It’s time to celebrate salt!

When it comes to food and nutrition, there always seems to be something new to learn.  ‘World Salt Awareness Week’ just made my list of things I never knew about.  Given all the hysteria about salt and health, including admonitions to eat as little salt as possible, you might think Salt Awareness Week was another excuse to spread scary stories about salt.  But, no!  According to The Salt Institute, we’re supposed to celebrate salt this week.  Well, in fact there are plenty of other organizations using this opportunity to nag us about salt.

Salt is sodium chloride: NaCl.  It’s a very simple molecule, but so important to life.  Sodium is a critical part of the fluid balance system in cells and blood, and a key component of numerous metabolic functions.  Plus salt makes food taste good.  As described in the very interesting book “Salt: A World History“, salt production and trade guided many important events in human history, from the location of settlements to trade routes and the growth of major trading centers.  Salt was critical for food preservation, and so was a valuable commodity.

But in recent decades salt has become a four letter word, so to speak.  Early research on links between diet and hypertension found that risk for high blood pressure increased with increasing salt intake.  A low salt diet became standard treatment for hypertension.  Health organizations like the American Heart Association weren’t satisfied with the original restrictions and kept paring them down to the current measly 1500 mg/day.  Push back was inevitable.  Recently other experts on hypertension and diet found that populations with more generous salt intakes were not at increased risk for high blood pressure.  In fact, people with very low salt intakes were also at increased risk for problems.  Intakes of 2600 – 4900 mg sodium/day were associated with the lowest heart disease risk.

Who to believe?

There are a lot of potential problems with all of the research.  Simply asking people what they eat is never going to give an accurate picture of intake of anything.  People forget, they misunderstand portions sizes, they tell the researchers a good story to make themselves sound like socially acceptable health-conscious people.  All kinds of problem are inherent in that kind of research.  Another problem is failure to account for other aspects of diet: potassium intake, calories, total food intake.  Another confounding factor that’s extremely relevant to blood pressure: weight.  Obesity is linked to hypertension regardless of salt intake.  An obese person eating only 2000 mg of sodium a day might skew the results of heart disease risk due to the obesity, not due to the sodium.  But if the researchers are measuring sodium only, then they blame that.  Result: lower and lower sodium recommendations.

Another problem with this type of research is the type of diet being eaten.  Higher salt intakes usually result from diets high in processed food.  Which means diets that have few whole foods, or fruits, vegetables and whole grains.  If the researchers are just looking at salt, they blame the salt, when in fact it’s the whole diet that’s the problem.

Sodium limits and salt intake are not interchangeable.  1 teaspoon of salt weighs 6 grams, but the sodium portion of that is about 2300 mg, in line with some of the current limitations.  Research suggesting higher limits would put your daily intake between 1 and 2 tsp of salt.  That doesn’t sound like much, and if most of your salt intake comes from your own salt shaker, you might not even consume that much.  It doesn’t take much salt to season a scrambled egg or sliced tomato.   Salt is an essential ingredient of some foods.  A slice of commercial bread might have 150 mg; an ounce of cheese 180 mg.

What to do?

If you are diagnosed with high blood pressure, and are obese/overweight/overfat, the first line of defense should be weight loss.  You could combine that with lower sodium intake which some doctors recommend.  Eating less processed food and a more plant-based diet, such as the DASH diet, means less sodium by default and more potassium.  If your blood pressure is fine, you probably don’t need to worry.  However, even if that’s so, switching to a more plant-centric, whole foods diet is always preferable for a variety of health reasons.

Want to celebrate salt?  Ditch the pretzels, salty canned soups and processed cheese sauce.  Shake a dash of salt on a fresh baked potato or tossed green salad.  A little salt enhances the flavor but does not overwhelm it.

You an find a good review of the history of our fear of salt in this article from Food and Nutrition Magazine.

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