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Salt Can Be Good For You

Salt is good for you and necessary for good health. The Institute of Medicine published a major review in 2013 of evidence tying salt consumption to certain health outcomes. The panel concluded there was insufficient proof that following the U.S. recommendations on sodium consumption would improve health! In fact, the New England Journal of Medicine published the results of a massive research study [the PURE Study] finding that people who conformed to the U.S. recommended guidelines for sodium intake may actually have more heart trouble. This because low sodium intake may stimulate the production of renin, which may hurt blood vessel health.

In addition, salt guidelines are always given in milligrams, making it difficult for people to grasp the suggested levels, since we operate not on the metric system, but on the U.S. system of cups and teaspoons. If people understood the amounts as they really have been advised over time, it would have been fairly easy to reject them as ridiculous.

Here are the American Heart Association measurements converting teaspoons to milligrams - which they say are “approximate”.

From the American Heart Association

1/4 teaspoon salt = 575 mg sodium

1/2 teaspoon salt = 1,150 mg sodium

3/4 teaspoon salt = 1,725 mg sodium

1 teaspoon salt = 2,300 mg sodium

There is a phrase, “Bad facts make bad law” and I am afraid this sums up the salt guidelines, which started from bad facts in 1977, when Senator George McGovern (democrat from South Dakota, failed presidential candidate of 1972) and his Senate committee drew heavily from a 1973 paper written by University of Michigan anthropologist, Lillian Gleiberman. Gleiberman collected statistics on 27 different populations and found the lowest blood pressures were among African Bushmen, the Chimbu of New Guinea, the Caraja of Brazil and the Eskimos. Each of these groups also ate exceptionally low levels of salt. Ms. Gleiberman intended to inspire more research based on her findings and never intended her paper to serve as a basis for dietary guidelines. She stated, “Those remote peoples, are too different from modern populations to make sound comparisons. They have a simpler life. They don’t have the obesity, the diabetes and the other problems we have. We can’t look at a no-salt culture and say, ‘If we just do that, we’ll be okay. I have friends who won’t eat any salt and I tell them they’re foolish.”

Despite the paper’s author’s common sense, the Senate committee advised Americans to reduce salt consumption to an extremely low 1,200 milligrams per day (slightly over ½ teaspoon!) This however did not last long, because by November the recommendations were raised to 2,000 milligrams a day (under one teaspoon). Three years later it was changed again by the federal bureaucracy, which issued “Dietary Guidelines” for people to lower consumption but did not give an amount. The Intersalt Study in 1984 undercut the salt connection to high blood pressure, concluding there was little proof that societies that ate more salt had high blood pressure – case in point South Korea consumed large amounts of salt, but had low blood pressures. This study was ignored however due to the entrenched mindset of dieticians, government and health associations, because in 1995 the Dietary Guidelines recommended holding to a daily limit of 2,300 milligrams per day (1 teaspoon) and this limit is not expected to change for 2015.

Although the American Heart Association (AHA) still insists on the guidelines, of less than a teaspoon of salt a day, past president of the AHA, Suzanne Oparil disagrees. Oparil now a distinguished professor of medicine at the University of Alabama at Birmingham says, “The current [salt] guidelines are based on almost nothing. Some people really want to hang onto this belief system on salt. But they are ignoring the evidence.” Blood pressure reductions, which come from abstaining from salt, are for the most part very small.

Take Away:

Losing weight by learning to eat real food in moderation allows everything to take care of itself, in terms of healthier food amounts and reduction intake of certain ingredients. This approach protects you from dietary extremes. See my interview with Julie, a Cardiac Rehabilitation Exercise Specialist for her comments on the health benefits of losing weight.

*Some people who suffer from mitral valve prolapse actually need more salt than the average person.

There is often no real reason health guidelines are made, except for a well intention based on minimal evidence. This is the case with salt and many studies that have thrown considerable doubt on the salt intake guidelines are ignored.

Once health decisions have been made, as in the case with salt, the organizations that have backed the salt guidelines for years are very hesitant to reverse their stance, despite evidence challenging the validity of the guidelines. These organizations fear a loss of credibility and so fear changing their position.

Current American Heart Association Recommendations: “Choose and prepare foods with little or no salt. [Every bad cook knows this instinctively]. To lower, blood pressure aim to eat no more than 2,400 milligrams [slightly over 1 teaspoon] of sodium per day. Reducing daily intake to 1,500 mg [under 3/4 a teaspoon] is desirable because it can lower blood pressure even further.”

Copyright Suzanne Fowler April 15, 2015

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