Should salt be included in a Zero Carb diet?
The subject of salt is a bit complex.
On the one hand, Owsley “The Bear” Stanley – who ate a Zero Carb diet for over 50 years – felt that salt should be avoided. Here are some of his comments regarding salt that he posted on a now-defunct low carbhydrate internet forum he participated in during 2006:
“I don’t use salt.”
“Salt is not good for a fat burner.”
“Salt is not good in your food, it is a chemical and will damage your skin and your kidneys over time. It also interferes with fat metabolism.”
“When I was a dancer, I used no salt in anything. I drank huge amounts of plain water during class and never had a bit of problem, whereas the other dancers scarfed salt tablets like candy and still had problems.”
“I sometimes sweat so proficiently that I need to drink 3 or four liters of water in less than an hour. I have no effects of low salt, and my sweat is never salty. I used to watch the other kids in ballet class scarfing slat tabs, while I just drank water. My shirt was very wet, but dried out normal, while theirs were rimed with a heavy white salt crust – indicating that the massive excess of alt was simply being dumped. If they did not eat the salt tabs when drinking water, they fainted.”
“Adding salt to food is not good. If you eat nothing but steaks you will never have any deficiencies.”
“It only takes about one ounce of any meat/day to supply all the sodium your body requires for normal saline balance.”
“Salt is an addiction. It is culturally induced by the need to add some salt for flavor in vegetables.”
“When I gave up salt, the only food that I ate which seemed to need salt was eggs, but after a few years this passed. Unsalted butter made the difference – without that added fat eggs are definitely very bland.”
“Take care to only buy and use unsalted butter. Salt in butter is there as a preservative, thus the level is very high. Unsalted butter is a bit more expensive because only very fresh cream can be used to make it, whereas soured cream – neutralized with soda – is used to make regular butter that is then preserved with salt.”
“Taking in more salt than you body needs is very, very bad for you. If your sweat tastes salty, you have too much intake. Both the skin and the kidneys dump salt, but cannot ‘change gears’ quickly. Both organs are affected by passing salt. The salt content of sweat and urine can go down to a few parts per million, to conserve the saline balance of the bodies tissues.”
“If addicted to salt – just like with any other addiction – when you stop using, you will experience side effects, such as everything suddenly seeming tasteless and bland. If you persist, salt becomes vile-tasting, and food without salt very tasty. It takes several days for your body to stop dumping salt through the skin and kidneys and begin conserving it, so when quitting, be aware of your salt balance. You may experience light headedness and the other classic signs of low sodium, if necessary take a tiny pinch, but try to stop all salt as quickly as you can tolerate it. I consider it a chemical poison.”
“Human commerce in salt began with the use of vegetation as a major item of human food. Only herbivorous animals will seek out and consume salt – because sodium is lacking in all terrestrial plant tissues. Carnivores do not need any salt. Your taste for salt on meat is learned behavior only.”
“Chemical salt should always be avoided, it interferes with fat metabolism when the body carries an excess. If you are getting too much, your sweat will taste salty. It takes about a week for the body to stop spilling salt in the urine and sweat.”
It should be observed, however, that in spite of Mr. Owsley’s strong anti-salt stance, he did eat a few ounces of salt-containing cheese almost every day (based on the comments he made in the above mentioned forum). Therefore, it is questionable whether his own personal experience can actually be taken as an example of practicing a Zero Carb diet with Zero Salt.
Nevertheless, many of the long-time practitioners of Zero Carb eating -whom I have met through the Facebook group Zeroing in on Health – have stated that they also do not consume any salt. This is not universally true, but it is the case for a significant percentage of them. The health and well-being of those who do not add salt to their food does not seem to be negatively affected by the absence of salt in their diet. Likewise, the health and well-being of those who have continued to include salt in their Zero Carb diet also does not seem to have been negatively affected. Some have even stated that they can take it or leave it with out ill effect.
