Why It's Time to Stop Believing Salt Is the Devil

Drew Swantak/Thrillist
Drew Swantak/Thrillist

This just in: the World Health Organization announced that Americans are eating too little salt. So for the love of health, find yourself some bacon and fries, and save your life.

Just kidding! The much more depressing truth is that 90% of Americans eat much more salt than recommended by all major health organizations. But just a few years ago, these same organizations were convinced that low-fat diets were the key to good health. We now know that’s bullshit. So is the attack on our salt shaker just as misguided? Or are these salt-free health nuts actually on to something? As it turns out, salt may have unfairly received the blame for a whole host of diseases for which it's only partially responsible.

You really do need salt!

Your common table salt is made up of two main ingredients: sodium and chloride. Since you probably haven’t seen many “reduced-chloride” soups, you know sodium is the usual suspect when it comes to high blood pressure and other fun health problems.

Despite its villainous reputation, sodium is essential to human life. One of the body’s main electrolytes, sodium is necessary for proper blood, muscle, and nerve function. Too little sodium, and you’ll be in a world of pain. No sodium, and it’s ta-ta forever. So if we can’t live without it, what is it about sodium that brings out all the naysayers?


Salt becomes the enemy

The answer comes from a time when Neil Diamond and The Godfather reigned supreme. In 1972, the National Institutes of Health introduced a program to fight high blood pressure and its health implications. Along with obesity, a high-sodium diet was tied to high blood pressure, a known risk factor for cardiovascular disease. This assessment was largely based on two major studies. The first indicated that populations eating low-sodium diets were less likely to develop high blood pressure; the second concluded that rats eating high-sodium diets were more likely to do so.

Both studies were led by Lewis Dahl, a highly respected researcher, and as a result, the health care industry soon concluded that low-sodium diets were the key to better heart health. After all, a population-based study and a laboratory study both demonstrated that salt could cause adverse health reactions. Case closed.

Scientists can be wrong, too

Unfortunately, being respected and being right aren't always the same thing. In the years since those studies, the first has been debunked, and the second gave already sick rats the equivalent of 20 to 50 times the sodium most people eat in a day, making the results, well, just a bit outside of what most people would consider a reasonable extrapolation. And that's being generous.

Over the next 40 years, claims about sodium only became more confusing. One study would state that sodium reduction leads to lower blood pressure. Another report suggested that sodium reduction is actually a danger to certain populations. In 2011, a review found no link to high sodium intake and poor health outcomes, but also noted that it couldn't say with certainty that a lower sodium intake didn't provide health benefits. A ringing endorsement.

Because of these conflicting conclusions, many experts are starting to suspect that sodium isn’t a one-size-fits-all guideline. Some people are genetically sodium-sensitive, while others can tolerate much higher levels. A person’s kidney function, risk for diabetes, and weight are just a few of the countless factors that influence sodium tolerance. When it comes to sodium’s impact on your health, science suggests that you really are a unique little snowflake.

Laura Murray/Thrillist

It's not the salt -- it's where you get it

The problem we’re left with isn’t how much sodium you can eat, but where that sodium’s coming from (and what’s with it). It’s estimated that 75% of the sodium in your diet comes from processed foods. While the verdict may be out on sodium limits, the health community is pretty unanimous in their opinion about the dangers of processed foods. Sodium-sensitive or not, you can’t escape the hazards of empty calories and refined carbs.

Eating bacon, America’s true pastime, isn’t doing you any favors either. Cured meats, including bacon, are typically preserved with sodium nitrites (not sodium chloride). Over time, these nitrites break down into N-nitroso compounds, which several studies have now found to be seriously carcinogenic. It's extremely depressing, but true.

Cutting back on Cheetos and bacon would definitely decrease your sodium intake, and maybe that would have some positive outcomes for you (maybe not). But more important than the sodium reduction is the decrease in all the other crap that pulls sodium along for the ride. Based on current science, going for the “reduced-sodium” option doesn’t necessarily make it healthier if it’s still filled with chemicals, trans fats, and nutritional black holes.

The balancing act you should be pulling

While the consumption of sodium has increased with processed foods and cured meats, potassium has been kicked to the curb. Potassium, which is found in most natural foods, acts as the yin to sodium’s yang. Together, these little electrolytes bring balance to your whole body. Without one or the other, the entire system goes to shit.

Unfortunately, more than 98% of American adults consume too little potassium, and this imbalance could be a major contributing factor to all those fun Western diseases for which salt was blamed. While sodium once bore the brunt of nutrition researchers' accusations, it now seems ridiculous to lay all the responsibility on one nutrient. So find yourself some sweet potatoes, and get those potassium levels straightened out.

If you were hoping for a specific sodium recommendation, then stop holding your breath. If your doctor has been specific, then by all means, listen! Otherwise, the science of sodium isn’t so exact after all. It may not be the sodium to blame, but everything that comes with it, and a few things that don’t. Having said that, the sodium jury is still out, so take everything we just said with a grain of salt.

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Nicholas Knock is a freelance writer for Thrillist who desperately misses bacon and Cheetos. You can follow him on Twitter @nickaknock.