in Healthy Eating

This article will show the answer to the age-old question you’ve probably asked yourself on many occasions – how much salt should I eat each day anyway?

Article guide:

Introduction

In the avalanche of recommendations about salt consumption, very few seem to have any real basis in science. Some vigorously shout we should cut salt from our eating habits, other refute this idea and note salt doesn’t matter as far as health goes. But neither are particularly informative, considering all you want to know is – how much salt you should eat per day?

As far as salt is concerned, the usual horror story involves high blood pressure and all the accompanying diseases which follow. Not to get me wrong – high blood pressure, as a consequence of high salt intake, does cause a variety of diseases. In 2010, around 30% of Americans had high blood pressure [1]. That is not a small number by any means. And today, these numbers are probably even higher. If the percentage of people who have high blood pressure isn’t staggering itself, the amount of money being spent for the alleviation and the treatment of people with high blood pressure certainly is. Around 93 billion dollars per year is the amount of money being spent in the US alone. [2]

For comparison, NASA’s yearly budget lies around 18 billion dollars per year. And we’re talking about a condition that is largely preventable. In any case, there is a major implication about salt intake which people aren’t aware of. An average American gets around 77% of his daily sodium, one of the two elements present in salt, intake from processed and restaurant foods. This is followed by 12% directly from different foods, and 11% from cooking. [3]

This is an important thing to keep in mind throughout the article. The majority of recommendations directed at lowering salt intake should be actually directed at lowering processed food intake and eating out at restaurants.

 

Salt

Salt, also known as sodium chloride, is essential for human physiological functioning. The part of salt which plays a major role in our bodies is sodium. It helps our nerves and muscles to work normally (Na/K pump anyone?). Moreover, it is one of the prominent players when it comes to water content regulation. [4]

Despite that being true, due to modern lifestyle changes there is a good chance you’ve heard this statement from your doctor before:

“You should really consider limiting your salt intake, you have high blood pressure.”

The reason for this recommendation is sodium’s negative effect on our bodies when taken in large quantities. The first course of action when somebody hears that is to actually use less salt in cooking, which is a commendable step.

However, when we keep in mind the above statistic – the majority of sodium coming from processed foods and food eaten at restaurants, the question, whether eating less processed food wouldn’t be a better, more convenient option, does pose itself. Your food would be probably tastier because you wouldn’t be afraid of adding 1 more droplet of salt. But more importantly, you would cut your chances of different diseases due to the obvious health implications a typical Western diet has.

 

Diseases

I’ll be short and blunt in this section. Current evidence gives a lot of weight to the notion of salt being very devastating when consumed in high quantities. Not only does it increase blood pressure, as is commonly known, but it also has a negative and important effect on [5]:

  • the inner lining of your blood vessels,
  • the structure and function of your blood vessels themselves,
  • kidney disease progression, and consequentially, heart disease-related death risk.

The evidence clearly shows the existence of a J-shaped curve between salt intake and heart disease. This means having a really low salt intake increases your chance of heart disease, further increasing your salt intake will decrease your chance of heart disease. However, after a certain point the curve switches again and increases your heart disease risk.

This relationship is more clearly presented in the picture below:

sodium

Furthermore, there seem to be certain subpopulations of people who benefit more when the amount of salt consumption is lowered. People who are overweight, obese, and the aging, are three examples where improvements after a reduced salt consumption are more noticeable. [5]

 

The recommendation

The current recommendation based on an individual’s needs is 5 grams of salt per day [6]. In comparison, the average American eats around 10 grams of salt per day, basically twice the recommended amount.

A review of many randomized clinical trials also reveals an interesting relationship. Blood pressure decreases more dramatically when salt is lowered from 6 to 4 grams, in comparison to a reduction from 8 to 6 grams. [7]

There is a recommendation for potassium intake as well. Potassium seems to partially help with the symptoms of increased salt intake, it is again especially beneficial for the above mentioned subpopulations of people. [7]

A short warning

The presented data holds true for the Western population, the majority of studies were performed in Europe and the USA. It’s likely there are more factors which need to be considered for people from different continents. Nevertheless, given the fact that this recommendation comes from the World Health Organization, it’s safe (at least to a certain degree of chance) to assume there aren’t any health risks connected to the current recommendation. Especially with the clear available evidence.

 

Summary

The current scientific consensus is in favor of the 5 grams of salt per day recommendation issued by the World Health recommendation. There is a J-shaped curve between salt intake and heart disease risk. And most importantly, the average American receives around 77% of his daily sodium intake from processed foods and food eaten in restaurants. Therefore, limiting processed food consumption and the amount of food eaten in restaurants seems to be a very possible idea for limiting sodium intake.

One more thing, before you click away.

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