On the other hand, Dr. Stephen Phinney and Dr. Jeff Volek have argued that eating a low carbohydrate, ketogenic diet increases an individual’s need for sodium. Here are two excerpts from their seminal books which explain the science supporting their recommendations:
“Whole books have been written about the history of salt. Wars were fought over access to salt. Roman soldiers were often paid with a measure of salt, hence the origin of the English word ‘salary’. Hunters and their prey, herders and their cattle, all shaped their actions and habits around access to salt. The reason, of course, is that salt (sodium) is necessary for life.”
“Humans did not need to know chemistry to understand the value of salt. Salt deprivation leads to lightheadedness, fatigue, headache, and malaise. Aboriginal cultures could figure out that if they drank from one spring, they began to feel lousy, but if they drank from that other one, they’d feel OK. The Inuit knew which ice to melt for water to boil their meat. Sea ice loses its salt content with age. Fresh ice had too much salt, fresh snow had none, whereas older sea ice was just right.”
“Inland hunters followed their prey to salt licks and salt springs. These waters were prized for cooking, and some cultures learned to dry these waters to make dry salt. But the universal dependable source of salt for inland hunters and herders alike was blood. Blood was collected from freshly killed animals using the emptied stomach as a container, whether from a bison on the Great Plains or from caribou or muskox on the tundra. A liter of whole blood contains about 2 grams of sodium, so 500 ml per day would ward off acute symptoms of salt depletion.”
“Among the Masai living in hot inland Kenya, the consumption of blood was a staple of their culture (along with meat and milk). Even in the 1920’s, long after British trade had provided them access to dry salt, the Masai still bled their cattle to provide each hunter with a token 50 ml of blood per day. Given another century of perspective, perhaps the pejorative phrase misrepresenting many aboriginal cultures as ‘bloodthirsty savages’ might better be replaced by the phrase ‘bloodthirsty savants’.”
“The amount of carbohydrate in our diet changes our need for salt. High carbohydrate diets make the kidneys retain salt, whereas a low carbohydrate intake increases sodium excretion by the kidney (called ‘the natriuresis of fasting’). Hunting cultures seemed to understand this, and thus their highly evolved practices of finding sodium and consuming enough of it to maintain health and well-being…”
“…all carbohydrate-restricted diets, even ones providing 50-60 grams of carbohydrate like Dr. Hoffer’s mixed diet, are natriuretic – they make the kidneys dump sodium. Now, if you are bloated, edematous, or hypertensive, ‘dumping sodium’ is a good thing. But if you do not (or no longer) have these fluid-excess symptoms, then over-excretion of sodium results in the above list of symptoms.”
“And more worrisome, it can have negative health effects as well. Sodium is the positively charged ion that the body uses in its circulating fluid (serum and extracellular fluid) to balance the concentration of positive charges from potassium that is concentrated inside cells. The membrane enzyme sodium-potassium ATPase is the ion pump that keeps both of these cations separated and in the right place”.
“For nerves, muscles, and other cellular functions to work right, neither of these ion concentrations can deviate much from that of the other. With severe sodium restriction (like 1.3 grams per day, combined with the natriuretic effects of carbohydrate restriction), the body responds first by mobilizing any excess extracellular fluid (which is why bloating disappears) and then by contracting its circulating volume. It is this contracted circulating volume that causes dizziness, headache, and ease of fatigue.”
“At some point, when confronted with this low sodium intake plus carbohydrate restriction, most people’s defense mechanisms can’t maintain normal mineral balances. So the body’s next level of defense is for the adrenal gland to secrete the hormone aldosterone, which makes kidney tubular cells excrete potassium in order to conserve sodium. That is, the body wastes some of its intracellular potassium in order to cling to whatever sodium it can. However unless there is copious potassium coming in from the diet, this excess urinary potassium comes from the body’s potassium pool inside cells.”
