is a different matter, however. Does salt really deserve its negative reputation? Let’s examine that question…
What is Salt?
A salt, in the chemical sense at least, is a compound created by the neutralisation of an acid by a base. Salts are named by using the metal, metal oxide or metal carbonate for the first part of the name, which is then appended with the name of the acid-base. In everyday life, however, when we refer to salt, what is actually being referred to is sodium chloride. This particular salt is created when sodium atoms interact with chlorine atoms.
There are other forms of salt, of course, some vital to the healthy functioning of the body. These will be discussed in a later article though. For today, we are focused simply on sodium chloride.
Consumable Sodium Chloride comes in many forms, from what we know as table salt to more exotic varieties such as Himalayan Pink Salt, Celtic Sea Salt, Italian Rock Salt, Hawaiian Rock Salt, etc. etc. I have personally tried several of the more unfamiliar varieties in the past year. I can attest to the fact that they have a huge range of tastes, textures and effects. At the time of writing, my personal favourite is Himalayan, but this may change with further experimentation.
Oddly, the substance known as Himalayan rock salt actually comes from the Punjab region of Pakistan. It is derived from former oceans that dried up aeons back. This form of salt contains a huge range of minerals but barely any moisture.
Most of these more esoteric salts tend to be purer. On the other hand, table salt is often adulterated in several ways. Iodine, for example, is commonly added to table salt. This is done with the idea of addressing iodine deficiencies. Although OK for the majority, excess iodine can be a potential cause of thyroid problems in itself. Table salt also commonly has anti-caking chemicals added which, in, gives the opposite effect to what is needed in salt if you are using it to help avoid dehydration.
Table salt contains approximately 97.5% sodium chloride, with the rest being made up of the anti-caking formula, added iodine and even some processed sugar. To my mind at least, it is far better to use rock salts or unadulterated sea salts, than the mass-produced and highly adulterated table salt on offer at most supermarkets. The latter is OK for getting ice away from your drive or attacking slugs in your garden, but perhaps not so good for personal consumption.
What Salt Does
Salt is essential for the healthy functioning of the human body right down to the cellular level. Its constituent parts, sodium and chloride, are needed in neuronal function and hence particularly important for healthy brain function. It is also vital in the hydration process. In the simplest possible terms, without sodium chloride, you would cease to exist as a functioning human organism. To put it in even simpler terms: without salt, you die.
Salt deficiency will manifest itself by such unpleasant symptoms as headaches, confusion, a general feeling of lethargy or sometimes restlessness and irritability. In my case, especially in my early days of keto, deficiency expressed itself by muscle weakness and cramps. Those early weeks of transitioning into keto, with their dramatic water loss, can be a critical time for many. Some or all of the above symptoms may occur in those difficult weeks. Many of the problems that come with dreaded ‘keto flu’ are down to salt or mineral deficiencies of some sort.
At the more extreme level, drastic shortages of sodium chloride can lead to seizures and comas. Hopefully, having read this article, you will avoid such extremities, but these dangers should be borne in mind, particularly as we are often made more aware of salt’s dangers than its benefits. This is especially true if we listen to the mainstream authorities. Given their record on many dietary issues however, their views should not be given credence without examining the evidence.
Why are People Afraid of Salt?
The idea that salt is a danger to us probably originated a couple of hundred years back in a period that some now call the ‘salt wars’. Scientists of the time argued back and forth as to whether salt caused high blood pressure and thereby led to heart problems. To some extent at least, they are still arguing about these points to this day.
There is some evidence that excess salt can be a danger in cases where the person is already vulnerably. Certainly here in the UK, and in the US too, government bodies are forever stressing the dangers of excess consumption. Perhaps because of the many warnings though, some are in more danger of under consuming salt than over-consuming it. I was certainly one of those at the start of my keto journey. Government advice on salt, much like their advice on carbohydrate and fat consumption, should be taken with a grain of salt (or two!).
This whole debate is very similar in many ways to those on the consumption of meat and fats. Although these are vilified, often being condemned in no uncertain terms, the actual science behind this stance tends to be somewhat sketchy at best. For an in-depth look at this, I would suggest checking out the Diet Doctors website’s discussion on the subject.
