Is Salt Good or Bad For You?
So, sodium isn’t bad for you? You gotta be kidding me!
Since the 1980s we’ve been taught that sodium increases the risk of heart disease. Whelp, not so much. So it’s safe to break out those sodium-laced TV dinners? Not so fast. Here’s the confusing, but ultimately positive, findings on sodium and heart disease.
Some Salt Facts
- Sodium is an essential electrolyte in your body
- Salt = 40% sodium + 60% chloride
- Sodium works to bind water and maintain the balance of intracellular and extracellular fluids
- Sodium is electrically charged. Along with potassium, it helps maintain electrical gradients across cell membranes, crucial for nerve transmission and muscular contraction.
Why We Thought Salt Was Dangerous
- The more sodium we have in our bloodstream, the more water it binds. Thus, sodium was thought to increase blood pressure (and it does, but that might not be bad…more on that below).
- High blood pressure stresses the heart, and is considered a risk factor of heart disease. However, high blood pressure by itself is not the cause of disease.
Current Recommendations (& why you should mostly ignore them)
- The Institute of Medicine recommends that adults consume 1500 mg of sodium a day (3/4 a teaspoon)
- The American Heart Association recommends no more than 2,400 mg a day (1 teaspoon)
- The average American consumes about 3,700 milligrams of sodium a day (more than twice the AHA recommendation). Here’s what’s curious: Americans’ salt consumption has remained unchanged since the 1950s (despite warnings against high sodium diets). If our sodium intake has remained constant, but rates of heart disease and high blood pressure has continued to increase, couldn’t we could assume that sodium isn’t the culprit?
What Do the Studies Say?
Basically, they say a lot without actually saying anything at all. Here’s a quote from “Dietary Sodium Intake and Mortality”:
“These results do not support current recommendations for routine reduction of sodium consumption, nor do they justify advice to increase or to decrease its concentration in the diet.”
So, is salt good or bad for you? The studies say…yes, no, and maybe. Take the following, for example:
- These four studies found high sodium intake increases heart disease (like we’ve been taught) (sources 4-7)
- These four say that it does not increase heart disease (sources 8-11).
- Then, these two studies found the opposite: eating less sodium actually puts you more at risk.
So What Do We Do Now?
Until there is a more comprehensive, randomized and controlled trial to definitively say one way or another, the jury is out. In the meantime, settle into that J-curve, aka the Goldilocks Rule (not too little, not too much).
But most importantly, stop worrying about it too much.
How to Optimize Your Salt Intake
1. Eat the good stuff.
- Use unrefined varieties like Himalayan pink salt and sea salt, which contain natural trace minerals like calcium, potassium, magnesium, sulfur, zinc, and iron.
- Avoid table salt: it’s heavily processed, devoid of trace minerals, and usually contains anti-caking additives such as sodium silicoaluminate or sodium ferrocyanide.
- Get crazy: become a Salt of the Month member.
2. Cut out processed foods.
- Reduce the amount of gross MSG and table salt you’re eating – stop with the frozen pizzas, take-out, and packaged foods.
3. Consume sodium in natural ways.
- Eat beets, carrots, celery, spinach, and turnips, which are naturally sodium-rich.
- Learn to surf. Inadvertently swallow lots of sea water.
- Salt the rim of your tequila and soda (one of the best drinks if you’re looking to avoid a hangover).
- Put a pinch on your dark chocolate.
It seems absurd that so much time, energy, and money is spent on trying to reduce the amount of salt that Americans eat, considering how weak the evidence is on this issue.
Stop fearing salt. Put it on your food. Just enough to make it taste good. And you’re done.
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