Salt has a bad reputation among health-conscious people, but the picture isn’t black and white. The truth about whether salt is good or bad depends on the individual. Some people need more, while others need less. Read on to learn the official recommendations and the risks of both high & low salt intake.
People tend to think that a food component is either good or bad, while most of the time the truth is somewhere in between.
Anytime there’s a controversy or a mix of opinions, the good/bad paradigm is usually flawed.
Something can be good in one way and bad in another.
- It could be good for one person and bad for another.
- It could be good in one situation and bad in another.
The reason we think in these terms is that it causes us cognitive strain (or ‘dissonance’) to believe something we’re doing can be both harmful and helpful. We want the benefits, but we don’t want the harm.
Salt is one of those things that have no clear answers but is dependent on the person and dose.
Just like with saturated fat and the controversies surrounding it, people tend to swing between the extremes when it comes to salt, instead of finding the right balance.
Salt consists of sodium (40%) and chloride (60%), both essential nutrients needed by your body to function.
In fact, an article in the Journal of Cancer Detection and Prevention observes that from Paleolithic to modern times, man’s intake of potassium has significantly decreased, while sodium has significantly increased. The Sodium/Potassium ratio has been reduced by about 20X .
Where does our salt come from?
- About 75% of our daily salt intake comes from processed foods .
- Only 15% comes from knowingly adding salt (ie, cooking and table salt) .
- The remaining 10% occurs naturally in whole foods .
Major United States health organizations advise limiting our sodium intake to under 2,300 mg per day:
- The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) says limit to 2,300 mg per day.
- The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (AND)recommends 1,500 to 2,300 mg.
- The American Diabetes Association (ADA) also says 1,500 to 2,300 mg .
- The American Heart Association (AHA):1,500 mg .
In normal, everyday measurements, that would mean aiming for less than 1 teaspoon of salt per day.
A 2013 Cochrane review found that in people with high blood pressure, reducing salt lowers blood pressure by 5.4 points systolic and 2.8 points diastolic. Individuals with normal blood pressure show a reduction of 2.4 and 1.0 .
One study found that lowering sodium intake was more effective at reducing blood pressure in Black and Asian patients than in Whites .
However, one found no association between higher sodium intake and systemic inflammation .
High salt intake may cause you to consume more calories (11% more) than you would otherwise .
In a study of sodium consumption and headaches, people who ate foods high in sodium – around 8 g per day – had one third more headaches than those who ate foods low in sodium – around 4 g per day .
Additionally, it made no difference whether the volunteers ate the standard Western diet or the DASH (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) diet .
However, it could be the effect of other components in those foods; these studies do not show causation.
In an animal study, a high salt diet led to a significant decrease in the naturally occurring antioxidants and marked an increase of damaging free radicals in the memory center of the brain .
Again, evidence on this topic is mixed, but it has been demonstrated that if you consume excess sodium, you lose more sodium and calcium in the urine .
Subjects who consumed the most sodium tended to lose the most calcium in the urine. Higher calcium excretion may lead to kidney stone formation, particularly if fluid intake is inadequate .
Because of this increased calcium excretion with higher sodium intake, those with osteoporosis may benefit from a lower salt intake as well, but there’s no solid clinical evidence to back this up.
A comprehensive meta-analysis detected a strong link between total salt intake (and salt-rich foods) and the risk of stomach cancer in the general population .
These studies show an association and it doesn’t necessarily mean that salt is the problem. Controlled clinical trials are needed to verify these findings.
An observational study performed in Australia found a clear association between high sodium intake and the occurrence of cataracts, a condition of cloudy vision associated with aging .
An earlier study conducted in Italy also found a significant association between high salt intake. A higher intake of meat, cheese, and certain vegetables (cruciferous vegetables, spinach, tomatoes, peppers) was protective .
In a study of 97 patients, high sodium intake worsened sleep apnea if high blood pressure and high aldosterone were present .
Sodium urinary excretion of under 3 g per day was associated with an increased risk of death and hospitalization due to heart disease in a large observational trial of nearly 30K participants .
In 638 Type II diabetics, restricting salt raised the risk of death from all causes, including cardiovascular disease .
In athletes, a lower intake of sodium combined with a higher intake of water can cause hyponatremia (unnaturally low salt levels), which can lead to headaches, muscle cramps/weakness, or even seizures when severe .
The bottom line is that salt is neither good nor bad per se. The optimal intake will depend on health conditions and many other factors.
Of course, it’s recommended to consult with your doctor, especially if you have high blood pressure or other chronic conditions.
In some cases, more or less salt may be better for you.
- If you are healthy, use salt to taste, in moderation.
- If you have high blood pressure, cut back on salt.
- If you are an athlete, sweating a lot, or exercising a lot in a day, make sure you get enough salt and other electrolytes.
- If you have low blood pressure (under 110/70), try experimenting with more salt while consulting with your doctor.