Salt, Healthy? Why It Might No Longer Be Public Enemy No. 1

For decades, we've been told to eat less salt for lower blood pressure—but could this advice be harming, rather than helping, our health?

Salt, Healthy? Why It Might No Longer Be Public Enemy No. 1Photograph by Travis Rathbone
The first time I questioned the conventional wisdom on the nature of a healthy diet, I was in my salad days, almost 40 years ago, and the subject was salt. Researchers claimed that salt supplementation was unnecessary after strenuous exercise, and this advice was passed on by health reporters. I recalled high school football practices in suburban Maryland, sweating profusely through double sessions on swamplike 90-degree days. Without salt pills, I couldn’t make it through a two-hour practice; I couldn’t walk across the parking lot afterward without cramping.

While sports nutritionists have since come around to recommend that we should replenish salt when we sweat it out in physical activity, the message that we should avoid salt at all other times remains strong. Experts say salt raises blood pressure, causes hypertension, and increases the risk of premature death. This is why the Department of Agriculture’s dietary guidelines still consider salt Public Enemy No. 1, before fats, sugar, and alcohol. It’s why the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has suggested that reducing salt consumption is as critical to long-term health as quitting cigarettes. And yet, this eat-less-salt argument is surprisingly controversial—because the actual evidence to support it has always been so weak.

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