Sodium is Essential (in the right quantity) – But Not All Salt is Created Equal

Glass saltcellar with salt insulated

Let’s face it – sodium has gotten a pretty bad rap lately. But in light of all the advice suggesting we reduce our sodium it’s important to know that (the right amount of) salt is also an essential nutrient for our bodies. So while overdoing it can still be detrimental to your health, you actually don’t want to go down the path of cutting out salt all together.

The reason so many Americans struggle today with high blood pressure and other sodium-related health issues is because very little of our sodium intake actually comes out of a salt shaker. In fact, “Processed and restaurant foods account for more than three-quarters of all sodium,” according to a 1991 study says CSPI – which means we don’t even know when we are eating it.

On that note I want to share a little something about my own personal health journey today. I am not saying what happened to me will be the same for everyone living a real food lifestyle – but maybe this information can help some. In early 2010 we began our mission to cut out all highly processed food. We changed a lot of things fairly quickly (in a matter of weeks) and many other changes were more gradual. When we initially cut out all the boxed, packaged and canned foods – and also started eating at restaurants less frequently – we obviously in turn greatly reduced our sodium consumption. Which is a good thing – right? Well to a certain extent, but what I didn’t realize at that time is that some salt is actually an essential part of our diets – in the right quantities that is.

So as time went on we started taking our real food diet even further by greatly reducing the amount of salt we cooked with at home…and even cutting it completely out of some recipes (like my almost daily breakfast of granola). I don’t remember the exact timing of it all (because it took me a while to put two and two together), but after making these changes I started experiencing some episodes of lightheadedness. What I mean is I would momentarily feel like I might pass out. I never did (thankfully!), but it was certainly a bizarre and worrisome feeling that was happening on average once per week.

Then one time I felt lightheaded when I was out with my girlfriends, and they immediately knew something wasn’t right with me (because I suddenly got very quiet – which is a rarity – ha!). So I shared what had been going on and as it turns out one friend had recently gone through something very similar. After a barrage of appointments with doctors and specialists she learned that the sensation was due to low blood pressure (that I already knew I had, to an extent), which can result from too little sodium. I was of course intrigued by this information!

Not All Salt is Created Equal

So little by little – thanks to advice from my girlfriend – I started adding salt back into recipes like my granola, which alone did wonders. She said that she didn’t personally go overboard, but if she felt like a dish could use more salt she simply didn’t hold back. I started doing the same and what do you know – my episodes of lightheadedness have basically disappeared. But it’s important to know – just as there is a difference between processed food and real food – the same goes for our salt choices. Just check out these examples below. I can’t believe I never knew that the standard table salt by Morton’s contains sugar (listed as dextrose)!

refined vs unrefined salt

So yes sea salt is the better choice over table salt, but here are two important factors to consider:

  • Check the ingredient label (if there is one). If the salt product lists any additives other than salt it is likely refined and therefore not the best choice.
  • Look at the color of the salt. If it is brilliantly white – just think of white flour versus whole-grain flour – then that’s another giveaway the salt product has likely been refined and again not the optimal choice.

There is honestly a lot more to it than that when it comes to all the different types of salt, but fully explaining the minutiae of how each salt brand is processed and labeled could be a very lengthy discussion. So if you are into that sort of thing I highly recommend the “Is Your Salt Real” booklet by Redmond Trading. They have definitely done their homework. And since I am personally not much into the details of chemistry I just buy one of the two salt brands shown above – Real Salt or Celtic Sea Salt (the Himalayan brands are good as well) – that I am certain are unrefined and call it a day. :) Other brands that either list just one ingredient or no ingredients may be unrefined as well, but again there are quite a few different processing and packaging loopholes that can makes things more complicated than they should be, so I just like to stick to what I know.

I am so thankful to my friend’s advice – because it certainly saved me a lot of trouble and doctor appointments! – but also enabled me to feel better. Isn’t it amazing what you can sometimes learn from a bunch of close fellow mom friends? Has anyone else had a medical “aha” moment thanks to advice from a friend? I’d love to hear the details in the comments.

