When I decided to compete I really had no idea what I was doing or getting into. I was already training hard at the gym and decided to kick it up a notch. It wasn’t until about 3 weeks out that I realized I needed some guidance about my dial in or ‘peak week’ (what competitors call the week before the show where your body changes quickly based on carbs, water sodium levels). I hadn’t been following any kind of structured diet up until that point, just really clean and healthy.
When I went to see the bodybuilding guru I’d chosen to go to for advice one of the instructions was to cut out all sodium. I wasn’t really someone who added salt to my meals in the first place but cutting it out entirely takes a bit of work especially if you’ve never done it before.
Salt and sodium are not actually one in the same. Sodium is a chemical element that combined with chloride (and a few other crazy things) creates table salt. It is also an electrolyte along with potassium and bicarbonate. Sodium is found in nearly everything we consume. All foods actually contain sodium naturally but the problem we face with too much comes from food that has been treated, processed and preserved. It is nearly impossible to get too much sodium from natural foods.
For me to eliminate salt (and to an extent sodium) meant pretty much eliminate any pre- made condiments. We are talking mustard, salad dressings, dairy and also any pre-made food and many frozen foods. I also got obsessive about things like Perrier and some bottled water. The old school bodybuilding tradition about drinking distilled water and to some extent boiling all your foods was based on this too and has since been proven by leaders in the industry to be unnecessary (especially for bikini competitors) and very risky.
Eliminating sodium from my diet short term seemed to help with retaining water and bloating giving me a dryer, tighter look that I was after for the stage so after my first show I continued to avoid sodium thinking that was better for my health ( no sodium craze right?). What I didn’t realize then was that sodium is a mineral our bodies need. Yes in general North Americans are eating way too much of it but in my case I was consuming too little. I was training hard which meant sweating, drinking an excessive amount of water for my size and only eating very clean natural foods totally unprocessed with no condiments of any kind. Even my protein powder was “all natural, no sodium added”.
Apparently the average North American consumes around 3400 mg of sodium per day and experts are currently recommending about 1500- 2300mmg/day but we can actually live on just 500 mg per day. The amount that is appropriate for you is really dependant on what your current health is, how much you sweat and what you eat in general. I’m going to say in general high sodium concerns are more likely and issue for most people than low sodium but athletes, anyone running marathons or competing in physique competitions could be at risk.
Some of the symptoms documented about low sodium include restlessness, muscle cramps, muscle weakness, seizures, and loss of appetite, nausea, vomiting, headache, confusion, fatigue and coma. This can happen several ways including but not limited to drinking too much water (hyponatremia), taking water pills/diuretics and dehydration (vomiting/diarrhea) as well as some medical problems and some medications and recreational drugs.
When I was on a no/low sodium diet I often experienced muscle cramps and also found that if I did have anything salty I would bloat up excessively. Painfully even. I remember a time after having sushi that I was awake all night feeling swollen and so thirsty. I felt like my skin might rip. It was awful.
What I’ve since learned is just that like everything else, salt and sodium in moderation are fine for me. I’m better of with some salt in my diet and I can happily enjoy my condiments (although I’m mindful about some that are loaded with salt like soya sauce and things like cottage cheese and some soups and broths for example and in those cases I choose the low or no sodium version) and I can also add natural sea salt* to many recipes as needed. In terms of cutting it out for a show or shoot I only avoid salty condiments and stop adding salt to anything for about 3-7 days depending on my physique and goals. The body is smart so if any longer it figures out what you are doing fast and takes action to correct the imbalance.
I guess what I’m saying is just because you choose to deplete your sodium for a few days before a contest or photoshoot etc that doesn’t mean it’s something that should be done in everyday life. In my opinion fitness is about health not just looking good and learning what is healthy is just as important as learning how to prepare for the contest.
Everything in balance!
*Side note: as I wrote this blog I recalled an article I read about the use of sea salt and although it is considered a healthy unrefined option it may be the cause of iodine deficiencies we are now seeing. Interesting right? This may need to be another post at some point.