The Salty Truth
Feb 20, 2013 10:40PM ● Published by Cate Reynolds
There’s a real disconnect between the health experts and the food experts of the world. One group says that Americans eat too much salt—and it’s probably true, given that the daily recommended limit is 2,300 milligrams but the average intake is 3,400 mg—while the other says that Americans need to cook more real food at home, but food cooked without salt is bland and uninspired.
Complicating the matter are recent findings concluding that cutting sodium intake below a moderate amount doesn’t actually decrease cardiovascular risk—in fact, researchers say that a too low intake increases risk of cardiovascular death and congestive heart failure.
That’s awfully confusing, and not something we want to be unsure about—so what’s the best course of action when it comes to salt?
The war on salt goes back to 1997 when the DASH-Sodium (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension-Sodium) study began with 412 participants who were assigned to eat high, intermediate and low levels of sodium for 30 days. This led to the initial recommendations of 2,300 mg of sodium per day, approximately 1 teaspoon, a guideline that held steady for nearly 15 years.
In 2011, new guidelines emerged cutting that number in half for a large amount of the population—those over age 51, African- Americans, and anyone who has hypertension, diabetes, or chronic kidney disease are now urged to limit intake to a half teaspoon of salt a day. In high amounts, salt consumption can cause your body to retain water and increasing blood pressure. It can also lead to heart disease, stroke, heart failure, and kidney disease.
But, Wait Just a Minute…
Keep in mind, though, that it’s just as dangerous to omit sodium entirely from your diet, as your body needs salt to maintain the balance of fluid, transmit nerve impulses, and contract and relax your muscles. It’s up to your kidneys to properly balance the amount of sodium in your body.
However, some people have called the initial study into question, including science writer Gary Taubes, who, in The New York Times last summer, took an unexpected stance writing that there’s no scientific basis for claims that a low-sodium diet does anything other than modestly lower blood pressure.
Couple this with recent research published in the Journal of the American Medical Association concluding that a moderate salt consumption is the way to go—any lower, and you increase risk of cardiovascular events; any higher, and chances of a stroke or heart attack go up. In the end, they say, if your consumption of sodium is already about average, perhaps you don’t need to worry about it.
However, for every person whose sodium intake is on track, there’s another who could still cut back a bit. For most, the love of salt is an acquired taste, so it’s possible to retrain your taste buds to enjoy it less. This creates some surprising other benefits for your waistline—when you’ve adapted to reduced sodium in your diet, you might find items such as potato chips or restaurant foods to be just too salty to be palatable. Hello, weight loss!
The key to lowering your sodium intake is to choose fewer packaged foods and more fresh foods, such as fruits and vegetables. However, it’s not always realistic for someone to never indulge in a frozen pizza or quickly heat up a can of soup for lunch. The trick is to read labels and learn the common words some manufacturers use in place of the word “salt.” These include monosodium glutamate (MSG), disodium phosphate, sodium alginate, sodium nitrate, baking soda, and baking powder.
You can also learn how to use salt effectively when cooking. Instead of sprinkling salt in at the beginning of the cooking process—such as on potato wedges before roasting or at the beginning of making a sauce—wait until the end. Taste the final product, and if it needs salt, add a little bit. Taste it again—call this “mindful salting.” As you use less salt, your taste buds will crave it less.
It’s clear that the discussion about how much salt is okay for your health is ongoing, but as the saying goes, “Everything in moderation,” and that seems to include sodium—for now.