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175 thoughts on “Sodium is Essential (in the right quantity) – But Not All Salt is Created Equal”

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  1. In response to the iodine/thyroid thoughts, I am a Thyroid Cancer survivor and as part of treatment we go on a low iodine diet to prepare for our radiation treatments. IODINE IS IN ALMOST EVERYTHING!!! On this low iodine diet we could eat NO FISH, NO soy, NO dairy, no black beans, no kidney beans, no chickpeas, no (other beans–can’t remember our whole list off the top of my head)–fish has iodine from the ocean and seaweed, etc. So, what i learned on this diet is that people, in general, are getting PLENTY of iodine from our regular healthy foods: milk, cheese,beans, etc. So, if you are worried about iodine deficiency, iodized salt is just extra iodine–you’re already getting plenty of iodine from your regular diet!

  2. Please respond to iodine question. Iodine prevents scurvy which is very are now days even in developing countries but was prevalent in sailors before iodized salt. It’s more common in landlocked and mountainous regions where the soil does not contain as much iodine.

    1. It’s actually vitamin c that prevents scurvy. It’s a cofactor in the reaction to make hydroxyproline, an amino acid that is in our connective tissues and helps make up collagen. Though iodide is essential for other reasons of course as stated above.

  3. This is from the salt info booklet that was mentioned in the post. :)

    The FDA requires all salt companies that do not add potassium iodide to their product to list the foregoing statement. Real Salt does contain naturally-occurring iodine, but not enough to satisfy the recommended daily allowance of 150 micrograms. So, instead of using chemically-processed, unhealthy salt in order to get iodine, we like to stick with Real Salt and get naturally occurring iodine from other delicious sources like kelp, yogurt, eggs, strawberries, and mozzarella cheese.

  4. I have always heard that one of the only ways we can get iodine in our diets is from the salt that has iodine added to it (like Morton’s salt) Is that something anyone else has thought of in the process of switching to a more natural salt?

    1. Kelp is a wonderful source of natural iodine. Add some kelp granules to your stir-fry, smoothies, on top of rice, or wherever else it seems appropriate.

    1. Assistant to 100 Days (Amy)

      Hi Barb. It is very important, of course. Lisa consulted with her physician who assured her that by eating out even just one a day a week, we are getting plenty of iodine through a restaurant’s use of table salt. That doesn’t consider what we get additionally from any other packaged grocery items (this is hopefully a VERY limited list) such as whole wheat pretzels, whole wheat crackers, etc.. Also, this is a handy list of foods that are rich sources of iodine: All that said, if you have any concerns about your iodine level, you should talk with your doctor. Hope that helps. ~Amy

      1. I disagree regarding getting enough iodine because of going out to eat. Majority of places use Diamond or Morton coarse kosher salt. They do not contain iodine. So unless you are salting your food at the table, I don’t see it.

      2. As a certified chef studying nutrition, I agree with the others who say you’re not getting much iodine from restaurant food. Restaurants who actually prepare their own food from scratch are most likely using Kosher salt (which contains no iodine). The rest (a majority of restaurants frequented by the American public) are throwing together a bunch of processed foods with highly processed versions of sodium (MSG and the like) which also do not contain iodine and are much worse for you.

        Americans’ iodine levels are the lowest they’ve been since the Depression, which led to the government insisting table salt be iodized in the ’20s. It’s necessary for healthy thyroid (hormone) and brain function. If you eat a lot of processed food or if you use Kosher or Sea Salt at home, you should consider adding a few drops of liquid iodine to your water each day.

        And shame on the doctor who suggested relying on restaurants for mineral absorption. That’s absurd.

      3. I have hypothyroidism and most of the many books I’ve read and the many studies I’ve read on the subject regarding iodine and thyroid function mention that there is very little natural iodine in US soil. So basically any plants/fruits/veggies that are grown in US soil would have very little iodine in them and any products from US animals that eat grass & grains would also have very little iodine in them since they wouldn’t be absorbing it from the grass & grains they eat.

