Fat used to be sinful, and now it’s not. Sugar was never great, but now it will kill you. And then there’s salt.
Salt has always been moderately evil—it has been thought to cause high-blood pressure and heart problems—to the point that some health professionals say 0 grams of salt a day for many people is best. Especially for old people, they say. If you have ever visited a grandparent in assisted living and joined them for lunch, you probably ate a whole lot of bland, tasteless, saltless food.
The WHO (World Health Organization)’s generic recommendation is to consume less than 2 grams of salt a day to ensure you stay free from high blood pressure and strokes.
To put that into context, 100 grams of bacon has around 1.7 grams of sodium, so if you ate bacon for breakfast that’s pretty much your salt for the day according to the WHO. Don’t even think about sprinkling any additional salt on your eggs or avocado!
Good new for salt lovers is this could all be poor advice, says a new study, which involved more then 90,000 people in more than 18 countries, published in the Lancet Medical Journal. The study says no country has ever reduced their sodium intake to those low levels, nor should they try. Link to the study.
The Canadian researchers discovered salt’s alleged harmful effects were only relevant in countries, such as China, where they use a ton of salty substances, like soy sauce, very liberally, and where people tend to consume more than 12 g of salt a day. Not only that, they discovered that incredibly low levels of salt in a person’s diet led to more heart attacks and death than moderate levels of sodium.
Low levels are bad (i.e. 0-5 grams) and high level are bad (above 12.5 g), but somewhere in the middle can actually play a role in improving cardiovascular health, as the body needs sodium—an essential nutrient. The average intake in the UK is believed to be around 8 grams, possibly right where it should be, according to this research.
Why your body needs Salt
- Sodium is needed for our muscles to contract, for regulating fluid balance, for regulating blood pressure, and for our nervous system to properly transmit signals
- Sodium also helps you absorb chloride, amino acids, glucose and water in your intestines
Despite these new findings, the study has already been stirring up big criticism from the anti-sodium camp, and has even sparked a movement among other scientists to prove them wrong. One of their biggest challenges is that the Lancet study didn’t properly measure how much sodium was in people’s urine, as this needs to be done over a 24-hour period of time, they argue. You can read more about the criticism to this study here.
What type of Salt is best?
If you've actually looked around when you buy salt, depending on the store you're at there may be almost too many to choose from. Table Salt, Kosher, Iodized, Sea Salt, Pink Himalayan etc. You may think that just because something says it's more natural means that it's better for you, which usually is the case. For a close look at the difference between all these types of salt take a read of this article. Basically table salt isn't bad, and just straight sodium chloride (NaCl for the science-y types). The 'fancy' salts like sea salt and himalayan have some additional benefits of other minerals which are not present in table salt as well as not containing additives like 'anti-caking agents' that reduce the clumping affect of refined table salt. One benefit of especially Himalayan Pink Salt is the potassium content is marginally higher than the others (read on below for why that would be important).
As briefly mentioned above, another aspect of the study to consider is potassium intake. The research found that cardiovascular problems decreased when people were also eating higher levels of potassium—which is found in plenty in many vegetables, fruits, as well as nuts. So perhaps it’s less about sodium intake and more about potassium intake? Something to consider for future research.
Why is potassium important?
- Potassium regulates fluid balance, muscle contractions and plays a role in your nervous system. A high-potassium diet is believed to reduce blood pressure and water retention, as well as it helps stave off cardiovascular troubles, osteoporosis and kidney stones.
- low potassium is associated with high blood pressure, heart disease, cancer, arthritis, digestive problems and infertility
- Check out more about potassium and if you’re getting enough of it here: https://www.webmd.com/food-recipes/features/potassium-sources-and-benefits#1
One more final thought about salt to take with a grain of salt
(Because it’s coming from my common sense, not a doctor): If you sweat a lot, especially in the summer, you probably can handle more salt than otherwise. So the next time you want to ask for salt but feel like you might offend the cook as the implication might be the food is bland, don't hold back. You need sodium as much as any other mineral in your body and if you're craving salty foods, there might be a reason for it.