Warning: A low-salt diet may be harmful to your health

May 24, 2011
Volume 08    |   Issue 22

Are you on a low-salt diet to prevent high blood pressure? If so, ask your doctor to show you the studies that say it’s both safe and effective. Because it isn’t. At least that’s what a new study in the Journal of the American Medical Association says.

JAMA is as mainstream a publication as you can find. And the researchers in this study found that eating less salt was more harmful than a diet higher in salt. In fact, it found that even modest reductions in sodium consumption for people with normal blood pressure increases their risk for heart disease and death.

This study followed more than 3,000 adults with normal blood pressure for nearly eight years. Half of them had their urinary sodium and blood pressure measured throughout the study. The researchers’ findings were surprising. The participants who ate the most salt had the highest levels of urinary sodium. Their bodies had the innate wisdom to excrete the salt it didn’t need.

Sodium intake did affect cardiovascular mortality rates — but not in ways that you’d suspect. The people with the highest intake of sodium had the fewest deaths. Those with the lowest sodium intake had five times as many deaths from heart disease.

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This study is not alone in its conclusions. A previous study from Harvard found that low-salt diets increased insulin resistance, increasing the risk for type-2 diabetes. And an Australian study found that mortality from diabetes increased in people who restricted their sodium intake.

The FDA has been telling us for years to reduce our salt consumption to levels that are dangerous. These researchers connected the FDA’s recommended levels to higher rates of heart attacks and death. Lori Roman, president of the Salt Institute disagrees with the FDA recommendations. “We now know conclusively that the U.S. government’s war on salt consumption will cause harm,” she cautions. She asks that the Dietary Guidelines on sodium be amended.

So how much salt is safe? Enough to make a Mediterranean diet with its cheeses, olives, anchovies, and bitter greens palatable. It’s healthier than other diets. And it uses a good bit of salt.

Let’s face it. Most people don’t count the milligrams of sodium in their meals. But many pay attention to the composition of their meals. Eating a healthful diet is far more important than counting your sodium intake.

This study does not say that someone with high blood pressure can eat all the salt they want. In many — though not all — cases, restricting salt is helpful in lowering blood pressure in someone who is already hypertensive. But it does conclude that limiting sodium in people with normal blood pressure appears to be more harmful than helpful.

Your voice of reason in Women's Health,


"Fatal and Nonfatal Outcomes, Incidence of Hypertension, and Blood Pressure Changes in Relation to Urinary Sodium Excretion," Katarzyna Stolarz-Skrzypek, MD, PhD; Tatiana Kuznetsova, MD, PhD; Lutgarde Thijs, MSc; Valérie Tikhonoff, MD, PhD; Jitka Seidlerová, MD, PhD; Tom Richart, MD; Yu Jin, MD; Agnieszka Olszanecka, MD, PhD; Sofia Malyutina, MD, PhD; Edoardo Casiglia, MD, PhD; Jan Filipovský, MD, PhD; Kalina Kawecka-Jaszcz, MD, PhD; Yuri Nikitin, MD, PhD; Jan A. Staessen, MD, PhD. JAMA. 2011;305(17):1777-1785. doi: 10.1001/jama.2011.574

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