We’re constantly getting mixed messages when it comes to nutrition. Red wine and dark chocolate are healthy depending on the day. Saturated fat will kill you. No, wait. Fats are healthy. Carbs are to blame for all our problems . . . No wonder we get pissed off and want to bury our heads in the sand.
Salt intake is one of the most enduring and controversial nutritional debates. Governments and health organisations have spent huge amounts of money on campaigns ‘educating’ us on the dangers of salt. But is it really bad for us? And how much salt should we be eating? Let’s take a look.
What Is Salt?
Salt is a naturally occurring mineral. It’s mostly made up of sodium (~40%) and chloride (~60%). Unrefined salt contains over 80 trace minerals. It’s around 92% sodium chloride. Common table salt found in processed foods has been stripped of healthy trace minerals. It’s almost pure sodium chloride (~99%). The other 1% of table salt is made up of anticaking agents like aluminium, ferrocyanide, and bleach that are toxic to the body.
Salt Keeps Us Alive and Functioning
Our bodies need unrefined salt to survive. It can’t produce the mineral on its own, which is why we naturally seek out salty foods. Salt is needed for many basic, life-sustaining processes that include:
- Helping your brain communicate with your muscles so that they can contract and move.
- Transmission of nerve impulses around the body.
- Regulating the body’s overall fluid balance together with potassium.
- Regulating blood volume and blood pressure.
- Helping to move nutrients into cells.
Why We’re Told to Drastically Reduce Salt Intake
For decades, government and health organisations have been warning us to drastically reduce salt. The hypothesis went like this: eating more salt can lead to a slight rise in blood pressure. Higher blood pressure is a risk factor for heart disease and strokes. Eating more salt must lead to heart disease and strokes. Salt is bad. Case closed. But there was more to the story.
Just like the saturated fat debacle, the recommendation to reduce salt intake was based on faulty science. In the 1970s, Lewis Dahl wrote a paper linking salt to hypertension. But there was a glaring problem with the study that got swept under the rug. To induce hypertension, Dahl fed rats the human-equivalent of over 500 g of sodium a day. This is 50 times more than the average intake in the western world.
Dahl also said that there was a correlation between cultures with high salt intake and high blood pressure. The problem with this idea was the cultures that ate low salt diets also consumed fewer calories, ate unprocessed foods, drank little to no alcohol, were more physically active, and were less industrialized.
When researchers reviewed the data and accounted for these confounding variables, the correlation between salt and high blood pressure was not significant. So why are we still told to reduce salt intake?
Health organisations and governments are like that friend that always has to be right. Once he’s taken a stance on something, it’s hard for him to change his tune. This is one of the reasons why it takes so long for nutritional advice to change when science has evolved.
Research on Salt and Our Health
Since Dahl’s work in the 1970s, massive resources have been spent on investigating the link between salt and high blood pressure. Studies have consistently found that a reduction does not have a significant effect on the risk of heart disease or death. For example:
- A review of over 7,000 people that included healthy and hypertensive individuals found that salt intake did not affect the risk of death and only had a weak association with the risk of heart disease.
- In 2011, a meta-analysis of seven studies involving more than 6,000 people found no strong evidence to support a reduced risk for heart attacks, strokes, or death when salt is reduced.
- Another large review followed over 11,000 people and correlated death rates. No association was found between salt intake and mortality rates.
- A review of seven randomized controlled trials found that there was no effect on mortality or cardiovascular disease even in people diagnosed with high blood pressure.
Much of the research not only refutes Dahl’s work but found that decreasing salt too drastically can do more harm than good. For example, a Journal of American Medical Association review found that people who consumed less than 2 g per day raised their 5-year cardiovascular risk by 37%!
Another study followed 3,681 Europeans for 8 years. The participants were divided into three groups: low salt, moderate salt, and high salt consumption. Mortality rates were tracked and the highest death rates were seen in the low salt group!
- Low-salt group: 50 people died.
- Moderate salt group: 24 people died.
