For years we’ve been warned to shake the salt habit—or risk serious harm to our health. Now, two new studies show that low-sodium diets may not protect heart health—and could even raise the threat of fatal heart attacks and strokes. Meanwhile, dozens of public health groups, including the Institute of Medicine (IOM), are demanding that the FDA force food manufacturers to reduce the amount of sodium in prepared and processed foods, which the Center for Science in the Public Interest has called salt “the deadliest ingredient in the food supply.”
Is salt a dietary serial killer or not? Some sodium is essential for our bodies to function, since it helps maintain the right fluid balance and plays a key role in nerve and muscle function. However, 90 percent of Americans eat too much salt, according to the CDC. Here’s a look at the latest science—and grains of truth to help you make smart decisions about healthy eating.
What’s the theory behind salt restriction? Groups like the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute, the National High Blood Pressure Education Program, and the government’s new Million Hearts, campaign (aimed at preventing one million heart attacks and strokes over the next 5 years) consider reducing salt consumption a smart public policy to decrease high blood pressure, a major risk factor for heart attacks and strokes. Last year, a National Institutes of Health-funded study reported that lowering salt intake by just 3 grams (about half a teaspoon) a day could prevent up to 92,000 deaths a year—as well as 100,000 heart attacks and 66,000 strokes.
What’s the downside of cutting back on salt? Two new studies found these potential hazards of reducing salt:
How scientific are these studies? Although Cochrane and JAMA are among the world’s most respected publications, critics charge that both studies were flawed. The Cochrane review was attacked for giving too much weight to short-term studies that may not reflect the long-term impact of salt reduction, while CDC officials charge that the JAMA study was faulty because the participants were relatively young (with an average age of 40 at the start of the study) and not that many of them died during the nearly 8 years of follow-up. There’s also debate whether urine tests are the best way to tell how much salt people eat.
Does salt affect everybody the same way? No. 10 to 20 percent of people appear to be “salt sensitive,” meaning that they tend to retain sodium, leading to fluid retention and increased blood pressure. Those at greatest risk include African-Americans, older people, and people who already have high blood pressure.
What’s the bottom line? Everybody needs some sodium, because it helps the body maintain a healthy fluid balance and plays a vital role in nerve and muscle function. The CDC recommends consuming less than 2,300 milligrams per day if you don’t have high blood pressure, and 1,500 mg if you do. Also follow these heart-smart tips
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