    2. Going out once a day will not be enough Iodine for some people. Not to mention, who eats out once a day? Hypothyroidism is coming back due to lack of Iodine. We have experienced this personally and have started taking an Iodine supplement daily.

  5. I have never thought about it before, I’ve never really been a salt eater (I have always loved the “natural” flavor of food and I honestly think too much salt takes away from the real taste) but I have also always had a very low blood pressure, terrible headaches and yes, sometimes I get very light headed. I really always thought that there is plenty of salt in the foods I eat but then again I always try to cook my meals as opposed to buying packaged food. I am intrigued…

    1. This is what I love about sea salt — it can really enhance the flavor of foods without overwhelming the natural flavors. Try it, for instance, on avocado slices or tomatoes with basil and mozzarella (caprese). If you use it as a finishing touch, it makes an amazing difference. Yes I really like the natural flavors of food too but just a touch can really do amazing things. :)

  6. Why is iodine added to salt? Why is dextrose added to salt?
    In 1924 Morton became the first company to produce iodized salt for the table in order to reduce the incidence of simple goiter. Dextrose is added to stabilize the iodide. Iodine is vital to the proper functioning of the thyroid gland and the prevention of goiter. Actually, the amount of dextrose in salt is so small that it is dietetically insignificant. Morton® Iodized Table Salt contains 0.04 percent dextrose or 40 milligrams per 100 grams of salt. Morton® Plain Table Salt contains neither iodine nor dextrose. All Morton Salt products containing potassium iodide are labeled as such.

  7. I had the same experience a few years back – but I have naturally low blood pressure anyway, it seems to be a “thing” in my family. Becoming very fit AND cutting out processed food caused it to drop even further. Like you, I now add salt to my meals and rarely have a problem with dizziness. In fact, I salt my food quite heavily, as I drink around 3L of water daily and do quite a lot of exercise, both of which deplete my body’s sodium levels. BP is still on the low side of normal.

    I WAS going for the “natural” salts for quite a while, however iodine deficiency is a huge problem in my part of the world, as our soils are very, very low in iodine. Women of child-bearing age especially need to be wary of exclusively eating “natural” salts as they may not be getting enough dietary iodine for normal foetal brain development.

    Me, I still like my pretty pink Murray River salt flakes on the table, but I mostly use iodised sea salt in cooking to balance things out.

  8. Thanks for this post! I have started looking into the different salts. I used to think they were all the same, but I’ve come to realize recently that is not the case. What I didn’t realize is that we do need some salt. I have been cutting back on it a lot lately and am finding myself very tired. I told my DH the other day that something was wrong, thinking that maybe I’m missing something in the ingredients of something that I’m eating and its affecting me. Maybe its related to the salt intake.

  9. New follower here! Great to find you!

    Despite going primal and still being on one bp medication, I still have to closely monitor my bp, so I still keep my sodium consumption pretty low. Not zero, of course. I find even a bit of added sodium and I retain fluids; I’m just very sensitive to salt, I guess.

    I’m trying to find ‘primal’ multi-vitamins that don’t cost $50-100 a month. Got any suggestions? Damned gels etc. in them!

  10. This may be a silly question, but doesn’t sea salt contain larger granules? I’m used to Morton’s that is so fine. Does it work to sprinkle sea salt on a dish after it’s been prepared as we so often do with table salt?

    1. Don’t know if you can get fine grained “good” salt, but you can get a salt grinder (like a pepper grinder) for when you want smaller granuals.

  11. This is such a tricky area for me and my husband. He has a sensitivity to sodium; so basically, he is allergic to salt. He can have maybe 1000 to 1200 mg. If he gets more than that, he breaks out in hives and has flu-like symptoms. He has to sleep it off for about 2-4 hours. It helps that we have cut out as much processed food as possible and use sea salt. But restaurant food is a minefield.

