How Much Salt is Too Much?

SaltfieldThaiLandI’m tired of being told not to put too much salt on my food.  Personally, I love salt.  It brings out the delicious flavors of my favorite savory foods.  It was my love for salt that motivated me to find out how much salt is really too much.  Here’s what I discovered: Despite the warnings of the National Institute of Health, the Center for Disease Control, and other influential health organizations, moderate salt intake, the amount most Americans consume, has a very minimal affect on blood pressure and cardiovascular health.  The research indicates that it’s really only people who have high blood pressure that need to worry about lowering their salt intake, and even then, salt intake isn’t the main culprit of high blood pressure.

The average American consumes approximately 3,400 mg of sodium per day, which is the amount in about one and a half teaspoons of salt.  Since a reduction in sodium from this level can result in a slight reduction in blood pressure, most US health organizations recommend consuming less than 2,300 mg per day.  Here’s the thing, one of the most comprehensive studies on the effects of sodium consumption to date found that people who consumed a moderate amount of sodium (between 4,000 and 6,000 mg per day!) had lower mortality rates and fewer cardiovascular problems that those who consumed either greater or lesser amounts.  While this study caused quite a bit of controversy, it continues to call traditional assumptions into question.

While it’s clear that intake above 6,000 mg per day is unhealthy, it is yet to be seen exactly how much salt is healthy or what other factors come into play.  At some level, sodium intake is essential for good health.  Sodium is the body’s principal extracellular electrolyte; it works in conjunction with potassium (which gathers within the cells) to ensure proper nervous system function, muscle contraction, optimal blood pressure, and cardiac function.  Sodium also promotes intestinal absorption of water, glucose, amino acids, and chloride.  Chloride, in turn, competes with heavy metals for absorption in the body, promoting detoxification.  

As far as blood pressure goes, sodium intake is only half of the puzzle.  Potassium is the other half of the puzzle, and it’s a nutrient that many Americans are short on.  Numerous studies show that increased potassium intake results in lower blood pressure and fewer incidences of stroke.   Many sports nutritionists recommend achieving a potassium to sodium ratio of 2:1, but getting that much potassium requires eating a lot of whole foods. 

Whole foods that are particularly good for cardiovascular health include:

  • Potatoes, oranges, avocados, spinach, and bananas — they’re are all great sources of potassium and help improve the potassium to sodium ratio.  They also contain cardiovascular supporting antioxidants and phytonutrients. 
  • Dark Chocolate – its high magnesium (which most Americans are deficient of) and rich polyphenol content reduce hypertension almost immediately after consumption.
  • Hibiscus tea – it’s relaxing, tasty, and several studies have shown that it effectively reduces hypertension.

Based on the evidence surrounding sodium intake, potassium, and blood pressure, I’m led to believe that the amount of salt consumed isn’t so important as the types of food salt is added to.  According to one government health site, Americans get 75% of their salt from fast food!  The Center for Disease Control says that American get 90% of their salt from food bought from stores or restaurants.  In other words, we get very little salt from what we add to homemade food.  It’s all the refined and pre-made foods that contain most of the salt we eat, and there are other problems with those foods besides their salt content (like their refined sugar, refined flour, and seed oil content).

The take away:  

The current evidence indicates that moderate consumption of salt (2 tsps) can be part of a healthy diet.  Nevertheless, eliminating fast food and refined foods from one’s diet would likely reduce total sodium intake far below this.  Therefore, instead of focusing on reducing salt consumption, it makes more sense to focus on increasing whole food consumption (while allowing generous use of salt as a seasoning).  A diet that emphasizes tubers over grains as a carbohydrate source would also go a great way towards increasing total potassium intake.

As a final note, there are several means of supporting cardiovascular health in addition to eating whole foods, these include: regular exercise, stress free living, and getting quality sleep.  In other words, to maintain good cardiovascular health: EAT real foods, PLAY outside, and REST often!

References:
JAMA Research on Sodium Intake and Mortality
Harvard’s Response to JAMA
Potassium to Sodium Study
Linus Pauling Institute on Sodium

Originally posted 2013-02-02 05:54:00.

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