Unlike the other famous white stuff, sugar, salt doesn't have any calories. But does that mean you can indulge in it unthinkingly? Not so fast.

Salt is made of 40 percent sodium and 60 percent chloride, both electrolytes that are critical for sending nerve impulses and for proper muscle function. We can't make either of these nutrients ourselves, so we need to get them from the salt in our daily diet.

Too much salt, however, can be a very bad thing. The most well-documented risk of a high-salt diet is high blood pressure, which can in turn lead to stroke and heart disease. Excess salt affects blood pressure by interfering with the usual processes that keep our fluid balance in check.

If there is too high an amount of sodium in the blood, the kidneys become overloaded and are unable to remove excess water from the body. This excess fluid can then damage organs and blood vessels. The water retention caused by salt can also affect your weight, which is why after a high-salt restaurant meal you may find yourself having gained a few pounds seemingly overnight.

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High blood pressure is often called the silent killer, because it causes few obvious symptoms; your organs may be getting irreversibly damaged before you even realize you are sick! People who are older than 50, black, or overweight are at higher risk for blood pressure problems, so they may want to make a particular effort to lower their sodium intake and get their blood pressure checked frequently.

High salt intake has also been linked to liver damage, cognitive impairments, calcium losses, osteoporosis, diabetes, kidney disease, stomach cancer, and multiple sclerosis. However, none of that is to discount salt's good points. For one, it has antibacterial properties, hence its frequent use as a food preservative.

A lack of sodium in your bloodstream can also leave you feeling tired and weak, and an extremely low salt level, called hyponatremia, can be fatal. Be especially sure to eat enough salt if you've been doing a lot of exercise or are outdoors in a hot climate, since you've probably been losing some through your sweat.

Most American adults get an average of 3,400 mg of sodium a day, despite the fact that the sodium intake the Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends is a much lower 2,300 milligrams per day. This would come out to about one teaspoon of salt.

There has, however, been some controversy about this amount, with some experts suggesting that this full on assault on salt may also be overkill and that the recommended intake is unnecessarily small. Some studies have even found that too little salt has as many health risks as too much. You may only need to limit your intake so severely if you already have high blood pressure.

The good news is that the overload of salt in our diet comes predominantly from salt added to food during processing, so if you've been following 123Diet's clean eating plan, you're already most of the way there! It's a lot harder to overdo it on the dietary salt that comes naturally from food or even the salt that you add during cooking or at the table, so it's still way better to sprinkle a pinch of salt on your veggies than to abandon them for a bag of chips.

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Consuming more potassium, which is found in most fruits in vegetables, can also help counteract the negative effects of salt by relaxing your blood vessels. You can also lower your risk by consuming more magnesium and calcium.

Because salt is so necessary to our body, it makes sense that we were programmed to crave it; but in our saltshaker world, these cravings can sometimes do as much harm as good. If you remove excess salt from your diet, your taste buds will indeed adjust, and the food you once enjoyed may even eventually taste too salty. In the meantime, you can flavor your food with healthy spices instead.

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