“Two things then happen. First, nerve and muscle cells don’t work well, leading to cardiac dysrhythmias and muscle cramps. Second, because potassium is an obligate component of lean tissue, the body starts losing muscle even if there’s plenty of protein in the diet. Clearly none of these effects of sodium restriction are desirable, particularly when one is trying to lose body fat while retaining as much lean tissue as possible. Luckily, if in the context of a low carbohydrate diet you give the subject/patient a total of 5 grams of sodium per day (for example 2-3 grams on their food and 2 grams as broth/bouillon), none of these bad things happen.”
“Most athletes sweat, and sweat contains salt. Both sweat and blood taste ‘salty’, because both contain an appreciable amount sodium. The only place inside your body where you find much sodium is in the blood, so if you run short of it, there’s not much ‘on reserve’ elsewhere in the body. Thus, if you don’t have enough sodium, your circulation (aka circulating blood volume) has to shrink. Sweat too much and your body runs short of sodium, and this forces it to shrink your blood volume to keep serum sodium concentration in the normal range. Shrink your circulating volume too much and you pass out.”
“Thus salt is a critically important nutrient for athletes, and this is especially true on a low carbohydrate diet. When carbohydrates are restricted the body changes from retaining both water and salt to discarding them. Because of this fundamental shift in mineral management, it’s not uncommon for people to lose 4-5 pounds of water weight during the first week of a low carbohydrate diet. Typically, only half of that first week’s weight loss is from fat and the other half is due to salt loss along with its associated water. If some of that salt is not replaced, however, blood flow may be impaired and the body over-reacts in its quest for salt. This primarily happens in the kidneys, which try to compensate by wasting potassium (i.e., kidney cells give up potassium in exchange for retaining sodium), leading to a negative potassium balance.”
“When carbohydrates are restricted, the body changes from retaining both water and salt to discarding them. Because of this fundamental shift in mineral management, it’s not uncommon for people to lose 4-5 pounds of water weight during the first week of a low carbohydrate diet. Typically, only half of that first week’s weight loss is from fat and the other half is due to salt loss along with its associated water. If some of that salt is not replaced, however, blood flow may be impaired and the body over-reacts in its quest for salt. This primarily happens in the kidneys, which try to compensate by wasting potassium (i.e., kidney cells give up potassium in exchange for retaining sodium), leading to a negative potassium balance.”
“What does all this mean? The loss of water and salt can reduce plasma volume and make you feel sluggish and compromise your ability to perform outdoors in the heat or in the weight room. As a result, some people get headaches and feel faint. This state of salt depletion causes a compensatory loss of potassium, which has a negative impact on muscle mass since potassium is a necessary co-factor in building and maintaining skeletal muscle. The easy solution is to routinely take 1-2 grams of sodium per day in the form of 2 bouillon cubes (or home-made broth).”
When a person first begins a low carbohydrate, ketogenic diet the body dumps a lot of sodium which can make the transition from a carbohydrate-based diet to a fat-based diet very unpleasant (sometimes referred to as the “keto-flu”) if you do not consume enough salt during this process. It can take a few weeks to enter a state of Nutritional Ketosis and become an efficient fat-burner. This is also known as being Keto-Adapted or Fat-Adapted. This adaption period can take several weeks. Once it is complete, however, it it possible that extra salt is not necessary. This learn more about this process please read my article on Adaptation.
Interestingly, there is a case history in The Art and Science of Low Carbohydrate Performance of David Dreyfuss – a long-distance runner – who does not consume any extra salt during cold-weather runs and has not experienced any problems with his athletic performance as a result. He says,
“In hot weather I did take some salt, but I do not even use salt in cold weather… Dr. Phinney believes that increased sodium intake may be necessary during a low carb diet. My own experience has been that I can pretty much ignore the issue. I grew up in a low-salt household and still use added salt very sparingly. Outside of exercise and in cool weather, I use no electrolyte supplements. In very hot weather, I have a simple trick which seems to reduce my need for salt replacement: about half the water I use is dumped directly on my clothes. It’s a lot more efficient to use it directly for evaporative cooling than to consume it and then sweat it out again. I follow the usual guidelines of drinking to thirst. I also generally keep track of urine output (i.e., that there is some every few hours) to double check that I’m not dehydrating excessively. Surprisingly, I’ve generally found that my total water consumption (again, anecdotally and not quantitatively) is significantly less now than it used to be. Just training? Nutrition? I don’t know. I have no cramping and no stomach issues. As long as my muscles have adequate reserves, I just don’t experience any problems.”
