Is It Time to End the War on Salt?
When it came to snack time growing up, I was team savory all the way. Leave the cookies and pass the popcorn, please!
Whether you’re a savory snacker or have a sweet tooth, the message around salt over the years has been fairly consistent: salt is bad for you; watch out.
“Low-sodium” is plastered on packages to bump sales, and mainstream media urges you to think twice before reaching for the salt shaker. But, when you dig deeper into the research, you may be surprised (and happy?) to hear it is not quite so black and white.
What Is Salt?
Salt is a naturally-occurring chemical compound (think seawater and salt rocks) made of sodium and chloride. Of these two elements, sodium tends to get the bad wrap.
The 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans and the American Heart Association recommend Americans consume less than 2,300 milligrams of sodium per day as part of a healthy eating pattern—equal to about one teaspoon of salt.
Studies connect high sodium diets with an increased risk of heart failure, stroke, and other cardiovascular diseases. Researchers found that excessive sodium intake is a risk factor for high blood pressure, a precursor for developing complications associated with cardiovascular diseases—especially for those with existing heart problems.
A review of randomized control trials and cohort studies also found that reducing sodium intake decreases blood pressure and minimizes the risk of stroke and fatal coronary heart disease in adults. As heart disease is the number one cause of death in the United States, it’s no wonder sodium has been on our radar for years.
While you should not take this information with a grain of salt, there is more to the story.
Worth Your Weight in Salt
The story of salt dates back at least 8,000 years when the harvesting of salt from saltwater began. Salt has been used in food preservation for centuries, and idioms like “worth your weight in salt” indicate how valuable this mineral was for preserving food in the days before refrigeration.
Salt was so important for food preservation and general survival that Roman soldiers were paid with special money that could be used to purchase salt. This currency was called salarium, from which we get our modern word “salary.”
There are many physical benefits of salt as well. You may have been led to believe that salt is bad for the body, but it is important to remember that the human body is made of salt. Sodium chloride (AKA common table salt) makes up around 0.4% of your body’s weight, and it serves an important purpose – in fact, we can’t exist without it!
Sodium chloride is an essential nutrient the human body cannot make itself. It plays a role in nerve and muscle functioning and regulates your body’s water content and blood volume. Sodium is an electrolyte (a mineral with an electric charge) and works to maintain the proper amount of water in and around your cells. This not only promotes overall hydration and proper pH balance, but also helps move nutrients into cells and waste out of cells. (No wonder your taste buds perk up every time a pretzel touches your tongue, right?).
For athletes, sodium is important in preventing muscle cramping and excessive fluid losses. Salt deficiency can lead to dehydration, low blood pressure, and even death.
Have We Gotten It All Wrong?
While too much salt—especially from unhealthy sources like processed and fast food—has been linked to adverse health effects, too little salt can also be detrimental, specifically to your blood fat levels. Yes, you heard that right—too little salt can actually work against your heart health.
A meta-analysis showed that reduced sodium intake increased cholesterol and triglycerides for adults with normal blood pressure. Low-salt diets have also been shown to increase insulin resistance in healthy subjects, which may increase your likelihood of developing Type 2 diabetes.
A low-salt diet can also lead to a condition called hyponatremia (low blood sodium) in which your body holds on to extra water due to low levels of sodium, excess heat, or overhydration. Hyponatremia causes symptoms like headaches, fatigue, nausea, and dizziness.
So, Is Salt Bad For You?
To answer this question accurately, you may need to start by asking: am I salt sensitive?
Salt sensitivity describes the body’s increased sensitivity to salt consumption. Technically, a person is considered salt-sensitive when they have at least a 5 mmHg rise in blood pressure in response to salt intake. Salt sensitivity is related to a variety of factors, including your genes, medical history, sweat volume, altitude, overall diet, potassium intake, and more. People with salt sensitivity will tend to see an increase in fluid retention (swelling due to fluid buildup in the extremities or face) because they aren’t efficiently excreting sodium via urine or other fluid losses. Consult with your doctor if you believe you may be salt sensitive.
For those at risk for high blood pressure or for anyone who experiences significant water retention and bloating, monitoring salt intake—especially from processed foods—cutting back on salt intake may be beneficial.
If you’re not salt sensitive and you’re eating a whole foods diet rich in vegetables, fruit, and whole grains and avoiding packaged, processed foods as much as possible, salt is probably not going to negatively impact you. Using that salt shaker (lightly at home cooked meals) may even have a positive effect on fluid balance, and nerve function and even decrease your likelihood of depression. Savory snackers, rejoice!