Is Eating Too Much Salt Really Harmful? Prevailing medical advice and routine visits to the doctor may have convinced you that this is an obvious “yes,” but science is anything but uniform. So why is this not reflected in common clinical practice?
Not only does the salt debate raise questions about how much salt is too much; It points to the crux of a little-discussed issue: that much of the medical information we receive is not based on scientific consensus, despite the tone of specificity and certainty in the statements made by key voices, including our physicians.
We’ve all been given the message that we tend to eat “too much” salt – and that too much salt is bad. Doctors, nutritionists, and health associations have long warned that excess sodium consumption can impede kidney function, raise blood pressure, increase the risk of cardiovascular disease, and even impair sleep quality.
Recognizing that processed food is a major source of sodium for most people, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) announced in October 2021 a new plan to encourage manufacturers of packaged foods to reduce added salt in their products. The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has set a new target for average salt intake of 3,000 milligrams per day, which is a 12% drop from the average US intake of 3,400 milligrams per day.
However, the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, released by the US Department of Health and Human Services and the US Department of Agriculture, recommend that adults limit sodium intake even further, to less than 2,300 milligrams per day, or about 1 teaspoon of table salt.
Recent animal research reveals that excess salt may affect the mind and body. Some studies suggest that excessive salt intake may raise stress levels, which in turn affects behavior (at least in rats).
One such recent study, conducted at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland and published this month in the journal Cardiovascular Research, found that a diet high in salt increased stress hormones in the body in rats.
Researchers found that a diet high in salt increased levels of the glucocorticoid stress hormone by 75 percent. In addition, not only did resting stress hormone levels increase in the mice, but their hormonal response to environmental stress was also twice as high as that of mice fed a normal diet.
We know that eating too much salt is harmful to the heart, blood vessels and kidneys. This study now tells us that higher salt in our food also changes the way our brain deals with stress,” study co-author Matthew A. Bailey, Professor of Kidney Physiology at the University of Edinburgh’s Center for Cardiovascular Sciences, said in a statement.
A paper published this year in the journal Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews examined a number of studies to determine what is known about the effects of salt on behavior in animals.
The review authors, from Kent State University in Kent, Ohio, write that although excess salt intake is a well-known risk factor for cardiovascular disease, to date “relatively little has been explored about how it affects behavior, despite the widespread Salt in modern diets.
The research tested behavioral changes such as anxiety and aggression in mice fed high-salt diets. It was found that excess salt intake in adulthood affected the animals’ spatial memory and “expression of fear”. High salt intake in early life has been shown to increase their mobility and impede social and spatial behaviour.
The study authors write that these findings show that “expanded study of the effects of salt will likely reveal broader behavioral implications.”
Is salt really so bad?
James D’Nicolantonio, a physician of pharmacy, objects to what he calls the “low salt doctrine” and believes that salt has been unfairly demonized.
He claims that our bodies cause us to consume about 3,000 milligrams to 4,000 milligrams of sodium per day in order to stay in a homeostatic state, “the optimal state in which you put the least amount of stress on the body.”
Of the studies of salt intake that have been done in humans, DiNicolantonio told The Epoch Times, every one “has an inherent flaw.”
“Almost every study doesn’t give the exact same diet, the only difference being the level of salt intake,” he said. “Usually, what [researchers] Do they give more fruits and vegetables, [a diet] Which happen to be lower in salt, and then they kind of extrapolate the benefits…and you can’t necessarily extrapolate that.”
In his book “The Salt Fix: Why the Experts Get Everything Wrong and How Eating More Might Save Your Life,” Di Nicolantonio, a research scientist in cardiovascular disease at Saint Luke’s Central American Heart Institute in Kansas City, Missouri, said the majority Most of us do not need to monitor our salt intake. He believes that restricting salt is harmful and that too little salt can make us crave sugar, leading to weight gain and type 2 diabetes.
DiNicolantonio writes that low-salt diets may have caused the American epidemic of high blood pressure. In South Korea and other parts of the world, people routinely consume more than 4,000 milligrams of salt per day, yet rates of heart disease and high blood pressure are very low.
For most people, DiNicolantonio claims that eating more salt can improve energy, sleep, physical fitness, and even fertility and sexual function. He argued that “Until the low-salt dogma is successfully challenged, we will be stuck in the same perpetual cycle that keeps our bodies salt-deprived, addicted to sugar, and ultimately deficient in many essential nutrients.”
For animals, he noted, “there are no dietary guidelines of course — no medical guidelines for creating a conscious effort to reduce salt intake.” Except for those with certain medical conditions, DiNicolantonio stated that we don’t have to worry about “excess salt,” because our bodies take care of any excess. He wrote that a low-salt diet “suggests a crisis for the body, not a recipe for perfect health.”
In 2016, researchers at Columbia University and Boston University conducted a “descriptive knowledge analysis” of what they called the “salt debate.” The analysis, published in the International Journal of Epidemiology, looked at 269 reports published between 1978 and 2014 examining the effects of sodium intake on cardiovascular disease or mortality.
The researchers found that 54 percent of the reports supported the hypothesis that reducing dietary salt leads to health benefits for the population. A third (33 percent) do not support this hypothesis, and 13 percent are inconclusive.
So, although scientists have long disagreed about the benefits of reducing salt intake, public health messages regarding salt appear not to reflect this uncertainty, the researchers note.
“The dichotomy between the uncertainty in the scientific literature about the potential benefits of reducing salt in the population and the certainty expressed by decision-makers involved in developing public health policies in this area is paradoxical,” they wrote.
Assuming that all parties involved have the interests of science and public health in mind, this controversy raises questions about knowledge production in population health sciences and how this production affects public health practices.
The researchers found that the report’s authors were 50 percent more likely to cite papers that reflected their point of view, whether or not they thought reducing salt was helpful. Moreover, a small number of prolific researchers have produced most of the work in this field and seem unaffected by the work of researchers who have come to different conclusions.
“We found that the published literature bears little imprint of ongoing controversy but contains two roughly different and disparate lines of scholarship, one supporting and the other contradicting the hypothesis that reducing salt in the population will improve clinical outcomes,” the authors write.
Public health officials seem to have chosen to inflate the results of just one part of the body of research that has been produced on the subject, rather than acknowledge that there have long been two “sides” to the salt debate.
DiNicolantonio offered practical advice for those concerned about their salt intake.
“If you’re someone who consumes a complete diet consisting primarily of whole, nutritious foods — meat, vegetables, and fruits — you’ll get very little salt and will probably need to add some back to get you back to a normal level,” he said.
“While if you’re someone who eats most processed foods…you probably already get enough salt,” he said.
“Salt is an essential mineral. There will be an amount that will not be enough, just like any mineral. There will be too much, just like any mineral, and there is a perfect amount. The optimal intake seems to be a normal salt intake. So not high, not low, but allowing your body by consuming the salt it naturally seeks, which is basically how we deal with our thirst for water.”