It practically has become a health mantra: Minimize salt intake to protect your health. A Belgian study, however, found that lowering salt consumption does not protect from high blood pressure (hypertension) and heart attacks. In fact, deaths caused by heart disease were higher in those with little salt in their diets.
What Is Salt?
Salt, also known as table salt, is a mineral primarily composed of sodium chloride, sodium belonging to a group of chemical substances called “electrolytes”, that in the human body act as messengers between the insides (“intracellular”) and outsides (“extracellular”) of cells. Being able to contract a muscle, for example, depends on the presence of three of them: the sodium we talk about, as well as potassium and calcium.
This of course is a delicate balance, that has to stay in equilibrium. In the case of sodium, too much or little of it can lead to muscle cramps, dizziness or, in extreme cases, death.
How Much Salt?
Research has repeatedly linked high salt consumption to hypertension and heart problems, and people were urged to lower their salt consumption. And in some cases quite rightly so: Many convenience foods contain a lot of salt and people who hinge their nutrition on those consume large amounts of it.
It just may be possible that we have gotten the reasoning behind this advice backwards and high salt intake may not cause heart problems, just influence existing ones.
Salt Consumption Examined
In Belgium, a long-term study done with over 3,600 volunteers examined what impact on heart health a high-salt diet had compared to a low-salt diet. What it found was that those who followed a low-salt diet (2,500 mg / day) actually had a much greater risk of death from heart disease than those whose diets had the highest amounts in daily salt intake (6,000 mg / day). In the low-salt group the risk was at 4%, while in the high-salt group it was at 1%.
Dr. Jan Staessen, one of the study’s authors, assumes that those who have a pre-existing heart conditions may indeed be advised to reduce salt consumption, but that salt may not be the cause of these health problems.
Hold Your Horses
Before you now go and buy your own salt mine, let us also mention that the study is not without its critics. It goes directly against a well-established body of scientific evidence and that certainly causes discussion.
Dr. Peter Briss, a medical director at the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), told the New York Times that among the study’s problems is that its subjects were rather young, that it is hard to draw conclusions when only a few cardiovascular problems took place and that the participants with the lowest salt consumption also provided less urine samples – urine being the way by which the body’s salt levels are measured – indicating that they did not collect all their urine over each 24 hour period.
Stay Out Of Extremes
The truth may, as often, lie in the middle. In the last years we saw what might well be called an extremist position when it comes to salt consumption, encouraging people to cut it out of their diets wherever possible. In many cases that probably was good advice, because, as said above, some people consume very high amounts of it.
But there also are those who already had little salt in their diets and then tried to eliminate it almost entirely, assuming that it can only do them good. That way they effectively denied their bodies a nutrient it very much needs.
Have Your Say
How much salt is right? Have you experienced health problems from salt or do you think that the whole debate is inflated?