Low sodium diets are like global warming

photo: AMagill via Flickr

photo: AMagill via Flickr

When someone says “salt”, you probably think “high blood pressure”, right?  Would you be surprised to know that’s not set in stone?  Low sodium diets and global warming have something in common: they’re both controversial and both sides claim scientific support.

The controversy continued this month, with a new report on the mysterious lack of actual evidence that high sodium intake causes hypertension.  The authors conclude that the connection between dietary salt and blood pressure is “extremely weak”.  Nevertheless, government agencies continue to recommend lower and lower sodium intakes, despite the lack of evidence.  The new recommendations limit sodium to a measly 1500 mg per day.

I agree that the fear mongering about sodium has taken on a fanatical tinge.  My talking points:

  • High sodium intake typically goes hand in hand with reliance on processed food.  Those foods are also typically high fat, low fiber, high calorie and low potassium.  Sodium and potassium work together in the body to balance fluid.  And if there’s one nutrient that clearly affects blood pressure, it’s potassium.  Research that only looks at the sodium part of the equation is half-baked.
  • Hypertension is also related to obesity and possibly to sugar intake.  Research that fails to account for body weight and other diet factors isn’t giving us the whole story.
  • The DASH diet is known to lower blood pressure.  It’s lower in sodium than the typical processed food diet, and it’s also much higher in potassium, higher in fiber, lower in added sugars and frequently causes weight loss.  So does blood pressure go down just because of lower sodium?  Or because of much higher intake of potassium and other nutrients, or because of the weight loss, or some beneficial combination of all these.  The Mediterranean Diet is also linked to less hypertension.  It’s higher in plant foods, which are high potassium, but not necessarily low sodium.
  • Blaming sodium has two unintended and counterproductive consequences:
  1. Food companies are now encouraged to create “low sodium” versions of the same old processed junk food.  Meaning people won’t be eating more potassium, fiber and nutrients from vegetables, fruits and whole grains.  They’ll be eating low sodium chips and feeling proud of themselves for choosing a “healthy” food.
  2. Weight loss, exercise, increased intake of potassium-rich foods (those vegetables, fruits and whole grains) will be conveniently ignored, since the government says all we need to do is buy those “low sodium” processed foods.

Result: health will not be improved at all, but food companies will have a new and profitable Health Halo marketing ploy.  Whose side are these bureaucrats on anyway?

What to do if you have hypertension:

  • The first line of defense is weight loss and exercise, which are consistently linked to lower blood pressure.
  • Boost your intake of potassium and other nutrients by increasing your intake of fresh vegetables, fruits, whole grain foods and 100% juices.
  • The best way to cut sodium intake is to cut out highly processed foods, especially salty junk food and snacks.  If you focus more on whole foods, you won’t have room in your diet for processed junk anyway.
  • New research examining the relationship between high intake of added sugars to kidney function and blood pressure is promising.   If you’re a big fan of sugary drinks and sweets, definitely find alternatives.  There’s no downside to that switch, even if high sugar intake only has a weak link to blood pressure.
  • Buy “low sodium” products if you want, but if that’s the only change you make, don’t expect your blood pressure to improve much.

Drink beetroot juice?

Beetroot juice is being touted as an athletic performance booster and blood pressure fix.  The benefit is supposedly due to the high nitrate content of beets.  Nitrates in food are metabolized to nitric oxide in the body, which can help relax blood vessels and promote blood flow.  But beets are also very high in potassium.  In any event, you have to drink a lot of beetroot juice everyday to get those benefits.

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