It seems the general rule when it comes to salt is ‘don’t have too much – it’s not healthy for you.’ And after hearing this message for most of our lives, the majority of people view it as fact. Put the salt shaker down; it’ll give you high blood pressure.
But a recent editorial piece in the New York Times by Gary Taubes argues otherwise, questioning whether or not salt really is as bad as they say it is.
Taubes points out that recent evidence suggests restricting the amount of salt we eat can actually increase our likelihood of dying prematurely, which is the exact opposite of what we thought before. In fact, the U.S. Department of Agriculture still considers salt the nation’s greatest health threat before fats, sugars and alcohol. But, a new rebel band of health experts now suspects that it’s more likely that eating the amount of salt the USDA and CDC actually recommends would be doing more of a disservice than benefit.
In the 1970s, despite no conclusive evidence showing a connection between salt intake and serious health problems, salt reduction was declared a must. Health experts at the time thought this to be true primarily based on the observation that populations outside the U.S. that ate little salt had minimal hypertension, as well as a study that showed a group of rats developed hypertension on a high-salt diet.
However, Taubes points out the observation lacked to consider that these other populations also ate diets that were low in fat and sugar. And the study wasn’t reliable since the rats were fed approximately 60 times more salt than the average American consumes.
But despite these unfounded beliefs, the National Institutes of Health launched the National High Blood Pressure Education Program in 1972, primarily to alert the American public that too much salt was dangerous, and that the link between salt and blood pressure was fact.
Some experts now propose that the reason salt has been long-viewed as the enemy is that everyone before now has focused their research efforts on the benefits of salt restriction instead of the potential dangers.
Four years ago, an Italian study was the first of its kind to show that patients with heart failure who reduced their salt consumption actually increased their risk of death. And this study has since been backed by a number of other studies showing that reducing sodium is likely to do more harm than good.
But the USDA states that although sodium plays an essential role in regulation of body fluids and blood pressure, most Americans consume more sodium and salt than their bodies need. According to USDA, Americans should limit sodium intake to no more than 2,400 milligrams a day to avoid health problems, which is right around one teaspoon. This, they say, is backed by 30 years of scientific evidence showing that diets containing more than 6 grams or 2,400 milligrams of salt per day is associated with elevated blood pressure, which can lead to hypertension, heart disease, stroke and kidney disease.
So just how much salt are we really eating? DietsInReview.com’s Registered Dietitian Mary Hartley, RD, points out that while the National Academy of Sciences, Institute of Medicine, Food and Nutrition Board have all set 2,300 milligrams of sodium as the Upper Limit (UL), the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) contends that Americans consume about 4,000 milligrams of sodium per day. For this reason, the CSPI and the American Heart Association are lobbying to have the recommended level reduced to 1,500 milligrams.
If you’re looking to keep your sodium intake in check, Mary recommends staying away from processed foods – like restaurant food, prepared canned, frozen, and boxed side dishes, and appetizers and entrees – which is where 75 percent of dietary sodium comes from in the U.S.
She also recommends salt substitutions as a good option for limiting intake, such as Mrs. Dash salt-free herb and spice blends, lemon juice, vinegars (especially balsamic vinegar reductions), garlic, onions, celery, low-sodium catsup, low-sodium mustard and sauce mixes, and all herbs and spices.
Whatever side of the argument you may fall on, this new research highlighted by The New York Times certainly isn’t a free pass to eat as much salt as you want, as anything in excess is never a good idea. So while the current sodium recommendations may now be in question, keeping salt intake to a conservative minimum is still the safest approach.