Decades ago medicine, in its infinite wisdom, declared that too much salt causes high blood pressure. (Just as it declared that fat is bad for you and dietary cholesterol causes heart disease.) Everyone was advised to sharply limit their salt intake regardless of what their blood pressure was. And people whose pressure was already high were often put not just on a low-salt but a no salt diet.
It didn’t take long for the research disputing this advice to start stacking up. But as usual, any study that called the new “standard of care” into question was largely ignored by those who make the rules. We all know how it goes: once a new “guideline” is issued, any research that contradicts it is denied, ridiculed, or outright buried. And that’s exactly what happened with salt. The newest Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend cutting back to the lowest amount ever.
This goes against mounting evidence that too much salt doesn’t actually cause high blood pressure. In fact, there’s a huge debate over how harmful salt is—or if it’s harmful at all—even for those who already have high blood pressure. But the guideline continues to be pushed ever lower. (The American Heart Association, for instance, says we shouldn’t eat more than 1500 milligrams.)
A new study published earlier this year, however, suggests that limiting salt could be one of the very worst things we can do for our hearts. It shows that not only does strictly limiting salt not help, it can actually cause the very problems it’s meant to prevent. In other words, a low-salt diet isn’t “heart-healthy.” In fact, it might be a fast-track ticket to heart attack and stroke.
Will a tea spoon of salt a day keep the doctor away?
The current guidelines for salt say we should eat no more than 2300 milligrams per day, or about a teaspoon. On the face of it, that sounds like a lot of salt. But we’re not talking only about the salt we shake on top of our plates—the bulk of the sodium in our diets comes from other sources, especially processed foods.
Of course most people eat more than 2300 mg a day—some 90% of us eat more than the recommended limit. But that’s the goal we’re supposed to strive for, and the limit that doctors push. But the new study shows that this number is probably way too low, and that cutting down to anywhere close to this “ideal” number may very well do more harm than good.
The study came from McMaster University in Canada, and looked at more than 130,000 people scattered over 49 countries. The goal was to see how sodium intake affected the risk of heart disease and stroke for people both with and without high blood pressure.
The results were nothing short of shocking if you buy the “official” guideline for salt.
The researchers defined “low” salt intake as less than 3000 mg of sodium per day—nearly 1/3 more than the current recommendation for Americans. “High” was defined as more than 6,000 mg, or 2.6 times the current limit. And what they found was this: even in people with high blood pressure, a low-salt diet resulted in more heart attacks, strokes, and deaths.
Let me say that again. In a study with 130,000 people, those on low-salt diets had MORE heart attacks and strokes—regardless of their blood pressure.
Now remember: this is considerably more sodium than what Americans are currently told to eat, and double what the AHA recommends. Yet those who ate this allegedly “healthy” amount of salt had more heart attacks, more strokes, and more deaths than those who ate higher amounts of sodium.
How much is too much?
The average person eats around 3400 mg of sodium per day, well below the “high” intake threshold. This study suggests that far from needing to reduce our salt consumption, most of us are eating just about what our bodies need. But what about people who do fall into that “high intake” category?
Once again, the study flies in the face of conventional wisdom. Eating 6000 mg or more per day had no effect for people with normal blood pressure. The alleged risks of high salt consumption appeared only to apply to some of those who already had high blood pressure. And the risks were only seen with extremely high levels—more than 6000 mg or over 2 1/2 teaspoons per day.
Few of us eat that much sodium.
So if you’re cutting down on salt in an effort to lower your risk of heart disease, you might actually be doing yourself a disservice. Unless you eat insanely high levels of salt, you’re just fine as you are. And if you already eat a moderate amount and cut down even more, you might be doing more harm than good.
So what’s the bottom line?
The whole salt/heart disease controversy came about because cutting down on salt can slightly lower blood pressure for some people. However, there are many other ways to lower your blood pressure naturally—ways that don’t up your risk of heart attacks and stroke. Instead of cutting out salt, try these natural solutions first:
Take a supplement. Coenzyme Q10, available nearly anywhere supplements are sold, can lower blood pressure significantly. Potassium and magnesium also have an effect.
De-stress. Stress raises your blood pressure, and anything that reduces stress is beneficial. Try yoga, meditation, or even massage. Swedish massage has been shown to have a marked effect on blood pressure short-term, on top of its stress-reducing ability.
Lose weight if you need to. Just a few extra pounds can raise your blood pressure.
Get up and get moving. Exercise is one of the best blood pressure remedies out there. Even a half-hour walk each day can help.
But don’t expect the “official” stance to change anytime soon. If the “fat is bad” drama is anything to go by, or the cholesterol hysteria, we have another decade to go before public policy catches up to the actual science.