Salt has become one of those things that people have come to fear and have been told to avoid as much as possible. It’s been demonized as the cause of things like water retention and high blood pressure. The recommendation to limit salt to benefit health is often included during pregnancy. However, for most pregnant women, that may not be such a sound recommendation.
During pregnancy, there is an increase in blood volume as well as other fluids. This means there’s also an increased need for electrolytes to help keep those fluids healthy and in the balance they should be in. Electrolytes are minerals in the body that have a positive or negative charge known as ions. Some of the main electrolytes are calcium, magnesium, potassium, chloride, and sodium. These, and other, electrolytes are necessary in the body for hundreds of different functions and it’s very important for these electrolytes to remain in balance to each other. In fact, those pregnancy cravings of pickles and olives are a pretty sure sign your body is needing electrolytes, or minerals. Following a low or no salt diet can throw this electrolyte balance off and cause some problems. However, loading up on salt is not beneficial either.
Not All Salt Is the Same
Basic table salt is about 97-99 percent sodium chloride. The remaining percentage is made up of additives like iodine (in the form of potassium iodide since the natural iodine was removed), dextrose (sugar, often derived from corn), and anti-caking agents. Although it’s not often thought about, table salt is actually a highly refined product. It goes through a process where the natural trace minerals are removed and replaced, and it all ends with the salt being bleached from the dextrose turning the salt purple.
Sea salt, on the other hand, has a variety of minerals. According to Sally Fallon Morrell’s book, Nourishing Traditions, this salt contains about 82 percent sodium chloride, 14 percent macro-minerals, particularly magnesium, and nearly 80 trace minerals. The highest quality sea salt is sun-dried and appears gray in color. Sea salt that is white has been processed and likely stripped.
Why Electrolytes Matter
As mentioned above, electrolytes are necessary for many different functions and reactions. Here are a few:
- Stomach acid production – Chloride is the “chloric” part of Hydrochloric acid (To read more about why stomach acid is important to overall health, read this post)
- Heart beat – Calcium and magnesium work together to keep the heart pumping
- Muscle contractions – Calcium and magnesium work together to contract and relax muscles
- Cellular communication – Electrolytes work together to help cells communicate so important messages can be sent and received
- Hydration – Electrolytes help the body to hold on to water in a way that is healthy to cells
- Blood plasma volume – Regulating fluid levels
- Fetal development – Electrolytes play a role in the development fetal renal, vascular, and hormonal systems
Table Salt Isn’t All Bad
The highly processed table salt is the kind that is used most often in processed foods. While it is a highly processed food itself, it does have a benefit over the better choice, sea salt. Sea salt has a very low iodine content, while table salt is typically iodized. Iodine is an important mineral for overall health, especially during pregnancy, for both mom and baby. Iodine is necessary for baby’s brain and nervous system. An iodine deficiency during pregnancy has been linked to lower IQs for the baby. For mom, iodine plays a role in regulating thyroid hormones.
Unless you’re one of the 25% of the population that is salt-sensitive, it’s ok to salt your (real) food to taste. (Highly processed foods contain excessive sodium, plus any number of harmful ingredients. Stick to a real food diet as much as possible.) The cleanest salt to use is a gray sea salt or pink Himalayan salt. However, as previously mentioned, neither one contains much iodine. Therefore, one option is to alternate between the different kinds of salts to ensure you’re getting plenty of electrolytes and minerals with minimal additives.
Another option, if you’d prefer to skip the additives in the table salt completely, is to incorporate sea vegetables into your diet. Using foods like kelp, dulse flakes, and nori in place of table salt will provide plenty of iodine.
- Dried kelp can add a pleasant crunch to dishes like salads or soups, and is a rich source of magnesium as well as iodine.
- Dulse flakes can be added to eggs, soups, or even smoothies.
- Nori is most commonly used as a wrap for sushi. However, during pregnancy, it’s highly recommended to avoid sushi, so instead, wrap some other form of cooked protein with some vegetables and reap the iodine benefits that way.
*Iodine supplements do exist. It’s important to know, though, that too much iodine can have harmful effects on the thyroid for both mom and baby. My recommendation is to rely on food for this nutrient. However talk to your doctor to decide if a supplement might be right for you.