Wise gurus from the ancient past tell us to stay away from salty foods in classic Yoga texts like the Gheranda Samhita (5:23) and the Hatha Yoga Pradipika (1:59).
Modern medicine, too, recommends with increasing fervor that we don’t eat salty foods. We need to limit our overall intake of sodium, which is half of sodium chloride, or regular common table salt.
High sodium intake leads to high blood pressure, heart attacks and strokes.
The recommended limit is 2,300 mg of sodium per day, about one teaspoon of salt. For adults like me who are over 40, the recommendation is stricter. For us, and for those who have already been diagnosed with high blood pressure (hypertension) or who are African American, the magic number is 1,500 mg of sodium per day – and that’s not much more than half a teaspoon.
Restaurant meals and packaged, processed, store-bought food account for most of the sodium in our diets. Around 5% comes from salt added while cooking and another 5-6% is added at the table.
While I don’t have to counsel most yogis to stay away from crappy processed junk food (where the sodium content is clearly written on the label), it’s a little harder for them (and for me!) to come to grips with reigning in one of our favorite pastimes – going out to eat. Self control is a foundation of a good Yoga practice, but there are other tricks like asking for nutrition information on specific dishes or choosing restaurants where you can special order a no-added-salt preparation.
One problem with avoiding salt is that by eating less of it we’re also avoiding a cheap and efficient iodine supplement. In the States, little iodized salt is now used in processed foods, the milk industry is changing the way they do things so that less iodine is in milk products, and many people are choosing non-iodized salt for their homes since supplementation isn’t mandatory. After being almost all but eliminated, iodine deficiency is reappearing in the US, Australia, and parts of Europe.
What’s that you say? But iodine is toxic and you wouldn’t touch it with a really long pole? Yep, that, too.
Like many of our vitamins and nutrients, iodine walks a fine balance line in our bodies. Too little iodine is a big problem, but too much iodine can be a problem, too.
Iodine deficiency during pregnancy is still the number one cause of preventable mental retardation in the world, and there are studies linking it to hyperactivity and behavioral disorders in the offspring of moms who didn’t get enough during early pregnancy. In a 2002 study, 7% of pregnant American women were iodine deficient. It’s not just a problem in the so called “third world” over there.
Children with iodine deficiency have lower brain functioning. Adults with mild to moderate low iodine levels have higher rates of more aggressive forms of thyroid cancer, goiter, and hypothyroidism. Some researchers believe that low iodine levels increase the risk of prostrate, breast, endometrial, and ovarian cancers.
The majority of serious practicing yogis I know choose natural sea salt without added iodine. That’s great if they’re getting iodine from another natural source, but many eat little seafood or dairy – or they’re vegan and eat none. To compound the problem, a healthy yogic diet contains lots of cruciferous vegetables and some soy, both of which have goitrogens that can interfere with the way the thyroid gland processes iodine.
If you’re vegan, try to eat natural sources of iodine like seaweed, celery, baked potatoes with the peel, strawberries, and navy beans. With the latter bunch, realize that the iodine content of plants depends upon the iodine content of the soil they are grown in, which is rapidly being depleted in many areas. Seaweed can be a source of mercury and other heavy metals if not organic, and there are instances in the Japanese population of iodine toxicity from over-doing the seaweed.
Don’t cut cruciferous veggies like broccoli, bok choy and cabbage from your diet. They’re loaded with nutrition. Cooking them neutralizes the compounds that interfere with iodine. While raw food is spectacular, sometimes cooking food, like the cruciferous vegetables, is a great idea, too!
Crawford BA, Cowell CT, Emder PJ, Learoyd DL, Chua EL, Sinn J, Jack MM. Iodine toxicity from soy milk and seaweed ingestion is associated with serious thyroid dysfunction. Med J Aust. 2010 Oct 4;193(7):413-5.
Zimmermann, MB. Iodine Deficiency. Endocrine Reviews 30 (4): 376-408