Is Salt Really Dangerous?
By Allan R. Handysides and Peter N. Landless
My doctor keeps reminding me of the dangers of excessive sodium (salt) intake. Recent reports say that dietary salt is not so harmful. What do you advise?
We understand your dilemma! It’s difficult to know what to believe sometimes, and it’s important to look at the big picture.
Sodium is a vital electrolyte in the normal physiological functioning of the body. Together with potassium and calcium, sodium is essential for the normal function of the nerves and muscles, as well as for the maintenance of a healthy internal environment. Sodium is also important in the control of blood pressure and maintenance of fluid balance in the body. We are “fearfully and wonderfully made,” and the delicate mechanisms in place for keeping the body’s acidity, alkalinity (pH), and hydration just right are a miracle of design and rely on—among other substances—sodium.
There’s a strong relationship, however, between excessive salt intake and the development of high blood pressure (hypertension). Some people groups are particularly affected by salt, especially on the continent of Africa and in African-American populations. This relationship is referred to as “salt-sensitive” hypertension, which is often more difficult to treat. As with all cases of high blood pressure, lifestyle changes are extremely important. The lifestyle interventions required in the management of high blood pressure include achieving ideal body weight; cessation of smoking and tobacco use; avoidance of alcohol; daily exercise (10,000 steps per day or at least 30 minutes of physical exercise seven days a week); and reduction of salt intake.
Salt is present in many foods. Sometimes people add it to their prepared food even before it’s been tasted! Salt is added to snack foods (chips, peanuts, nuts); is present in large amounts in canned, pickled, and preserved foods; and even added to juice preparations. Some years ago we noticed the sodium content of canned tomato juice, one of our favorite beverages. Water now tops the list of our preferred drinks! Not only does water reduce the amount of sodium, which even sugar-free drinks contain, but it also decreases the excess calories consumed with even the purest fruit juices. Pure water is the king of health drinks!
So how much salt is enough? There has been some confusion about this recently, partly because a group of patients with heart failure who had very restricted sodium intake had worse outcomes than those with less-severe restrictions. We need to remember, though, that this is a special population, and general recommendations are not based on such specific groups. It’s commonly accepted that daily intake of sodium (salt) should not exceed 2,300 milligrams; and 1,500 milligrams for those who have higher cardiovascular risk, which includes those over 50 years of age, Africans and African-Americans, and anyone who has high blood pressure, diabetes, or chronic kidney disease. To get the visual picture, 2,300 milligrams represents the amount of salt in a flat teaspoon, and 1,500 milligrams would be just over half this amount! How are you doing with this number?
There’s no doubt that we consume too much salt; less is more healthful. The research is clear that diets with restricted salt (below 2,300 milligrams or 1,500 milligrams) and rich in fruits, nuts, and vegetables, as well as low-fat foods (low-fat dairy, dairy equivalents, and proteins), reduce blood pressure, hypertension, cancer, diabetes, and respiratory diseases.
We need to embrace healthful choices in our lifestyle and diet. Included in this would be the reduction of salt intake. This will help us to be fitter, healthier, and better able to be of optimal service to our God and local communities. In that way, we may indeed be the “salt of the earth,” adding flavor and savor and making a difference—a healthier one!
Peter N. Landless, a board-certified nuclear cardiologist,
is director of the General Conference Health Ministries Department.
Allan R. Handysides, a board-certified gynecologist, now retired,
was a former director of the General Conference Health Ministries Department.