Salt does seem to be one of those areas in life where the best place to be is in a place of moderation. Not too much but, equally, not too little. Excessive salt intake can cause problems, but as this blog is written from the point of view of a person of reasonably advanced years on a ketogenic diet. For me, the dangers seem to be more in the area of too little rather than too much.
In my first week or so of keto, I was happy to note that I had lost in the region of 8lbs. Initially, I was quite pleased with myself. It was obvious, however, how much more water I had passed than would normally be the case. The truth is that most of that 8lbs was actually water and not fat at all (well, maybe a couple of pounds!). When your body switches over to ketosis, it starts to shed large quantities of now unneeded H2O. This is because each molecule of carbs requires two molecules of water. If you are no longer using carbohydrate as your main source of energy, the body will tend to shed the excess load.
This is all very fine and dandy, the problem is though that it will be shedding vital electrolytes along with that water. Sodium, in particular, is often drastically reduced at this stage, though one should be aware of potassium, magnesium and calcium levels as well. In my optimism, and my neophyte ignorance, I took no measures to guard against this whatsoever. The result? Ten days of suffering the keto flu, sleeplessness and very painful overnight cramps. Hopefully you, dear reader, will be somewhat wiser than I!
How much Salt on Keto?
This is one of those ‘how long is a piece of string?’ type questions. The answer, rather annoyingly, is … it depends. There are many factors to consider: age, sex, weight, diet, amount of physical activity, etc.
Diet, in particular, plays a central role. As stated earlier, the tendency of the body to shed excess water when one is in keto means that the dieter needs to be extra vigilant, especially in the early days. They must be sure that their intake is sufficient in these circumstances.
Many people, quite sensibly, combine a ketogenic diet with physical exercise. This will involve the shedding of even more salt through sweating. Once again, the person following this lifestyle will need to make sure they are imbibing sufficient extra quantities of salt on keto to replace these losses.
Here in the UK, the NHS recommend an adult should not take more than 6 grams of salt a day. The guideline only seems to take account for age and does not mention any of the other, seemingly obvious, characteristics such as sex, size, weight, amount of exercise, etc. The British Heart Foundation mirror these recommendations but again take no account of the more obvious variables.
The situation is much the same in the US. The Federal Drug Administration recommend keeping your intake below 2.3 grams of sodium per day. This equates to just under 6 grams of salt. The sodium part of sodium chloride represents only 40% of the total weight. The FDA’s position is mirrored by the American Heart Association. These august bodies make the point that (for most people at least) salt intake is increased by the extra quantities found in processed food. As far as salt on keto goes, this only applies to those on a ‘dirty’ keto diet, ie one that allows for processed foods.
Keto is another matter though. On Keto, one needs to keep in mind the lack of water retention, hence the need to keep your electrolyte levels high (or at least sufficient). Virta Health, a very excellent keto website, recommends approximately double the amounts that the mainstream authorities recommend above. They believe that up to 5 grams of sodium a day is OK, which equates to just over 12 grams of salt.
Another excellent source of accurate information on all things keto, Diet Doctor, recommends amounts of up to 7 grams of sodium (17.5 grams of salt) for people on a ketogenic diet. Their site also contains a very interesting and thorough discussion of the debate around salt. If you wish to go into this subject in even greater detail, Diet Doctor is well worth a visit.
Salt on keto, as by now you are no doubt aware, is a controversial subject attracting some very strong opinions on both sides. Listening to the mainstream health organisations, the NHS and the BHF in the UK, or the NHI and even the FDA in the US, would tend to make you very cautious about your salt intake. Given their fairly awful record on other aspects of keto, however, we should be cautious of their rigid orthodoxy. The science itself is not as clear as these folks would have you believe.
The specialist keto oriented sources tend to stress the need for more salt, particularly given the lack of water retention on a ketogenic diet. Having adopted the keto lifestyle, you have already taken the contrarian option. You have gone against the standard authority’s advice on fat versus carbohydrate. Given the apparent results of the mainstream authority’s anti-fat stance in the past (the obesity epidemic, heart problems, type 2 diabetes, etc), I would ask, who do you trust?