- High-salt group: 10 people died.
The bottom line is that salt isn’t strongly associated with high blood pressure. In fact, dropping salt too low can have negative health impacts.
Low Salt Diets Do More Harm Than Good
Salt is important. No wonder we crave it. Dropping our intake too low can actually have negative effects:
- Insulin resistance is linked to obesity, diabetes, and metabolic syndrome. A study of healthy people put on a low salt diet for only seven days was enough to increase insulin resistance.
- This study found that in patients with type 2 diabetes, lower sodium levels were associated with an increased risk of death.
- Increased risk of fall and fractures, and decreased cognitive abilities, among the elderly.
- May raise low-density lipoproteins, cholesterol and triglycerides.
- Hyponatremia is the loss of significant amounts of sodium, causing the body to hold on to too much water. This results in water levels rising and cells swelling. Effects can be mild to life-threatening.
Now, I’m not suggesting you go crazy on salt. Too much of anything—including salt—is bad for you. Human history is fraught with bizarre deaths caused by overdoses on everything from water to caffeine. We also respond differently to nutrients. If you suffer from salt-sensitive hypertension, you may want to watch your intake. With that said, how much salt should we eat?
What’s the Optimal Salt Intake?
The American Health Association (AHA) recommends a maximum of 2,300 mg with an ideal limit of 1,500 mg (just over one-half teaspoon) a day for an adult. If you’re reading this, I don’t need to tell you that the AHA is the last organisation you want to follow when it comes to nutritional advice. McDonald’s would probably steer you in a better direction.
We could get all caught up in measuring with teaspoons and counting grams. But I want to propose a crazy approach. You could simply:
- Cut out the majority of processed foods as these account for 80% of your salt intake. Focus on whole foods—vegetables, meats, fruit, and clean carb sources.
- Salt your food to taste. This simple method of following our biological senses has kept us alive and evolving for thousands for years.
But if you’re a numbers guy/gal, a study of 33 countries found that despite eating vastly different foods, we consistently take in about 3,700 mg a day—about 1.5 teaspoons. Other research has reported eating between 3,000 to 5,000 mg per day—about 1.5 to 2.5 teaspoons.
Keep in mind that studies suggest a J-shaped curve when it comes to salt intake. Going below 3 g or above 7 g per day are both associated with an increased mortality rate.
The bottoms line: focus on whole foods, opt for high-quality salt, and let your taste buds decide how much you need.
What About Athletes and Low Carb Diets?
If you’re eating a low carb diet or are an athlete, you’ll likely need a higher salt intake.
If you’ve ever been on a low carb diet, you’ll know how quickly the body dumps water out. As it does, sodium levels drop. To counter this, add more salt to your diet. You can also drink electrolytes or bone broth.
Endurance athletes or people working out in hot climates will need to replace electrolytes regularly. If you’re exercising for more than two hours, consume an electrolyte drink.
You Are an N=1 Experiment
I work hard to bring you quality information backed up by relevant science. But at the end of the day, you need to question everything and test things for yourself. Because when it comes to nutrition, you really are a unique little snowflake. How I respond to salt could be totally different to your response. Science gives you direction and averages. But no scientist, government panel, nutritionist, etc. will ever know how you’ll react to a nutrient.
If you’re concerned about your sodium levels, don’t just cut out foods based on what you’ve been told. Visit a reliable doctor and get a test done. It’s quick and easy. And if you do have high levels, focus on whole foods and lifestyle changes. Then re-test to see if things improve.
Don’t just consume information. If you’ve read this far, I’m assuming you find this post useful. You’ve now got two choices: 1) close the screen and think ‘that’s nice’ and move on with your day. Or 2) if you’re worried about salt intake start reducing processed foods. Start out with an easy change. And as Nike says, just do it! Decision creates action. Action creates results.
I Need Your Help
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You can also share some love by adding a comment below. Do you limit your salt intake? Go crazy on the stuff? Sit somewhere in the middle?
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