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Is Salt Really the Enemy?

By Maryann Tomovich Jacobsen, MS, RD

Salt Shaker

Over the past several years, I’ve watched sodium get hung out to dry in the nutrition world. There have been proposals to cut sodium in food products and in restaurants and the 2010 Dietary Guidelines recommended an all-time low number (1500mg) for those over 50 with health risks.

But new research makes this picture a bit more complicated — and shows that less sodium may not always be better, especially for people who are not suffering from sodium-related diseases such as high blood pressure.

In honor of American Heart Month I’m highlighting one of the most talked about heart-health bad guys: sodium. And what I have to say might surprise you.

A change in research

There have been new research studies making their way to headlines. Take an observational study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association in March. Researchers followed 3,681 middle-aged Europeans who did not have heart disease or high blood pressure for about 8 years. Those with the lowest consumption of sodium (<2500mg) were more likely to die from heart disease than those consuming 3900mg and more!

Another study published in the American Journal of Hypertension followed people with normal blood pressure and found those on a low sodium diet had slight decreases in blood pressure but also had significant increases in cholesterol and triglycerides.

“Sodium is an essential nutrient where a broad range of intakes can be consumed without harm,” says Dr. Michael Alderman, a blood pressure researcher at Albert Einstein College of Medicine and editor of the American Journal of Hypertension. “We see a problem when intakes are too low (<2000mg) or too high (>6000mg).”

How can this be?

According to Alderman there’s been an avalanche of research on sodium and health outcomes over the last year — and this data has changed the sodium story.

“The debate over salt previous to this time was missing some aspects of the data,” he says. “That includes that healthy people are at increased risk for stroke and heart attacks if intake is low”

Alderman explains that older data includes research from places like Taiwan and China where sodium intakes are very high, about 6,000mg, and reductions show clear benefits. But surprisingly, data shows US sodium intake has stayed extremely constant over the past 50 years at about 3,600mg, a level he says is acceptable for healthy individuals.

When is a low sodium diet appropriate?

“Lowering sodium in the diet can still help certain individuals, especially those with high blood pressure and heart failure,” Alderman adds. “But for the 95% of the population that is healthy, salt is one less thing people need to worry about.”

I think if healthy people are eating whole foods and are cooking at home most of the time, they don’t have to worry about sodium because it’s unlikely levels will go so high as to cause a problem. And without vigilance, low levels (<2000mg) that may increase risk are unlikely.

But more than anything, this shows, once again, that a single nutrient is not the answer to (or reason for) everyone’s health woes. If only it were that easy.

What do you think? Has sodium been a watch-out nutrient for you? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

Photo: Photodisc

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