Do you need more than a dash of salt?

For a few decades, the message we’ve been getting from various governmental agencies is that we need to reduce our salt intake to prevent cardiovascular disease. Is this message still valid? Does the type of salt we consume make a difference? Read on!

Current national dietary guidelines, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, advocate reducing daily sodium intake to less than 2,300 milligrams (a little more than a teaspoon). People 51 and older; African Americans of any age; and those with hypertension, diabetes, or chronic kidney disease are advised to further reduce intake to 1,500 mg. About half of the U.S. population, including children, and the majority of adults, fall into the categories affected by the 1,500 mg recommendation.

In the 1970s, the National Institutes of Health based its recommendations on two research studies. One was an observation of a population that ate very little salt and exhibited no high blood pressure. That population’s diet, it turns out, wasn’t representative of the standard American diet, and they didn’t eat sugar, among other things. The other study was done on rats who were bred to be salt-sensitive and fed 60 times more sodium than the average American consumes. Not surprisingly, the rats exhibited high blood pressure on their high-salt diet. Both of these studies led to a one-to-one assumption that salt caused hypertension.

The well-known DASH-Sodium study conducted in 2001 was conducted over only 30 days. The outcome was that eating significantly less salt would modestly lower blood pressure. All the government agencies currently endorsing a low-salt diet have based their recommendations on this outcome, with no further studies showing whether a low-salt diet would reduce hypertension, prevent heart disease, or lengthen life.

Yet, despite recommendations based on these studies, the average American currently consumes about 3,700 mg of sodium per day. This figure has remained constant for the past 50 years, despite an increase in hypertension and heart disease.

New studies show downside of low-salt diets

Several recent studies have actually showed the detrimental effects of low-salt diets, including an increase in heart disease and dying prematurely. As sodium levels decrease, these studies concluded, triglyceride levels, insulin resistance, and the activity of the sympathetic nervous system increase. These factors can contribute to an increased heart disease risk. As a side note, if you are having real salt cravings (not just a pretzel craving to go with your beer), be aware that this is a cry for help from your adrenal glands. If you cut out salt, they will shut down.

The studies that blow holes in the low-salt diet theory indicate that there seems to be a sweet spot between 3,000 mg and 7,000 mg of sodium consumption to maintain good cardiovascular health. Above and below that range, there is a significant increased risk of heart attacks, strokes, congestive heart failure, and death from heart disease. Avoiding processed foods and salting to taste are the best ways to get the appropriate amount of sodium in your diet. If you exercise a lot, sweating out sodium, be sure to consume more salt.

So if reducing salt doesn’t manage blood pressure, what does?

Potassium. Sodium and potassium must be in appropriate balance to maintain general health and cardiovascular health specifically.  The modern diet tends to be lower in potassium than the diet of our ancestors. To manage your blood pressure try increasing potassium levels by eating foods such as: lima and kidney beans, sweet potatoes, winter squash, potatoes, cooked spinach and avocado. Eating a wide variety of these foods and salting to taste should ensure that you’re keeping your sodium and potassium in balance.

Is one salt better than another?

Absolutely! Standard table salt is highly processed and has been stripped of nutritionally important trace minerals, leaving primarily sodium chloride. Often it has other ingredients added such as dextrose, which is a sugar, and anti-caking agents. The healthier salts to choose from are Himalayan salt and Celtic sea salt/gray salt. They are minimally processed, they contain necessary trace minerals and they have a delicious flavor. The one sea salt to avoid consuming is Dead Sea salt, as it is high in bromide, which can lead to toxicity. Be aware that it is still important to read labels when purchasing salt, to be sure that there are no unwanted ingredients.