One of the foundations of Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move! program was new guidelines for school lunches, which focused a lot on limiting sodium. The Institute of Medicine and politicians in major cities, such as New York and Philadelphia, have managed to lobby strict regulation on the amount of sodium that can be put in all prepared foods served within their city limits. As Michael Pollan points out in his best-selling book, In Defense of Food, this manner of thinking is known as “streetlight science;” where observational bias occurs because people are searching to place blame (in this case, for nutrition-influenced health issues) and only look where it is easiest. It was seen in our decades-long taboo of dietary fat and cholesterol, and bizarrely, despite the multitude of research, it still exists to an extent in our demonization of salt.
Salt, NaCl, is a combination of sodium and chloride. Sodium makes up approximately 40% of table salt by weight. Sodium is one of the crucial dietary electrolytes. Its ability to bind to water to maintain intracellular and extracellular fluid balance is its most known function, but it also assists in the maintenance of electrical gradients so that our muscles can contract and communication through our nervous system can occur. It is salt’s unique ability to bind to water that is the foundation of the belief that its consumption increases blood pressure. And to an extent, that’s true.
High blood pressure damages arteries and is one of the primary risk factors for cardiovascular disease, stroke, and several other chronic health conditions. According to a recent National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, approximately 1/3 of U.S. adults are hypertensive, meaning their blood pressure exceeds 160/100. To understand the issue, it is important to recognize that hypertension is a risk factor for chronic disease, not a cause, and even then, the research is quite murky. A review of the recent literature suggested that even in individuals with hypertension, the association between salt intake and risk for cardiovascular disease and mortality was essentially nonexistent. One of the largest national health surveys ever conducted found that, on average, the more sodium people consumed, the less their risk of developing and dying from heart disease. And these studies aren’t outliers; several others have investigated the tenuous association between salt intake, hypertension, and chronic disease risk.
The reality is that just like dietary cholesterol, the individual responses to sodium are quite distinct. Because the kidneys are designed to regulate sodium levels based on how much is consumed, some studies have actually shown that nearly as many people as experience high blood pressure from consuming salt experience decreases in blood pressure from high levels of salt intake. Furthermore, cutting sodium intake has been correlated with increases in LDL (bad) cholesterol and even insulin resistance. Without extensive testing, it is quite difficult to determine where on this continuum of dietary sodium responsiveness an individual resides. So what is one to do?
Of course, always follow the advice of your trusted medical professional, but if you are otherwise relatively healthy: nothing. The evidence that strictly limiting sodium intake has any benefits for healthy adults is essentially nonexistent. In fact, if you are part of the herd who limits carbohydrate intake, you may want to consider keeping a Costco-sized salt shaker on the table, as your body has a tendency to excrete excess sodium as a response to the decreased insulin levels that come along with going low-carb. In following along with most streetlamp nutritional science, the actual scientific evidence seems to suggest that the culprit isn’t dietary cholesterol or table salt at all, but highly processed food. I know, it’s truly shocking that the foods that are the highest in cholesterol, sodium, or other taboo nutritional terms like gluten also tend to be the ones that come in a box and have extensive ingredient lists comprised of substances you can’t spell. Just as startling, those who regularly eat these highly processed foods tend to have the worst health outcomes. Yeah, the 1000 mg listed next to sodium on the nutrition facts label of your frozen chicken pot pie is kind of scary, but based on the breadth of research, it’s probably not as much of an issue as the partially hydrogenated soybean oil and the other 100+synthetic ingredients.
Don’t hate on salt. You want a sure way to reduce your risk for cardiovascular disease and stroke? Put down the frozen burrito and grab a banana.
Damian Rodriguez is the health and exercise scientist for doTERRA International, LLC. He holds a doctorate in health science, a master’s degree in exercise physiology, and countless professional certifications. He has spent most of his life researching nutrition, exercise, and the lifestyle behaviors associated with optimal health. Along with his passion for health, as someone who lives with Asperger’s Syndrome, he is also involved in bringing awareness to autism spectrum disorders. There are varying opinions about many health and fitness topics. His opinions are his own and not necessarily that of doTERRA International, LLC. Consult your healthcare provider before making any changes to diet and exercise.