  12. Like someone else said, iodine is in a lot of multivitamins, and it’s in dairy products like milk, yogurt, etc as well as eggs. So really, you don’t need to worry about it if you eat dairy, and if not, just be sure to take a multivitamin that has iodine.

    It’s interesting though that low salt intake can cause low blood pressure and lightheadedness. I get lightheaded all the time when I stand up, and I’m wondering if that’s it. My doctor didn’t say my blood pressure was too low last time I was there, but even when I was eating processed food all the time my blood pressure was never high. I might try adding in more salt and see if that helps. It just sucks because I can’t stand the taste of salt anymore :(

    1. Critical Reader

      A multivitamin you might forget to take. The easiest way to get enough iodine is through iodized salt. It should be mentioned, that iodine is a trace element which can not be synthesized by any plant or animal. Plants take iodine up through the soil and soil far off the ocean is naturally low in iodine. Dairy products contain iodine, because the feed is artificially supplemented. Organic milk is lower in iodine than conventional milk as supplementation with “unnatural” iodine is not allowed for organic farmers.

  13. Lisa I know you are not a fan of multivitamins, but wanted to let those who take them know that almost every multi (including childrens) contain iodine. So don’t switch back to Morton’s just for that!!

  14. I have always thought that the additives in popular brands of table salt are, in a nutshell, what is wrong with our food system. Sugar in salt? Really? Anti-caking agents? Just tap the shaker on table or break up the clumps with a knife. Sheesh. Not difficult.

    Rant over. I love my salty foods, but have noticed since eating “real” that most restaurant and processed food tastes disgustingly salty to me now. I operate like your friend does…if something wants salt, I grab my sea salt shaker and add as much as I feel like. Which is NEVER as much as it used to be when I was eating junk.

  15. Confession: I did not realize dextrose was a form of sugar.

    Now upon further consideration, -ose tends to equal sugar (glucose, sucrose, fructose) but never connected it to that mysterious additive that I see in some of my otherwise clean foods. I just figured it was some ingredient you had to have if you wanted this product to exist. So I just sorta ignored it…

    I’m sad that these really obvious skills and ways of eating (like in your home and cooked from food instead of boxes and cans) are so foreign and difficult for me. :(

  16. Thank you for this article! I have been using Real Salt for years, in both the fine ground and Kosher. For those of you who are concerned about the iodine not being added, you can always get a good quality liquid iodine to take as a supplement.

  17. I too had a similar experience when cutting out processed food. I used to have high blood pressure and migraines and was on two different medications for it. After cutting out processed food, I started to get lightheaded and felt exhausted. Could barely get out of bed in the morning. My blood pressure was very low. I am now off both medications and have maintained a healthy blood pressure and have not had a migraine since. On the advice of a nutritionist and my internist, I do make sure I take in some salt, as it is important for your body. But, I definitely don’t use Morton’s – Real Salt is my salt of choice.

    Thanks for all of your helpful information! I visit your site often to learn more as I continue my journey of a heathy lifestyle, and I especially appreciate the recipes. Thank you! Thank you! Thank you!

  18. Thank you so much for this article. I have hereditary low blood pressure and do often feel lightheaded. I never connected the two. I also recently discovered how important iodine is to our diets and recently switched to Morton’s from the Trader Joes brand Sea Salt. I did not realize or even check the ingredient list. Very frustrating. Is there a brand that contains iodine without the additives? Thank you for all of the information you provide.

