Too Little Salt Is Bad for You, and No One Knows Anything

Salt measurement spoons
Cole Saladino/Thrillist

After years of advice saying people should eat less salt, recent research indicates that for some people, too LITTLE salt may be a problem. What the hell is going on, and why can't anyone figure this out?

Sodium is in just about everything, especially packaged food. On top of that, there are those who sprinkle table salt on their plates out of habit, for every meal… even pizza, although maybe you shouldn't do that. The point is, yes, you know about sodium and salt, and you know that too much can be a bad thing. Right? RIGHT?!

Salt is going to kill you and your entire family

The Centers for Disease Control (and just about everyone else) says that you should stick to less than 2.3g (or 2,300mg) of sodium per day. That isn't a lot of salt! It actually works out to about a single teaspoon of table salt, which goes quickly, even if you don't think you eat tons of salty foods and you rarely use the salt shaker.

For example, deli meat, pizza, soup, and cheese are some of the biggest offenders -- you'll rack up close to your daily sodium limit after just a quarter-pound of deli turkey breast.
If it's so easy to eat salt, how bad can it really be? Well, tons of experts claim lowering your sodium intake should be good for you, because excess salt makes your blood pressure skyrocket, which can lead to terrible things like strokes, heart attacks, and an early, painful death.

Salty fast food processed


A recent study out of McMaster University suggests that maybe it's time to rethink those recommendations about salt. The large-scale study, which involved 130,000 people from 49 countries, found that, hey, maybe a low-salt diet isn't just not necessary for most people, it can actually increase your risk of heart problems and -- gasp! -- death.

Um. What? So basically, the experts have been saying that eating too much salt can kill you, and now they're learning that not eating enough can also maybe kill you?

How do you reconcile these contradictory recommendations?

Andrew Mente, lead author of the study and an associate professor of clinical epidemiology and biostatistics at McMaster's Michael G. DeGroote School of Medicine, says that, official government positions notwithstanding, it's kind of ridiculous to say every single person should stick to a low-salt diet. He notes, "A recommendation for low sodium intake (e.g., < 2.3g/day or lower) in the entire population should be based on definitive proof of benefit."

Mente's findings suggest that this proof doesn't exist. There are no studies that actually demonstrate that lower sodium intake, when applied to a huge population filled with all kinds of health profiles, lowers mortality or incidence of heart problems.

Even more mind-boggling, Mente claims there are studies showing that those with low sodium intake have the highest risk of adverse outcomes. The McMaster study also notes that the only people who need to lower their sodium intake are folks who already have hypertension and who also already consume tons of salt on the regular (5 or 6g per day) -- and even then, they say that too-low sodium intake isn't really ideal.

Salt shaker spilling over
Jiri Hera/Shutterstock

Everything in moderation

"Current evidence from studies relating sodium intake to cardiovascular events demonstrate that moderate sodium intake (i.e., the current average in the US) appears to be associated with lowest cardiovascular risk," says Mente. What's moderate? Around 3.5g per day, which is still not a lot, but at least it's a full 1,200mg more than the current recommendation.

So, maybe instead of striving for a very low sodium intake, counting your salt milligrams, and possibly giving yourself a heart attack from all the stress, focus on a better diet overall. Mente explains, "If you limit your intake of processed foods and consume plenty of fruits and vegetables and natural/unprocessed foods, you don’t need to worry about sodium at all."

It sounds easy, but you'll have to force yourself to stop salting your pizza, weirdo. But maybe... just maybe... we can stop worrying about freakishly limiting salt amounts. Check with your doctor first, though.

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Monica Beyer is a health writer who really didn't think about salt a whole lot -- until now. Follow her: @monicabeyer.