Processed sugars, fats, and chemically enhanced foods are not only adding inches to your waistline. Scientists have now officially linked processed food to risk factors for autoimmune disease. I’ll bet you already suspected that. After all, processed food contributes to, or causes, many diseases.
And this study was about just one additive….salt.
What Is An Autoimmune Disorder?
An autoimmune disorder arises when the immune system, responsible for protecting against disease and infection, mistakenly attacks it’s own cells and tissues. Some examples of autoimmune disease include multiple sclerosis, lupus (SLE), rheumatoid arthritis, inflammatory bowel disease, and type-1 diabetes. Many genetic factors can also contribute to an individual’s susceptibility for contracting autoimmune disorders. There are also various environmental factors such as heavy metals and molds that can increase susceptibility in exposed individuals. Viral infections, smoking, and low vitamin D3 levels are also known triggers for these diseases.
A team of doctors from Yale University and the University of Erlangen-Nuremberg in Germany have conducted extensive studies on the amount of salt in processed food and linked it directly to an increase in the potential of developing autoimmune disorders. Three studies published in the journal Nature, primarily a study conducted by neurologist and immunobiologist David Hafler, found that “mice fed a diet high in sodium produced a flood of inflammatory infection fighting helper T cells.” These types of cells are specifically identified in autoimmune disorders. After producing an abundance of these helper T cells, the mice had developed encephalomyelitis, known as the animal version of multiple sclerosis.
Making the jump between studies on mice and human autoimmune disorders is a big one. Scientists understand the many different factors that can contribute to autoimmune disorders, as well as much more research that needs to be done to understand more about the connection with salt intake. However, these three studies definitely spark high alert to doctors in understanding dietary risk factors associated with autoimmune disease, and yet another reason to reduce salt intake.
The Salt Epidemic
According to the CDC, 9 out of 10 children eat more sodium than recommended. This amount of intake can increase risk for heart disease, high blood pressure, and stroke. The recent studies suggest that salt intake can lead to higher susceptibility for autoimmune disorders. The majority of sodium that U.S. citizens consume is found in processed and restaurant foods. In fact, approximately 75% of daily salt intake comes from processed foods. Many factors play a part in poor diet choices such as late night dinners, fast food drive-through runs, and limited time available for more natural home-cooked meals.
Contrary to popular belief, salty foods such as potato chips, popcorn and pretzels are not the highest culprit for salt intake. These common snacks may taste saltier, however bread and rolls contribute to more salt consumption within the average American diet due to the fact that more bread and roll products are consumed.
Other High Salt Foods Include:
- Cold cuts
- Cured meats (packaged ham & turkey)
- Processed poultry
- Meat loaf
- Canned Soups
These foods account for approximately 44% of a typical diet in the U.S. Reducing salt intake can be a difficult undertaking because of the prevalence in many of the foods that are so frequently eaten. The recommended daily allotment of sodium is approximately 2,300 mg.
Reduce Salt Intake With These Recommended Steps
With such negative effects caused by a high consumption rate of sodium, I recommend the following steps to help reduce your daily salt intake:
- Use fresh cuts of meat rather than packaged meats such as ham or cold cuts. A good rule is that if the item keeps in the fridge for days or weeks without spoiling, then the salt content is likely high.
- Fresh fruits and vegetables, as well as some canned or frozen varieties, contain low amounts of salt. If eating canned or frozen products, be sure to read the labels.
- Look for “fresh frozen” and items that do not include sauces when choosing frozen vegetables or packaged foods.
- Read the labels! Awareness of the ingredients in your food is most important to combat high intake of sodium chloride. Oftentimes, high sodium content will be masked in products with high sugar content, so read carefully and always seek foods with less than six ingredients for the least processing and additives.
- Limit amount of spices that you use in the kitchen that label themselves as “salt” (e.g. garlic powder v. garlic salt).
- Beware of high sodium foods that don’t taste salty, such as cottage cheese, rolls, and bread.
- Don’t use the salt shaker.
When In Doubt, Fresh Is Best
The best practice is to eat fresh, unprocessed (or minimally processed) food as much as possible. By reading ingredient labels and making sure you understand exactly what you’re eating when visiting a restaurant or making your own meals, you can greatly reduce salt intake. Salt can be tricky, but by understanding the risks associated with excess intake and making dietary changes, it can help to curb the salt epidemic.
Autoimmune disorders have several different possible triggers. By eating fresh, whole foods you also decrease your exposure to many preservatives, dyes, and flavor enhancers. Any, or all, of these can contribute to many medical conditions, including autoimmune disorders.
Eating fresh, whole foods and limiting salt intake can help decrease your risk for potentially life threatening disease in the future.