What if everything you’ve been told about the harmful health effects of salt is wrong?
For decades, salt has been cast as a dietary demon. The National Institutes of Health advises Americans to cut back on sodium to combat high blood pressure. And the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention this year said 9 in 10 people eat too much.
But are such dire warnings about salt warranted? A number of scientific experts and nutritionists are starting to question the conventional wisdom. Even if cutting salt lowers blood pressure, they argue, the effects are so small they’re not likely to have much impact on overall cardiovascular risks.
Gary Taubes, an award-winning science writer and bestselling nutrition book author, has been leading the charge against the federal guidelines that warn against salt. In his view, salt has been unfairly villainized and the warnings are not backed by good science. Taubes tells Newsmax Health that federal salt recommendations are based on a “selective interpretation” of studies. He argues officials have overemphasized research findings that have suggested a health benefit to salt reduction and ignored those that have questioned such conclusions.
“This idea that salt causes hypertension is based on biological plausibility and the selective interpretation of the evidence that was supposed to test that hypothesis,” he says. “But it’s Bing Crosby epidemiology: Accentuate the positive, eliminate the negative, don’t mess around with Mr. In-Between.
“It’s very difficult to find studies that actually link high salt intake to hypertension.”
In Taubes’ view, a better strategy for most people to cut hypertension is to eat a healthier diet — specifically cutting back on carbohydrates, refined grains, and sugars — and exercising more.
The current NIH guidelines recommend Americans consume less than 2,400 milligrams of sodium a day —about a teaspoon of table salt — from cooked and processed foods. People with high blood pressure are often advised to eat even less. Health experts note that sodium is important to bodily functions, is good for nerves and muscles, and maintains the right balance of fluids in the body. Blood pressure is expressed in terms of the “systolic” pressure over “diastolic” pressure and is measured in millimeters of mercury (mm/hg). For example, a reading of 120/80 or lower is normal. People with readings of 140/90 or higher have high blood pressure.
NIH salt guidelines are based on computer models suggesting that a modest reduction in salt intake could significantly reduce the number of deaths nationwide from heart disease by lowering the number of people with hypertension. Taubes and others argue that such research findings are based on hypothetical benefits and statistical analyses — not significant measurable impacts on real people.
“What the studies show is people with hypertension can get a small effect from restricting salt,” Taubes says. “But if your blood pressure is 160 and 120 is the cutoff for hypertension what difference does it make if you drop it by 3, 4, or 5 points?”
The deeper question is why isn’t more being done to drive reductions in carbohydrates, refined grains, and sugar (such as sucrose and high fructose corn syrup) that he says promote hypertension and other metabolic abnormalities much more drastically than salt does.
“There are actually foods that have earned the right to be demonized. The problem is they’re not salt and fat,” he says. “If you restrict sugar and carbohydrates, the hypertension will get under control. But the argument I’ve been making is that if we’re obsessed with salt, and we’re completely focused on the wrong thing, then we’re not going to solve this problem.”
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