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?

By Gary Taubes from The New York Times

Salt, Healthy? Why It Might No Longer Be Public Enemy No. 1Photograph by Travis Rathbone
When I spent the better part of a year researching the state of the salt science back in 1998—already a quarter century into the eat-less-salt recommendations—journal editors and public health administrators were remarkably candid about how flimsy the evidence was implicating salt as the cause of hypertension.

In fact, an editor for the Journal of the American Medical Association told me at the time that the authorities pushing the eat-less-salt message had made a commitment to salt education that goes way beyond the scientific facts.

While, back then, the evidence merely failed to demonstrate that salt was harmful, the evidence from studies published over the past two years actually suggests that restricting salt can increase our likelihood of dying prematurely. Put simply, the possibility has been raised that if we were to eat as little salt as the USDA and CDC recommend, we’d harm rather than help ourselves.

A Hypothesis Yet to Be Proved

Why have we been told that salt is so deadly? The advice has always sounded reasonable: Eat more salt, and your body retains water to maintain a stable concentration of sodium in your blood. This is why salty food tends to make us thirsty: We drink more; we retain water. The result can be a temporary increase in blood pressure, which will persist until our kidneys eliminate both salt and water.

The scientific question is whether this temporary phenomenon translates to chronic problems: If we eat too much salt for years, does it raise our blood pressure, cause hypertension, then strokes, and then kill us prematurely? It makes sense, but it’s only a hypothesis. The reason scientists do experiments is to find out if hypotheses are true.

In 1972, when the National Institutes of Health introduced the National High Blood Pressure Education Program to help prevent hypertension, no meaningful experiments had yet been done. The best research on the connection between salt and hypertension came from two pieces of evidence. One was the repeated observation that populations that ate little salt had virtually no hypertension. But they didn’t eat a lot of things—sugar, for instance—and any one of those could have been the causal factor. The second was a strain of “salt-sensitive” rats that reliably developed hypertension on a high-salt diet. The catch was that “high salt” to these rats was 50 times more than what the average American consumes.

Still, the program was founded to help prevent hypertension, and prevention programs require preventive measures to recommend. Eating less salt seemed to be the best option at the time, short of losing weight. Although researchers quietly acknowledged that the data were “inconclusive and contradictory” or “inconsistent and contradictory”—two quotes from cardiologist Jeremiah Stamler, MD, a leading proponent of the eat-less-salt campaign, in 1967 and 1983—publicly, the link between salt and blood pressure was upgraded from hypothesis to fact.

In the years since, the NIH has spent enormous sums on studies to test the hypothesis, and those have singularly failed to make the evidence more conclusive. Instead, organizations advocating salt restriction today—the USDA, the Institute of Medicine, the CDC, and the NIH—all essentially rely on the results from one 30-day trial: the 2001 DASH-Sodium study. It suggested that eating significantly less salt would modestly lower blood pressure; it said nothing about whether this would prevent heart disease or lengthen life.

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  • Your Comments

    • dana matherson

      salt is amazing, especially in angus burgers from mcdonalds on friday’s after school

    • http://www.facebook.com/tom.thompson.9699 Tom Thompson

      I was born in the 20s and during that period food for the working classes was basic and wholesome and didn’t contain any additives as they do today and we didn’t have the facilities with i.e. fridge/freezers,microwaves etc.and all foodstuffs was virtually organic with no forced growing and salt was used daily This continued on throughout wwii where many foods were dried out to powder form to preserve longer. During all that period and into the 50s. This was the ‘ Matchstick’ generation of hard manual workers and therefore salt never caused a health problem. Today, in the main, we have the ‘Push Button’ generation with a shorter working week.I started work at the age of 14 and worked 48 hours a week plus compulsory overtime, Many of that generation are now in the 90s plus. I have never seen so much obesity as we have in the the Western World to day. As a youth entering the R A F during wwii I weighed 10st.8lbs.. To day I weigh 10st. 12lbs.
      I remember one of my old schoolteacher’s saying ” how many teeth do you have ?….32 and that’s how many times you chew your food before you swallow it, you are not stoking a boiler and if you do you cant enjoy the taste”. To day I am still a slow eater and the last to leave the table.
                                                                                                            Tom Thompson
                                                                                                                Birmingham.

    • Clay

      Most importantly, all salts are not created equal.  Cheap, over-processed table salt has dangerous additives which the FDA does not require be disclosed (due to crooked politics).  Only NATURAL salts should be consumed.  So make sure your foods are made with natural salts and ask your restaurants what salt they use.  You can guess what chain restaurants use…  

      • Stevensamuels1

        salt is salt dude, it comes from mines which were formed from prehistoric lakes and has no ADDITIVES other than something to make it flow.    ” natural salt  ” or  ” sea salt ” are great scams to get you to pay ten times the amount of table salt .  i bet you buy ” bottled water ” too thinking you are getting something special . exactly what ” dangerous additives ” do you think are in salt ?

    • Clay

      njgggggggggjjo

    • Guest

      there once was a supposition that some black americans had a worse reaction to salt than others . what happened to that idea ? i think it was related to b/p and heart and cad as well.

    • Zzlatz

      BigPharma financial interests are involved here as well.
      These criminals knew very well what will be consequences of avoiding salt: more deceases and of course more medications buying. This is what they wanted. this is where they put their money – to bribe the “health” “authorities” to convince the public that salt is an enemy.
      and it’s not only with salt.

    • http://www.facebook.com/fivecentfather Ken Nichols

      Why do people listen to what the government tells them is healthy? Our bodies were designed to help us balance out everything. Eat what you want, but eat everything in moderation. If you crave salt, have something salty – just not EVERY day. If you crave salad, listen to your body and have some – you probably NEED it. Same with fruit, meat, eggs, milk, carbs, etc. Your body will tell you what it is short on. Too much of ANYTHING – no matter how healthy it is claimed to be — is not good for you. A varied diet is always best, but you don’t have to have some of everything every single day, to the point where you actually WORRY about not having a particular food. It’s OK to vary it over a longer term – a week maybe. If veggies seem distasteful today, skip em. Just keep in mind that your body will want to “catch up” on the crunchy green stuff soon.