Photo: Nadeen Nakib for Yahoo Health/iStock
It is biologically impossible to put on pounds of body fat overnight.
Actual weight gain takes time to manifest because “fat is insidious — it sneaks into the body, builds up gradually, and is not so immediately perceptible,” explains Toronto-based dietitian Rosie Schwartz, author of The Enlightened Eater’s Whole Foods Guide: Harvest the Power of Phyto Foods.
No, if you find that your weight fluctuates somewhat erratically, that you often wake up and find yourself 2 or 3 pounds heavier than you were the night before, your problem probably isn’t actual weight gain, Schwartz tells Yahoo Health: You may just be consuming too much salt.
An excess of salt in the body results in water retention, and that almost instantaneously translates to body bloat, as well as pain and stiffness in the joints, sore spots on the feet, swollen ankles, feet, and hands, and a general feeling of achiness.
But when we feel a little puffier than normal, we often mistake this for weight gain, when the real culprit is just too much salt.
Don’t get us wrong: Salt is a necessity — without it, the heart, muscles, and brain simply cannot function, says Kerry Anne Bajaj, certified health coach at the Eleven Eleven Wellness Center in New York City. However, sodium chloride, — which is different from the sodium that occurs naturally in foods, a mineral, or more technically, an electrolyte, and something that is vital to our bodily function — is a chemical the body does not need. And “for every gram of excess sodium chloride that your body has to neutralize, it uses up 23 grams of cellular water,” Bajaj tells Yahoo Health, “so eating too much common processed salt will cause fluid to accumulate in your tissues.”
The longer-term effects of consuming too much salt can be quite detrimental because the resulting water loss (which leads to water retention) strains the kidneys, the blood vessels, and the arteries, says J.J. Virgin, a nutritionist, fitness expert, author, and Yahoo Health advisory board member. The sodium buildup in the body can also lead to chronic high blood pressure, strain the heart and brain, and “put you at an increased risk of heart attack and/or stroke,” Virgin tells Yahoo Health.
Furthermore, too much salt in the body depletes its magnesium and calcium reserves and creates a higher risk for osteoporosis, Schwartz says.
Sadly, though, our taste buds are conditioned to like salty foods. “If you serve people food that doesn’t have that salty taste, most of them are likely to say it doesn’t taste good and reach for the saltshaker,” she says. “We’re just so used to having a certain level of salt in our foods.”
Sodium is also added in large quantities to processed foods because it increases their shelf life and improves their texture and taste. But when it comes to reading nutrition labels, most people are focused on the sugar, fat, and carb content and aren’t giving sodium the attention it deserves, Schwartz says.
The FDA recommends that healthy adults consume no more than 2,300 — the equivalent of a teaspoon — of sodium a day and no less than 1,500 milligrams. “People don’t realize that in some fast food places, you’d consume that 1,500 milligrams in just one sandwich, never mind the fries,” Schwartz says.
Her top recommendation for avoiding the salt trap: Nix the processed foods, and “do your own cooking, to control the amount of salt going into your food.”
Related: 11 Simple Ways to Lose the Bloat
Virgin cautions for control with the saltshaker and advises people to focus on whole, unprocessed foods with healthy fats and lean protein, slow carbs such as quinoa, and nonstarchy veggies, all of which are good sources of natural sodium. (With table salt, “all of the trace minerals have been stripped and you are left with a bleached, 98 percent sodium chloride product,” Virgin says.)
“About 90 percent of our salt intake comes from processed foods and the saltshaker: When you eat whole, unprocessed, low-sugar impact foods, you automatically eliminate those sources without overthinking it,” she says.
Natural sources of sodium include sea vegetables, fish, shellfish, and meat, Bajaj says, plus certain plants such as beets, carrots, celery, spinach, and turnips. Schwartz also recommends upping your potassium intake, since too much sodium in the body drains the potassium, which we need for building muscle and regulating the electrical activity of the heart, among others functions.
There’s a wide range of foods rich in potassium — bananas, cooked spinach, baked potatoes, mushrooms, cantaloupes, berries, to name a few — and eating these on a regular basis can help counter the effects of too much sodium (including the bloating), Schwartz says.
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