For the month of August, my husband and I decided to challenge ourselves to a be added-salt/sodium-free. It was actually my husband's idea and I heartily jumped on the bandwagon. I consider it part of my job to try just about every therapeutic diet change, and as a result, I rarely feel like I'm being challenged anymore: Ketogenic, vegan, raw vegan, juice fasting, water fasting, elemental diet, low-fodmap, elimination diet, so on and so fourth... I've done them all. I was eager for an experience that would really feel difficult, and this seemed like it could be it!
During these previous challenges (with the exception of water fasting), salt had never been removed. Our regular diet is much lower in salt/sodium than the average person's, surely, since we consume few pre-made food items. Most of the sodium we normally consume is from within the natural food itself or from sea salt or iodized salt that we add to dishes while cooking.
Why did we decide to take on this challenge?
Salt is associated with a number of deleterious health effects: hypertension, fluid retention, autoimmunity, intestinal distress, to name a few. But I admit these were not my primary motivators. Rather, I had found myself commenting on how salty our cooking (especially my husband's cooking) had become. Obliviously, he asked, "really?! I don't even taste it!". It was so disconcerting to him to have become so desensitized to even large quantities of salt that it propelled him toward a month of salt-free eating. This seemed like a great opportunity to both of us to reset our taste buds (since taste buds are replaced every few weeks) to the natural flavors of foods as well as to see if there was any noticeable impact on our bodies. Because our goal was for a taste bud overhaul, we got STRICT. We removed anything that contained added salt, even fermented foods like miso, tamari and pickles. No canned beans unless they were explicitly salt-free. No condiments that contained any salt whatsoever (good luck finding any at the grocery store...), no tomato products, peanut butter, dressings unless they were verified salt-free. My husband was in disbelief at the number of things in his own diet he had no idea contained salt - things like hot sauce, mustard and prepared cuts of meat.
What have we noticed so far?
Today is August 20th and therefore our 20th day of being salt free (minus one dinner out with friends where we did our very best but definitely each tasted a bit of salt). For both of us, the most startling change has been in our cravings. I knew sugar was addictive and subsequently, our household has been sugar-free for years. But, I truly didn't realize how addictive salt was until now. Our eating patterns have completely shifted. We literally eat only until we are satiated and then stop. Seriously shocking. Is it because the food tastes bad? Certainly not. But there is no longer this compulsive need to reach for more beyond the level of satiation. I am very aware now of my previous tendency to have second helpings even though I was totally full. And in retrospect I would literally describe this behavior as compulsive. I would bet money that this explains in part why modern westerners are overweight - they simply eat beyond their caloric requirements because of this pervasive and uncontrolled reach for more salt and therefore more food. Now, that chemical urge has disappeared. I no longer crave salty foods. I find myself more satisfied by my food in general, and am less often hungry between meals. I notice that without salt, the most addictive refined carb-y foods like bread, pasta and potatoes, are completely undesirable. It isn't the starch you are craving, it's the salt!!!!! Mind blown.
My husband has noticed these effects, too. In fact, he's lamenting losing weight. "If you want a patient to lose weight, just take salt away from them," he now advises. He's simply not as hungry. For most people, this would be an epic side effect to come away with! We do postulate that the summer heat plays some role in our lower appetites, but they are definitely way down compared to July which was an even hotter month. Conclusion: going salt-free regulates appetite.
Was eliminating salt difficult?
Sort of. The first week was the most challenging as you are making haunting realizations about beloved food items. I think it depends on your starting point. If you consume a lot of pre-made foods, or you use a lot of condiments or pre-packaged elements to cook with, you will be in for a rough ride initially. To be salt free, you need to convert your shopping and cooking to virtually all whole-foods and produce. You need to check all of your seasoning blends (incidentally, I had just stocked up on organic salt-free blends a few months prior), make sure any nuts you eat are unsalted, your meats are uncured, your beans are either dried or canned without salt. We have been leaning a lot on other flavors more than before (sweet, spicy, sour). For example, we have ramped up our use of spice blends like curry, mixed herbs, cajun and chili peppers to soups, crockpot dishes and stir-frys. We added fresh herbs like basil, cilantro and mint to our salads. We used more fruit in our cooking. This has been a neat side effect of the challenge. We used to overly rely on salt to flavor our food. Now, we have the impetus to be more "creative" and explore other flavor combinations to enliven our dishes.
Are there any dangers to going salt-free?
What about electrolytes?
We continue to re-mineralize our Berkey-filtered water throughout this process which contains sodium in the context of full-spectrum electrolytes and trace minerals. We also are eating tons of fruits, vegetables and legumes which provide naturally-occurring sodium within their plant cells. So basically, there is no deficiency of sodium in our diets. We are now just getting it naturally from food and water as we were designed to.
The possible attack of the sugar monster:
One issue I definitely foresee for many when eliminating salt is an inadvertent increase in sugar consumption. As I mentioned previously, we already had a sugar-free household. But when we went salt-free, we started using more of the other non-salty flavors. We have been eating quite a bit more fruit than before and we have been adding dried fruit to recipes we didn't think to do so with before. For example, we add raisins to curried rice and I blend dates into salad dressings. There is nothing wrong with this tactic, but for a family that hasn't washed their taste buds of sweet cravings for concentrated sweeteners like cane sugar, corn syrup, honey and maple syrup, I can imagine it would be very easy to suddenly be consuming a lot more calories of sugar to "make up" for the lack of salt-gasm from the diet by replacing it with a sugar-gasm. My recommendation to combat this would be to eliminate added sugar and salt together for the duration of the experiment. Talk about weight loss...
What do we plan to do in 10 days when the challenge is over?
I hope we never go back to our old ways. We are looking forward to having a little salt in our diets, but our plan is to include it only minimally, only in certain meals, and to rely more on therapeutic salt-containing foods like miso. We'd also like to continue our exploration and use of other fresh and dried spices. I know without a shadow of a doubt that even the tiniest bit of salt now is going to go a very long way. My taste buds are now much healthier.
While we plan on incorporating a bit moving forward, I whole-heartedly endorse anyone's plan to eliminate it for good.
Have you ever gone salt-free?