Is salt bad for you–or good for you? Get past the hype and find out what YOU should do about salt to keep your family healthy.
When someone finds out that I’m a registered dietitian, they’re likely to do one of two things (and sometimes both): They shield their plate or grocery cart from my eyes, assuming I’m judging them (I’m not). Or they complain to me about the maddening nature of nutrition news.
I get it. It seems like the headlines scream “Fat is the enemy!” one day and “Eat more butter!” the next. It’s confusing when you’re trying to keep up with the latest advice–and frustrating when you just want the bottom line so you can feed your family a healthy diet.
So I’ve decided to tackle some of these topics in a new blog series called Nutrition Flip-Flops. I’ll give you the lowdown on what caused the fuss, what we know now, and what YOU should do despite all the flip-flopping.
The first topic in the series is SALT.
Is Salt Bad For You? The Backstory
Eating too much salt has long been considered dangerous because excess sodium (a component of salt) can raise your blood pressure–which in turn can increase your risk of heart attacks and strokes. That’s because sodium can make the kidneys hold on to extra water, boosting blood volume and making it harder for the heart to pump blood around the body. About one in three Americans has high blood pressure, also known as hypertension.
The latest Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends everyone eat less than 2,300 milligrams (mg) of sodium a day, which is roughly the amount in one teaspoon of salt. The American Heart Association advises going even lower to 1,500 mg. Most American adults get an average of 3,400 mg a day and kids currently take in about 3,100 mg a day.
Is Salt Bad For You? The Latest
Some recent research suggests that cutting way back on salt may not be helpful or even healthy. A research review concluded that there isn’t enough evidence that slashing salt actually results in fewer heart attacks or strokes. And a big analysis of data from more than 100,000 people published in The Lancet found that those with the lowest intakes of sodium (less than 3,000 mg per day) actually had more cardiovascular disease and related death than people with moderate intakes of sodium (between 4,000-5,000 mg per day). This led to headlines like “Salt, We Misjudged You” and “Pass the Salt Please. It’s Good For You.”
The American Heart Association says the data used in these studies is flawed and urges people to stay the course on cutting salt.
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WHAT YOU SHOULD DO ABOUT SALT
As studies (and headlines) ping-pong back and forth, there are a bunch of steps you can take now to make sure you’re being smart about salt:
Don’t view salt as the enemy. Salt is a must for your body to function properly, and you need some of it in your diet. In fact, going too low can make you feel tired and weak, especially if you exercise a lot. Aiming for a salt-free or sodium-free diet isn’t realistic or healthy.
Eat fewer ultra-processed foods. More than 75 percent of the sodium people eat comes from packaged and restaurant foods, many of which are unhealthy in other ways. But keep in mind that an occasional can of salty soup or high-sodium frozen meal isn’t a big deal if your overall diet is made up of mostly whole foods.
Use salt to make healthy foods taste even better. Only 10 percent of our sodium intake actually comes from the salt shaker when we’re cooking or eating. Adding salt to already nutritious foods like roasted vegetables is a good thing if it means they’re tastier and more tempting for everyone.
Watch out for designer salt hype. There’s a lot of talk about certain varieties of salt like Pink Himalayan being healthier or providing more nutrients than regular salt. It’s fine to use different kinds of salts to lend different kinds of flavors. But the reality is that you don’t consume salt in amounts to make a those nutrients nutritionally meaningful. So use what you like and can afford.
Figure out if you’re a “salty sweater”. If you (or your kids) are very active, you can lose salt through sweat, making it even more important to get enough. To find out if you’re a salty sweater, allow your sweaty workout clothes to dry and then look for white residue. If you spot it, be sure your post-workout snack or meal contains sodium, like whole grain crackers and nut butter.
Get your blood pressure checked regularly, at least once every two years (more frequently if you’ve been diagnosed with pre-hypertension or hypertension). Remember that even if you’re active and eat a healthy diet, you can still be vulnerable to high blood pressure if it runs in your family. Keep in mind that some people are “salt sensitive”, which means their blood pressure responds more to sodium. People who are older than 50, black, or overweight are more likely to be salt sensitive.
Eat lots of fruits and vegetables. They’re high in potassium, a mineral that can help counteract the negative effects of sodium and relax blood vessels. You can get potassium in produce like sweet potatoes, bananas, avocados, and oranges plus foods like lentils, yogurt, and edamame.
Read other posts in this series:
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