More salt confusion

not all about sodium

Considering all the anti-salt messages out there, you might easily conclude the following: if I buy low sodium foods, my blood pressure will go down.  You might be wrong.

Yet another study suggests that the blood pressure benefit of reducing sodium intake has been overstated.  Even stranger, the results showed that low sodium diets actually raised unhealthy blood lipids, like triglycerides.

As I’ve said before, the problem with all the low sodium hysteria is that studies usually fail to account for other diet and nutrition factors that go hand-in-hand with high sodium intake.  High salt intake is not caused by a person eating fresh foods and loading them up with salt from a salt shaker.  Rather, it’s a highly processed diet, loaded up with salt and other sodium-containing additives (think MSG) by the food manufacturer.  A diet full of highly processed foods is also likely to be:

  • low potassium, due to low intake of fruits and vegetables
  • low fiber
  • high fat
  • high in additives
  • high in added sugars

Readers of this blog know that potassium is critical to electrolyte balance and blood pressure control, and that few people consume enough of this important nutrient.  Fructose, from added sugars, also raises blood pressure, independently of sodium intake.  The current study, from Denmark, reviewed results from 167 previous studies on salt intake and blood pressure.  While blood pressure was reduced a small amount, other more significant adverse effects were noted.  Cholesterol and triglycerides increased, along with several hormones that regulate blood pressure.  Unfortunately these studies did not investigate other nutritional aspects of the subjects’ usual diets.  Were the low sodium experimental diets higher in potassium?  In fiber?  Were the normal diets full of processed foods?

There are two ways to eat low sodium:

  1. A healthy DASH-type diet, full of fruits and vegetables and other plant foods.  This diet is much higher in potassium, so any blood pressure benefits could as easily come from the potassium and improved nutrition as from the lower salt intake.
  2. A processed diet full of low sodium versions of the same old processed foods.  This diet would still be lacking in potassium, fiber and dozens of nutrients key for health and blood pressure control.

Obviously it’s better to switch to a naturally low salt diet, full of plant-based foods, with few processed foods.  Unfortunately recommendations in the US are obsessed with lowering sodium, nothing else.  It’s easy for food companies to profit from that obsession by cutting some salt out of processed foods and slapping a “Low Sodium” label on the front.  Consumers wrongly conclude that by buying the low sodium version, they’ve done all they need to do for their blood pressure.  Food manufacturers get a marketing boost from the Low Sodium Health Halo.

Here’s a review of lifestyle changes that help lower blood pressure:

  • lose weight
  • get daily exercise
  • eat more fruits, vegetables and whole grains every day
  • cut back on highly processed foods, whether or not they’re labeled low sodium
  • switch to healthy fats, like olive oil
  • cut back on foods high in added sugars, such as soft drinks, candy and desserts
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