    1. Assistant to 100 Days (Amy)

      Hi Elizabeth. Iodine is essential, of course. Lisa consulted with her physician who assured her that by eating out even just one a day a week, we are getting plenty of iodine through a restaurant’s use of table salt. That doesn’t consider what we get additionally from any other packaged grocery items (this is hopefully a VERY limited list) such as whole wheat pretzels, whole wheat crackers, etc.. Also, this is a handy list of foods that are rich sources of iodine: If you have any concerns about your iodine levels, be sure to consult your physician. Hope that helps. ~Amy

  19. Salt is a great thing you need for a variety of basic body functions that are necessary for just general life. If your sick its one of the first things we look at on lab work. Basic aspect of you neurologic, cardiovascular and renal systems need some salt to run. I grew up in a house with my dad being a cop… Now everyone believes that cops like doughnuts but in all truth it’s about three food groups… Grease, Salt and Fat. As an adult I had to learn to bring it down to a reasonable amount… Which is hard in American since they put salt in EVERYTHING. Salt has gotten a bad rap but we all need some and it sometime scares me when people talk about never having it because they just don’t understand the full ramifications ….

  20. Oh my gosh, total medical “aha” moment! I have always had low blood pressure, but lately have had the light-headedness more often than usual and also heart palpitations. I never put it together with the timing of eliminating processed foods and how that means much less sodium in my diet. Duh! ;)

    1. Yes, most sea salt doesn’t have iodine in it. I’m sure for some people it’s their only source of iodine. This is big problem. I buy iodized sea salt but then it’s not “unrefined”.

  21. I buy a grey, unrefined sea salt as well. I forget what brand though. Mine lists not just the ingredients but also the trace elements that it contains.
    That is another way to tell if it is refined.
    Look at the nutritional facts that are listed on every food product (at least in Canada). If it just contains sodium and chloride you know it is refined. But if it contains other trace minerals it has not been refined.

  22. Hi Lisa!

    Very well written article. Thank you for posting! Most people don’t realize that you still need SOME salt in your diet. Hopefully other people can learn from your experience :)

  23. I have had the same realization on my own. I was exercising and twice had blurry vision for about 15 minutes afterward. I also have low low diasotic blood pressure when I went to the doctor. So I have been eating more salt because of it. I just didn’t put two and two together until I had the blurry vision and the eye doctor said my eyes were fine.

  24. Lisa, this post described me in many ways. I have very low blood pressure, and occasional lightheadedness. And guess what?…I crave salt! I love salt and add it to just abut everything. So the relationship is definitely true. I want to try and find some of that nice salt that you have. Thanks for the info!

  25. This is my exact story but in the completely opposite way! I was having episodes of dizziness and vertigo and I was having trouble with walking all together. Unfortunately, I went through with all of the testing and specialists. It was my fourth Dr. ( a neurologist) that suggested that maybe I should try to cut out processed foods, because I might be receiving too much salt and/or have intolerances to the added chemicals in food. I though he was crazy, but being as that it had been 7 months since I was able to walk a straight line, I decided to take the plunge. Surprisingly within 2 weeks I was back to walking okay. My neurologist did suggest that salt is a fine balance and that cutting it all together could have the same effect. Crazy how are bodies are so in tune to what we need!

  26. Now if you read a whole book on salt, you know much, much more than I do :-) But my dad is a psychologist, and when I was a kid, he had a client who developed a huge goiter on her neck because she had eliminated salt. It IS an essential nutrient, and I believe the only source of iodine? (I may be wrong on that, so someone could correct me!) But I believe it was the lack of iodine that caused the goiter, if I remember correctly. At any rate, I always, always buy the regular ol’ Morton IODIZED salt because of this. Quite frankly, for 1 tea. of a “processed” product in an entire recipe, I’m not too worried. I don’t know that sea salts contain iodine? Does anyone else know? Thank you, Lisa, for sharing your experience, and I think pointing out the fact that all things in moderation is key to a healthy diet.

