- Nutrition -

Salt: Dietary friend or foe?

British research reignites the debate over the link between dietary sodium and disease.

A new study linking salt intake to various health problems has reignited the debate over dietary sodium.

The study, by British researchers at the London School of Medicine and Dentistry, concluded that heart attack and stroke risk dropped significantly between 2003 and 2011 after health officials in the United Kingdom limited the amount of sodium permitted in processed foods. Sodium chloride is commonly used in processed foods as an inexpensive preservative, texturizer, flavor-enhancer, and chemical catalyst.)

The research, which was published last month in the journal BMJ Open, aligns with conventional medical advice to limit salt in the diet in order to ward off such health problems as high blood pressure and heart disease.

As this recent article in the New York Times pointed out, however, the study itself — which found a 42 percent decline in stroke deaths and 40 percent decline in heart disease deaths — may be flawed.

The authors attributed the reduction to, among other factors, declining blood pressure following the British Food Standards Agency’s imposition of limits on the sodium content of prepared foods.

But other researchers are unconvinced. Cardiovascular problems may have fallen in the population, they say, but the study does not prove that a reduction in salt intake is the reason.

Dr. Niels Graudal, a senior consultant in the department of internal medicine at Copenhagen University Hospital, said that connecting the two events “is meaningless.”

“Study Linking Illness and Salt Leaves Researchers Doubtful,” by Nicholas Bakalar (The New York Times)

Additionally, the new study doesn’t reflect earlier research showing that, historically, salt may have been unfairly maligned.

A meta-analysis published in August 2011 in the American Journal of Hypertension found no evidence that cutting sodium intake in people with normal or high blood pressure reduced the risk of heart attacks or strokes, Experience Life reported at the time.

Additionally, a May 2011 study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association linked eating less salt to an increase in heart-disease deaths.

It is also important that people get enough salt, as a sodium deficiency could lead to its own set of health problems. Not getting enough salt is associated with disrupted hormonal function and has been linked to increased triglyceride levels and insulin resistance.

Current U.S. Dietary Guidelines urge people to limit their sodium intake to less than 2,300 mg a day. At-risk populations, including African Americans, people over the age of 51, and those with type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, or chronic kidney disease, are advised to limit their intake to less than 1,500 mg daily. A 2013 report by the National Academy of Sciences concluded, however, that at-risk populations don’t benefit from hitting the lower number.

The conflicting research and recommendations highlight the need for more complete research on the impact of sodium on overall health. But what should people do in the meantime?

As Experience Life previously reported, people who eat a varied diet rich in whole, unprocessed foods — especially potassium-rich fruits and vegetables, which help to naturally balance sodium intake — probably don’t have to worry about balancing their sodium intake.

Today, the vast majority of the salt in the average American’s diet (75 to 80 percent) is coming not from hand-wielded kitchen saltshakers but from industrially processed food products…

“Our bodies are not designed to handle the tsunami of salt delivered day in and day out by processed foods,” says Kathie Swift, MS, RD, LDN, coauthor of The Inside Tract: Your Good Guide to Great Digestive Health.”

“Shaking Out the Truth About Salt” (Experience Life, October 2011)

Cutting out sugar, trans fats, and processed grains will likely have a larger impact on overall health than limiting salt.

Maggie Fazeli Fard is Experience Life's staff writer.

Leave a Comment

Subscribe to our Newsletters

Weekly Newsletter
Monthly Newsletter
Special Promotions