by Monica Reinagel, M.S., L.D./N.
Think the debate over the national debt was contentious? That’s nothing compared to the war being waged in scientific circles about how much sodium it’s safe to eat. It’s not a new debate—it’s been going on for decades. But recently, the argument has grown more heated. As researchers duke it out in the pages of medical journals, poor consumers are caught in a cross-fire of contradictory recommendations.
Last month, for example, a highly regarded panel of scientists concluded that “cutting down on the amount of salt has no clear benefits.” Just one week later, researchers from the CDC insisted “a diet high in sodium increases risk of death from all causes.” In both cases, researchers can cite decades of data on thousands of subjects to support their conclusions. What’s going on here?
Why Can’t the Experts Agree on Sodium?
Part of the confusion lies in trying to make a single recommendation for everyone. If you’re sensitive to the effects of sodium, eating too much salt can raise your blood pressure—and that can be life-threatening.
You’re more likely to be salt sensitive if you are:
Have impaired kidney function
People who have high blood pressure or any other reason to believe that they might be sensitive to the effects of sodium are generally advised to keep their sodium intake low—and that makes sense. Specifically, the recommendation for those with reason to limit their sodium intake is to keep it below 1,500mg per day. That’s a little more than half a teaspoon of regular table salt.
Are Some People Immune to the Effects of Salt?
If you have an active lifestyle, you can tolerate a higher salt intake than someone who is more sedentary.
But not everyone is sensitive to salt. Some people can eat 2 or 3 times that much salt without it affecting their blood pressure or causing any other obvious problems. Some of that is pure genetics, but a lot of it depends on what else you’re eating. Another reason that I think the experts have had such a hard time agreeing on how much salt you can safely eat is that they are focused too narrowly on sodium, without considering the rest of your diet.
Diet and Lifestyle Affects Your Ability to Tolerate Salt
For example, if your diet includes a lot of potassium, which we get from fruits and vegetables, dairy products, and other whole foods, it appears to counter the effects of high sodium intake. Of course, there are myriad other benefits to eating more fruits, vegetables, and minimally processed foods.
There’s also some intriguing research suggesting that our bodies may absorb more sodium from food when our diet is high in sugar. (Credit for finding this tidbit goes to Summer Tomato blogger Darya Pino.) Even if you’re not particularly salt sensitive, there are a lot of other good reasons to limit your sugar consumption.
Lifestyle plays a role as well. You lose a lot of salt when you exercise or perspire, for example. So if you have an active lifestyle (and I hope you do), you can tolerate a higher salt intake than someone who is more sedentary. Being more active also helps you maintain a healthy body weight which—you guessed it—reduces your risk of high blood pressure.
3 Quick and Dirty Tips for Balancing Your Sodium Intake
Researchers can probably slice and dice the data on sodium and health for another few decades without reaching a consensus—and they’re never going to come up with one recommendation that is appropriate for everyone. But when you look at the larger picture, it’s actually fairly easy to arrive at some basic principles that that are good advice for one and all:
1. Limit processed and prepared foods—including fast food and snack foods. This is where the vast majority—up to 80%--of the sodium in the American diet comes from. Cutting back on these foods is the easiest way to reduce your sodium intake. Even if you don’t need to worry about salt, you’ll still benefit from limiting processed foods—because they are also the source of a lot of excess fat, sugar, and empty calories.
2. Eat more fresh fruits and vegetables. These foods are high in potassium, which counters the effects of salt and helps regulate blood pressure. But fruits and vegetables are packed with all kinds of other nutrients, as well, so they’re a healthy addition to any diet. Plus, they’re low in calories—a bonus for weight control.
3. Stay active and maintain a healthy body weight. Exercising and keeping your weight down will reduce your risk of high blood pressure and salt sensitivity—and also cut your risk of a long list of diseases and conditions—and increase your quality of life.
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