However, the long term effects on muscle maintenance may become an issue for him as Phinney and Volek have described above. The jury on this still seems to be out and is definitely a worthy area for further research in my opinion.
I personally went for years without eating salt. But after reading Dr. Batmanghelidj’s fascinating book Your Body’s Many Cries for Water, I decided to reintroduce it. Dr. B argues that the body’s cells need sodium in order to maintain proper hydration. In one of his other books, he gives a number of case histories of individuals who had been consuming plenty of water, yet were still dehydrated because they were following a salt-free diet. After adding salt back into their diets, these individuals experienced dramatic health improvements. Therefore, Dr. B recommend adding about 1/8 of a tsp. of sea salt to every quart of water.
I decided tofollow Dr. B’s recommendation and discovered that I also felt better once I started consuming salt again. This may be due to the fact that I have severe Histamine Intolerance. Excess histamines cause low blood pressure, and salt helps to raise blood pressure. At the time I reintroduced salt into my diet, I did not know that I was Histamine Intolerant, so I was still consuming a a lot of high-histamine foods. It is certainly possible that if I can maintain a low-histamine diet for a while, I may reach a point where I do not feel the need for added salt in my diet. It is something I may experiment with in the future.
I personal prefer Celtic sea salt over Himalayan rock salt because it tastes better to me. I never use commercial iodized salt because – not only does it taste terrible – but the type of iodine it contains is not the best form of this mineral. Iodine is very important for over all health, so if you feel you may be deficient it would be better to use a product like Lugol’s solution (and read Primal Body, Primal Mind by Nora Gedgaudas for more information about iodine and proper thyroid function).
It is highly probably that humans have been seeking out sodium rich foods and salt deposits for as long as we have been human. Many anthropologist feel that humans evolved along coastal areas where sea salt, seaweed, and seafood would have been regularly consumed. There are lots of convincing reasons in support of this perspective and it is the one that I personally find most compelling. If you are interested in exploring this subject further, I recommend the book Nutrition and Evolution by Michael Crawford and David Marsh. This perspective also supports the idea that higher omega 3 fatty acids – EPA and DHA – in the diet where one of the factors that lead to our large brains.
Finally, it has be shown that wild animals – including other primates – seek out food and water sources that are naturally high in sodium. For example, Decaying Wood is a Sodium Source for Mountain Gorillas:
“Like several other non-human primates, mountain gorillas (Gorilla beringei beringei) in Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, Uganda consume decaying wood, an interesting but puzzling behaviour. This wood has little obvious nutritional value; it is low in protein and sugar, and high in lignin compared to other foods. We collected pieces of wood eaten and avoided by gorillas, and other foods consumed by gorillas, and measured their sodium content. Wood was substantially higher in sodium than other dietary items, and wood pieces from stumps eaten contained more sodium than those that were avoided. Wood represented only 3.9% of the wet weight food intake of gorillas, but contributed over 95% of dietary sodium, leading us to conclude that decaying wood is an important sodium source for Bwindi gorillas. Because sodium has been leached from the weathered soils characteristic of the subhumid and humid tropics, and because terrestrial plants generally do not require sodium, tropical herbivores, including gorillas, often encounter problems locating the sodium essential for their well-being. Decaying wood is an unexpected sodium source.”
As I stated at the beginning of this article, the issue of sodium is a bit complex. I have tried to examine it from a variety of directions, so that you will have a more complete understanding from which to make a decision. Knowledge is power. The best approach would be to simply experiment for yourself, as the only thing that really matters – after all is said and done – is how YOU personally feel.