Our taste buds are exquisitely tuned to salt. You don’t comfortably eat over-salted food, and you can’t eat dangerously (I mean literally dangerously) over-salted food: You simply won’t do it. You will spit it out, and even if you do manage to ingest too much salt at once (like a belly full of ocean water), you will simply vomit. For most of us*, our bodies are very, very good at knowing how to handle salt, and how to keep it balanced.
Policy makers, though, much as they did with fat, decided they knew better than the body, and demonized salt as a dangerous element based on tenuous data…data which, upon re-examination, turn up nothing but ghosts and wishful thinking, just as with Ancel Keys and his now-debunked lipid hypothesis. Scientific American has an article on salt sanity here.
I’m not saying we don’t get a helluva lot of salt in unnaturally high doses over the course of the day in our processed food…Big Macs, Spaghettios, French fries, canned soup, and TV dinners all seem to contain enough sodium to preserve every one of us like salt cod for the next hundred years (and the excess salt may make us want to eat more food). These processed foods should be avoided anyway just on principle — what are you doing with that bag of potato chips? Down! Drop it!
I don’t know what exactly ‘too much’ dietary salt really is (nor does the establishment, it turns out, though the amount in fast food is a tad egregious); I just know that the human body is smart about salt in a way that it simply isn’t about sugar. The body has to be an expert on handling salt; a real salt overdose to toxic levels — which we don’t come close to in our food, even McD’s — is an immediate, deadly threat, while sugar toxicity is a slow, long-term process that takes the body by inches. Salt, even at the levels we consume it in this country, is not as dire a threat as the warnings would have us believe. There are other reasons to avoid it, such as hyper-palatabilty, but high blood pressure just doesn’t seem to be one of them.
Living as I do now on a (very delicious) whole-food, unprocessed Paleo diet, I don’t stress too much about salt anymore, except to get enough…which my body is pretty good at figuring out all by itself, turns out. Instead of dealing with a constant assault of salt as it did on a McDonald’s diet (yes, I once lived like that…shudder), my body now has breathing room to ask for salt when it needs it. Hooray for body wisdom!
*Note: There are some people who are very sensitive to salt and cannot be casual about its intake; many African-Americans and the elderly, for example, or those with impaired kidney function, do need to be cautious.
And, just for fun, why do we vomit if we drink seawater?