Are the dangers of consuming “too much salt” overblown?

“Too much salt is bad for you.”

Have you ever had your parents or maybe a relative say that to you at a family dinner when you were growing up?

I have…and my guess is you have too.

And because of that I’ve always been pretty mindful of how much salt I consume, I’ve said that phrase to my own family more than once.

Recently though there have been a rash of articles, fuelled by studies, that suggest that maybe salt is not that bad af9ter all.

So I thought I’d take a look at that today and try to determine if there’s any credence in these new revelations.

Before I get into the specifics, let’s take a step back and take a look at…


What exactly is salt anyway?

Wikipedia defines it this way…

“Common salt is a mineral composed primarily of sodium chloride, a chemical compound belonging to the larger class of salts; salt in its natural form as a crystalline mineral is known as rock salt or halite.”

Salt is composed of 40% sodium and 60% chloride. (It’s the 40% sodium that is what potentially causes all the problems.)

Salt has long been used (as far back as 2000 B.C.) as a food preservative. The reason it is effective as a preservative is that it draws the water out of food which eliminates the moisture that bacteria need to thrive.

On nutrition labels they most always list the amount of sodium an item contains, not the amount of salt.


How much sodium should you be consuming per day?

The Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends that your daily recommended salt intake be less than 2.3 grams per day (about one teaspoon.)

In 2010, the Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion lowered this target number for people who are vulnerable to the hazards of salt (people over the age of 51, black people of any age, people with diabetes, hypertension and chronic liver disease) to below 1.5 grams a day.

According the Center for Disease Control website, your body needs between 180 milligrams and 500 milligrams (1/2 gram) each day to function normally.


How much does the average American consume per day?

A study published in the New England Journal of Medicine found that Americans consume on average 3.6 grams of sodium a day – about 56% more than the recommended 2.3 grams. (According to the Health Canada website, Canadians consume on average 3.4 grams of salt each day.)


Why are health issues associated with consuming too much salt?

The problem with too much salt in your diet is that it can cause your body to retain excess fluid. When this happens it increases the pressure of blood pumping through your arteries and veins. Too much salt can also lead to changes in your hormonal system which can result in the narrowing of your arteries.

Both of these situations directly cause high blood pressure, which, of course, can lead to heart attack and stroke.

Excess salt in your diet has also been associated with stomach cancer, osteoporosis, kidney stones and kidney disease to name a few.

It can also lead to obesity as consuming too much salt can make you overly thirsty which could result in your drinking more fluids. Not a problem for some, but children and teenagers tend to turn to sugary drinks to quench their thirst which will pack on the pounds.


What do the recent “pro-salt studies” tell us?

One of studies that has been used to dispute the claim that salt is bad for you was published recently in the American Journal of Hypertension. The study involved 8,000 French men and women. What the study data showed was that Body Mass Index, age and dietary factors such as how much alcohol you consume were more closely related to increase in blood pressure than a person’s sodium intake.

Welcome news for salt lovers, but does this mean that all the research indicating that too much salt causes high blood pressure are bunk?

Of course not.

With many health-related studies of this nature, there are so many factors involved, it’s extremely difficult to draw definitive conclusions from the data. Plus when you make a recommendation that can have a direct impact on people’s lives you have to use extreme caution.

Steven Nissen, MD, chairman of the department of cardiovascular medicine at the Cleveland Clinic had this to say…

“Sure, there’s mixed evidence on both sides of the salt debate, but there are some principles we’re pretty certain about. One is that if you have hypertension or pre-hypertension, the more salt you eat, the higher your blood pressure goes. So for those people, restricting sodium still makes perfect sense.”

For people without high blood pressure he says that “I don’t think sodium is quite the evil that we once thought it was. But we still can’t say with certainty that unrestricted sodium is safe for these people.”

Prof Graham MacGregor, a cardiovascular specialist at St George’s Hospital, London, and the chairman of Consensus Action on Salt and Health, says that…

“You will always find scientists that will go against the main body of research. Chronic ingestion of the amount of salt that we eat slowly puts up our blood pressure and is largely responsible for many strokes and heart attacks…”

If “too much salt” is an issue in your life, here’s why…

To make sure you don’t suffer the consequences related to over consumption of salt, it’s important to understand what foods contain a lot of salt.

The biggest culprits are processed foods and restaurant food. If you eat a lot of bread, pizza, processed meats, soups, sandwiches, snacks and cheese, chances are you’re consuming over the daily recommended level of sodium. Some condiments, such as soy sauce, are also high in salt.
Note: In his book Salt Sugar Fat, Michael Moss talks about a study done by Monell Chemical Sense Center in Philadelphia.

The study involved 62 participants. What they ate and drank was carefully monitored and tracked for one week. The researchers spiked the salt shakers of study participants with a tracer. The tracer, which showed up in people’s urine, allowed them to determine exactly how much of their salt came from the shaker.


The results were very telling…

More than 3/4 of the salt consumed came from processed foods. The salt shaker only delivered 6% of their sodium intake. Sodium, which occurs naturally in some food, made up a bit more than 10 percent of their overall salt consumption.

Five steps to reduce your salt intake…

  1. Always read food labels and shy away from foods with excess sodium levels.
  2. Limit your intake of processed, restaurant and fast food.
  3. Drink water, not sugary drinks.
  4. Choose natural pure foods when possible.
  5. Avoid sodium-solution-injected meat and poultry.

The bottom line is that if you eat healthy and exercise regularly, you’ll not only keep your blood pressure in check, you’ll never have to worry about the other potentially debilitating effects related to the overconsumption of salt.