Salt: a crash coarse

Live to shake it out? Research suggests pepper's better half isn't nearly as bad as you think.

While it’s gotten quite a reputation as a four-letter word, new research may have you reaching for the saltshaker again. Turns out, current guidelines concerning the versatile seasoning — and essential mineral— might be too strict.

A salt study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association by scientists at Ontario's McMaster University found that while salt has long been linked to heart problems (especially for people at risk for heart troubles), it was those taking in a moderate amount (defined in the study as ranging from 4000-5999 mg a day) who had the least amount of cardiovascular problems, such as heart attack and stroke, as opposed to people either on the lower end of the spectrum (below 3000mg) and those on the high end (over 7000 mg).

How does this translate to your table? First thing to know: the majority of people get plenty of salt through their everyday diet. "The absolute minimum amount you need, just for your cells to function properly, is 1000 mg," says Maria Pagano, MA, RD, a nutritionist and Tier 4 personal training manager at Equinox. "Luckily, since salt is present in everything from a slice of bread to a slice of cheese, you can usually reach that amount without even trying."

Current recommendations state that healthy adults should stick to about 2300 mg a day, but in reality, many, many Americans go way, way beyond that — usually approaching the levels found in the "moderate" group in the study.

But if you’re a serious athlete and are working out for longer than 90 minutes, you could be excreting a lot of the mineral, says Pagano. Much like other vital electrolytes (i.e., potassium, chloride), having too little salt during or after a workout can be serious — both for your performance and for your risk of dehydration.

Whether you’ve logged 20 miles training for an ultra-marathon, or just got through a 90-minute cycling class in a room so hot you nearly slipped on the sweat pooling under your feet, Pagano suggests turning to the fastest and most efficient way to fuel up: a sports drink. Garish colors aside, they’re carefully calibrated with the proper balance of electrolytes to replenish your body. "There’s no need to drink an entire bottle, but a few swigs of these drinks during a long workout will make all the difference," she says.

"Salty sweaters" should also pay careful attention, since they’re more likely to be rapidly excreting the mineral, says Pagano. How to tell if you’re a salty sweater? Hang up your T-shirt after an intense workout. Notice dried white spots/rings under the arms and neckline? That’s salt.

Bottom line: Like anything, salt should be consumed in moderation. And a little goes a long way if you use the best, most flavorful varieties when you’re cooking. Click here for our top 6 gourmet salt picks.