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There’s one simple ingredient that makes just about any food better: salt.
And if you look at most nutrition guidelines and dietary assessments, they usually tell us we should be eating less of the delicious substance.
But is salt really so dangerous that that everyone needs to avoid it? Maybe not – at least, there’s more debate about the topic than the blanket recommendations would make it seem.
The American Heart Association (AHA) recently published a study that found that the average American adult consumes 3,400 mg of sodium every day – well above the recommended limit of 2,300 mg, which is even lower (1,500 mg) for many people because of age, race, ethnicity, or blood pressure. (The AHA advocates for lowering the recommended limit to 1,500 mg for everyone.)
Several recent studies show, however, that many of our common assumptions about sodium intake aren’t correct in the first place. At least one study found it didn’t have much of an impact on blood pressure in healthy people, adding to existing research indicating that not everyone needs to worry too much about salt.
Most recently, a pair of studies on Russian cosmonauts found a number of characteristics about salt so surprising that Gina Kolata of the New York Times wrote they indicate our basic understanding of how salt works in the human body “may be completely wrong.” Basically, those two studies, published in The Journal of Clinical Investigation, indicate that salt makes people less thirsty (people may feel thirsty after eating salt, but they need to drink less) and that salt makes mice burn calories faster (making them want to eat more).
Those studies tell us that salt may not be fully understood, but they don’t necessarily tell us much about salt and blood pressure. But another study recently presented at the Experimental Biology 2017 meeting does. In that study, part of a larger study on heart health, researchers followed 2,632 men and women ranging from ages 30 to 64, all who started with normal blood pressure. After 16 years, they found that people who ate the recommended amount of sodium, less than 2,500 mg per day, had higher blood pressure on average than people who had saltier diets.
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That’s an observational study, so we can’t say that eating more salt improved people’s blood pressure – that may be due to another factor. But it’s not the only research that indicates eating more than the recommended amount of sodium isn’t necessarily harmful for people who have healthy blood pressure to start off.
In 2011, a major study in the Journal of the American Medical Association that looked at 3,681 people that didn’t have cardiovascular problems found that higher salt consumption did raise one component of blood pressure but didn’t increase risk for hypertension (abnormally high blood pressure) and didn’t increase risk for cardiovascular problems. People who seemed to consume the least salt, based on measurements of sodium excretion, had increased cardiovascular death rates.
None of these studies are a prescription for eating more sodium. But they do indicate that people who eat more sodium than the recommended amount don’t seem to suffer from it if they aren’t already suffering from high blood pressure.
This isn’t a license to eat unlimited ramen and Doritos. Highly processed foods aren’t good for you, and we know that for people that already struggle with hypertension, which can kill you, lowering sodium intake can help.
Perhaps the most useful thing is to be aware of how much salt we’re eating in the first place. The recent AHA study found that 70% of the salt study participants consumed came from restaurant food and processed food bought in stores, while sodium naturally found in foods provided about 14.6% of sodium intake. Salt added to food being cooked at home was 5.6% of intake, while sodium added at the table accounted for 4.9%.
The easy takeaway from that study is that the most effective way to reduce sodium consumption (especially unconscious consumption) isn’t to avoid using a salt shaker, it’s limiting consumption of processed foods. That also happens to be the easiest way to improve your diet in the first place. If you’re preparing food for yourself or at least know that your food is coming from whole ingredients and isn’t largely processed, you’re probably not consuming an excessive amount of salt (though if your doctor recommends lowering intake, you should listen to them).
But in general, there’s more and more research to indicate that salt doesn’t need to be a primary concern for people who don’t have issues with blood pressure.
As Melinda Wenner Moyer wrote for Scientific American in 2011, “if the U.S. does conquer salt, what will we gain? Bland french fries, for sure. But a healthy nation? Not necessarily.”