"Pass the salt" is a seemingly innocuous request - after all, a sprinkle of the white (or Himalayan pink) crystals is the finishing touch to many a breakfast, lunch and dinner. But too much of the stuff can seriously increase your risk of disease, not to mention thwart all your attempts at weight loss. "Research has found that too much salt in your diet increases your risk of having high blood pressure (hypertension), stroke, cardiovascular disease, heart attack and kidney disease," says Emily George, whose book, The No Salt Cookbook ($35; New Holland) hits shelves this February. "High salt intake has also been linked to osteoporosis and stomach cancer."
After being diagnosed with Meniere's disease in 2011 (a condition that affects the inner ear, disturbing balance and hearing), George found a low-sodium diet was the answer to managing her illness - and couldn't believe the added bonuses along the way. "I lost weight, my skin became clearer and I lost cravings for salty foods - which are often unhealthy and processed," she says.
Why? Excess sodium leads to fluid retention in the body - hello, bloat. "Eliminating salt from your diet can result in weight loss simply from less fluid retention and bloating. Brain scans have shown that sodium triggers dopamine, the neurotransmitter associated with pleasure, which can mean the more salt you eat, the more your body wants, often resulting in overeating," says George. "Give your body a few weeks without it and you will notice that food starts to taste better and more flavoursome. Our taste buds regenerate every couple of weeks, so the new ones are a fresh clean palate that aren't used to salt and don't need it to enjoy food."
If you can't face a meal without liberal seasoning, here's how George did it. "Herbs and spices give meals so much flavour. Once you learn how to use them, you don't miss the salt taste at all. Using a BBQ gives a great smoky taste, and slow cooking meats can bring out richer flavours in your dish," she says. She stopped cooking with salt altogether and stopped buying anything with added salt. "Some canned foods, for example a tin of chopped tomatoes, can vary hugely between brands - some have up to 10 times as much as a no added salt variety," she says. As for everything else you're buying, check the nutritional label: "Anything with 120mg of sodium per 100g of food or less is considered low sodium," George says. Breakfast cereals, bread, dips and salad dressings are the worst offenders for unexpectedly high amounts of added salt, so make your own or avoid altogether.