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Salt – Friend or Foe?

For many years people have been advised to avoid salt or risk driving their blood pressure skyward, but new research suggests that salt has been unfairly maligned.

A number of recent studies, including a meta-analysis published in the American Journal of Hypertension and a large-scale European study reported in the Journal of the American Medical Association found no evidence that reducing salt intake significantly decreases the likelihood of suffering from heart attacks or strokes. In fact, the latter study found that those with lower sodium levels were actually more likely to die of heart disease than their salt-loving counterparts. A recent Danish meta-analysis also found that reducing salt appears to increase cholesterol and triglyceride levels, risk factors for heart disease.

How did the salt myth arise? At the turn of the century, it was noted that six people in France with high blood pressure (a heart disease risk factor) were heavy consumers of salt. Then, during the 1970s, a researcher found that feeding salt to rats increased their blood pressure. It was also noted that people in certain regions where salt consumption was higher were more likely to suffer from high blood pressure. However, genetic, cultural, and lifestyle factors may have been responsible for this tendency rather than salt.

It’s possible that a small subset of people are very sensitive to salt and do experience blood pressure increases when they eat too much of it. However, the evidence indicates that for most people, salt in reasonable quantities does no harm and may actually provide health benefits.

Does this mean that people should eat more salt? Most people get plenty of dietary salt, especially if they eat processed or restaurant foods, and in very large quantities, salt is toxic, so gorging on it is not recommended. On the other hand, unless you suspect that you’re among the small percentage of salt-sensitive individuals, you probably don’t need seek out low-sodium foods or avoid restaurants to be healthy.


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