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The Vilification of Salt

Jul 19, 2018 12:00AM

By Kelsey Casselbury

When it comes to salt, general wisdom says to cut back on it—way back. Contrary to what you might think, though, the question about sodium in your diet isn’t how low can you go; instead, it’s a question of whether you really need to cut back at all. 

There’s a lot of confusion out there when it comes to expert recommendations on salt. The 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends that the average person eat less than 2,300 milligrams of sodium a day, which is right around one teaspoon. Those who have high blood pressure or heart problems are advised to go even lower, as are those of African-American descent or those with kidney disease. The American Heart Association has them all beat, recommending that everyone limit their intake to 1,500 milligrams a day. 

But here’s the thing: The human body can’t live without sodium. If you cut back too far, you might unnecessarily stress yourself out, at best, or at worst cause actual health problems. Sodium is vital for transmitting nerve impulses, contracting and relaxing muscle fibers and maintaining a proper fluid balance. If you’re the athletic type, a lack of sodium greatly contributes to muscle cramps, particularly because you lose salt when you sweat. 

Now, what happens when you eat too little salt when you don’t have a need to limit yourself? A few things, actually—research shows that reduced-salt diets could be linked to higher levels of blood cholesterol and triglycerides, as well as a cause of resistance to insulin, which increases the risk of diabetes. It can also cause low blood sodium, or hyponatremia. With this condition, your body holds onto extra water because of the lack of sodium, and 

you could experience headaches, fatigue, dizziness or nausea. For that, you need to consume at least 500 milligrams of sodium a day. 

So, how did salt get such a bad reputation? Well, it is linked to specific diseases, and few will argue that it’s a major factor in high blood pressure. Here’s the bottom line: talk to your doctor about whether you really need to keep a close eye on your sodium intake. If you’re at risk for certain diseases, it’s certainly worth tracking, and everyone can benefit from cutting back on processed foods that are heavy on the salt. If you’re under age 50, have normal blood pressure and are in good health, the chances are that you don’t need to sweat the salt.