Salt – friend or foe?

Did you settle for ‘foe’ straight off?  It’s certainly what we’ve been told for a long time now – causes high blood pressure, right?

Well, as so often seems to be the case, opinion is divided.  The national health bodies, such as NHS in the UK and ODPHP in the US, recommend lowering the amount of salt in the diet to prevent high blood pressure, although the ODPHP takes a less ‘all or nothing’ stance.  The NHS says ‘a diet high in salt can cause raised blood pressure, which can increase your risk of heart disease and stroke.’ The ODPHP says ‘there is no way to tell who might develop high blood pressure from eating too much salt. However, consuming less salt or sodium is not harmful and can be recommended for the healthy, normal person.’  It appears that some people are salt-sensitive (or even hypersensitive) and for them blood pressure will rise with salt intake.  This is estimated to be around 15% of the white population and 27% of the black population (American study).

On top of that, it is also reported that the initial research that resulted in the official dietary guidelines was flawed and incomplete.  Over the last 30 years or so there have been many, many further studies and meta-analyses of studies.  That should have clarified the issue, but in fact some of the research very clearly shows a correlation between high salt intake and high blood pressure, and some of it equally clearly shows the exact opposite – that, in fact, low intake of salt can result in increased cholesterol, insulin-resistance and a higher incidence of heart failure.

So what to do, in the face of such conflicting information?  Sounds like it’s a complete gamble – with lots of research backing up both positions, and both indicating that we could be harming our health by choosing the other!

There is an interesting study that analysed dietary data from more than 2,500 adults over 16 years which found that those with the lowest blood pressure had the highest mean combined intakes of sodium and potassium!  Andrew Mente, PhD or the Population Health Research Institute/McMaster University, Hamilton, Canada commented  “If you eat an all-around healthy diet with plenty of potassium, that is the best way to lower your blood pressure, rather than focusing on sodium.”  Mente said since potassium generally tracks with minimally processed food like fruits and vegetables, dairy, nuts, and whole grains, the conclusion that can be drawn about the study participants is that despite having higher-than-recommended levels of sodium and potassium, they generally consume a healthy diet.
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So it seems to me that once again the biggest danger comes from processed foods – not only generally way too high in salt, but also in sugar and unhealthy fats.  It is estimated that 75% of the salt in the SAD (Standard American Diet) comes from processed food.   (I always need to remind myself  that processed food doesn’t just refer to ready-meals – biscuits, breakfast cereals, bread, crisps are all processed foods.)  There is a saying ‘if it was made in a plant, avoid it; if it comes from a plant, eat it’ – it can be eye-opening to check the labels!

Interestingly, the issue of salt doesn’t appear in the Blue Zones research (unless I’ve just missed it – quite possible!).  However, all the Blue Zoners eat their local version of a whole foods, plant-powered diet.  My guess is that they use a moderate amount of salt to flavour their home-cooking, and that’s where I’m at too.  Not trying to adjust my palate to unsalted food, but not going overboard with it either, and eating as much of my food freshly home-cooked as possible.

There is also the issue of table salt versus sea salt and Himalayan salt.  Is one better than the other?  Well, table salt is highly processed, bleached and stripped of minerals and trace elements, and generally has things added to it such as anti-caking agents, synthetic iodine and fluoride.  Some sea salts are also refined (and in fact, there was a wee scandal here in Scotland recently when a local company was reported to be bulking out their sea salt with table salt!).  Unrefined sea and Himalayan salts, on the other hand, have the same sodium level as refined salts but still have the minerals and trace elements.   So, to my mind, if we’re using it anyway we’d be better using the unrefined version to get those benefits.

It’s a minefield, isn’t it?  What’s your take?


2 Replies to “Salt – friend or foe?”

  1. It’s back to the old adage….everything in moderation! And, as you say, more “real” food and less processed has to be the way to go!
    Too little salt can lead to muscle cramps, as the balance of chemicals is lost, so, as I said….everything in moderation!
    And I would agree with you that pure , less refined salts have to be best.

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