    1. Assistant to 100 Days (Amy)

      Hi Gina. Table salt is not the only source of iodine. Here is a list of foods that are good sources of iodine: If you are eating out at all or consuming any packaged food products like whole wheat crackers or pretzels, you are likely getting plenty of conventional table salt. If you have any concerns about your iodine levels, you should consult your physician. ~Amy

  27. I had a similar situation happen, except instead of becoming lightheaded, I had headaches – almost migraine like headaches. I do not like taking medications, so on the 4th day of a severe headache I knew I had to see a doctor. After a lot of various testing, a glass of orange juice and a Tylenol, they could find nothing wrong. An ER nurse actually was the one that asked me about my diet. As I am not a coffee drinker and during the headaches I had stopped drinking tea and gone with glass after glass of water in hopes to flush out whatever was making me hurt. It turns out I had depleted my caffeine intake! I left the hospital with a verbal prescription to eat an ounce of the darkest chocolate, once a day!! It takes a while to develop a taste for a good dark chocolate, and I really do not eat an full ounce daily, but I am happy to report that the headaches are gone :-) Similar to the sodium that gets a bad rap, caffeine is a part of our dietary needs.

    1. Elizabeth- caffeine is NOT an essential nutrient, in fact it’s more likely that your body was experiencing symptoms of withdrawal from the tea, as caffeine is a stimulant. It will take time but maybe weaning yourself slowly from the chocolate will help you to not experience the headaches any longer without using caffeine to keep them away.

  28. Just a quick comment on the issue of salt. People should make sure they are using iodized salt. We have very few natural sources of iodine in our diet and iodine is essential for thyroid hormone production. In fact, there is a link between increased incidences of hypothyroidism and decrease intake of iodized salt. Something you might want to think about and/or mention.

  29. jeanne kayiranga

    thank u for sharing this, the same thing happened to my mother she stopped eating salt due to high blood pressure and was getting weak and weak everyday, when i took her to hospital they told me she was about to go into coma for luck of sodium and were advised we cook a lot of salt in her food and add row salt on table for 2weeks and now she is really very fine, and this business of not eating salt was her own prescription oh my God we almost lost her. thank u once again for this tip.

  30. My unusual diagnosis came from my kiddos. And they’re only 3 and 1 years old!

    While trying to figure out what was wrong with them, we went on an elimination diet. I am nursing my youngest so I had to control what I ate due to his food allergies, and my oldest had more issues than we knew existed so the whole family went on a restricted diet (after consulting a dietician, of course).

    In the process, we learned my oldest has Fructose Malabsorption (in addition to his IgE to egg and dairy/soy protein intolerance) and turns out, I do, too! Eating the SAD – standard American diet – for so many years had my body constantly in turmoil and I couldn’t tell what my food was doing to me. Now I can immediately tell if I’ve eaten too much fructose, if I haven’t eaten enough protein, if my salt levels are too low, or if I haven’t eaten frequently enough. It’s almost miraculous to finally hear my body speaking so clearly to me!

    The best part is knowing I’m finally feeding my children appropriately for their health issues. My youngest has FPIES, and with my oldest sons food issues we eat almost entirely from scratch with the purest ingredients I can find. Even their candy bars are homemade!

    And of course, it’s given me lots of fodder and recipes to share on my blog, which has already helped other people figure out what is going on with their kids, too. That’s the best reward for all of this I can even imagine. :-)

  31. Last year I was diagnosed with severe low potassium and low sodium. I ended up in the ER this January with such low levels they are surprised I didn’t have a heart attack. I’ve always hated the taste of salt in food. I joke I am the only one that has a Dr telling her to have more salt. I’ve learned to buy artisan salts. I’m surprised at the different kinds there are. I’m slowly learning to add just the right one to dishes as I cook. I also have a salt block that I have yet to use for grilling. Plan to use it soon.

  32. I went to a 2-night science camp with my 5th graders and my fellow teacher and I shared a room. She noticed that I not only snore, but I also actually stopped breathing during the night. So I had a sleep study, and was diagnosed with severe sleep apnea. I live alone, so if she hadn’t noticed something was wrong, I’d never have gotten help.

  33. If I remember correctly from a high school or college biology/anatomy class – our hearts are regulated by a sodium – potassium pump. If either level is deficient the heart is affected. We all hear about too much salt, but not enough can be problematic, too.

    1. Assistant to 100 Days (Amy)

      Hi Nina . Pink Himalayan seal salt is also unrefined and contains all its original minerals as well. ~Amy