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5 Reasons to Rethink Salt

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Why you should question your fear of the salt shaker

By James DiNicolantonio, PharmD, author of The Salt Fix

Consider Scandinavian novelist Isak Dinesen’s famous line, “The cure for anything is salt water: sweat, tears or the sea.”

There’s poetic truth in this, but it also speaks to our biological reality as humans. Our physical inner world was born of the sea, and we carry the saltiness of the ocean inside us. Salt is an essential nutrient that our body depends on to live. Its proper balance is an equilibrium that our bodies strive to return us to, again and again.

But over the past century, our culture has defied this biological drive, has smeared the urge for salt as a self-destructive “addiction.” We’ve all heard the guidelines. We know that we’re supposed to eat low-saturated-fat diets, say no to cigarettes, go for a jog, learn to relax — and dramatically cut down on salt. This list of admonishments certainly gets a lot of things right. But there’s one big problem with it: most of us don’t need to eat low-salt diets. In fact, for most of us, more salt would be better for our health rather than less.

Consider the following:

Salt makes food taste great.

By consuming more salt you can eat more healthy foods, which are often bitter and greatly improved by salt. Salt is our gateway to eating healthy. When you consume healthy foods that are high in magnesium, calcium, and potassium, salt should not increase blood pressure.

Salt restriction may lower blood pressure — but this isn’t a good thing!

A reduction in blood pressure with salt restriction isn’t necessarily healthy. It generally indicates problems with low blood volume or dehydration. So while your blood pressure may be lower, your circulation is down, your organs are working harder, and the oxygen and nutrient supply to your organs is down — the opposite of long-term health the guidelines profess to protect.

Salt restriction raises heart rate.

Any dehydration-related blood pressure reduction you may get from salt restriction is going to be offset by the larger increase in heart rate. So while you may see a 2 percent reduction in your blood pressure, most people have a 10 percent increase in heart rate. This increase in heart rate is probably more harmful than the small drop in blood pressure, increasing the amount of stress on your heart and arteries, potentially leading to hypertension, heart failure, and cardiovascular events.

Salt restriction increases levels of harmful hormones.

Restricting the intake of salt increases the levels of hormones that are known to enlarge and stiffen the heart and arteries. In other words, eating more salt may prevent the development of hypertension and heart failure, whereas restricting salt may actually cause these diseases! Low-salt diets also increase your risk of obesity by increasing insulin levels. Put plainly: eating more salt may keep us thin.

Salt may be one solution to — rather than a cause of — our nation’s chronic disease crises.

We’ve seen that a low salt intake could be promoting weight gain, high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, kidney problems, heart attacks and strokes, thyroid disorders, falls and injuries, and possibly even premature death. It’s important to remember that the same risks come when living in any salt-depleted state, whether it’s because you’ve been dutifully following the low-salt guidelines, or you’re athletic, or you have an underlying health condition or take a medication that depletes salt from your body. We need to start thinking carefully and critically about the level of salt in our bodies rather than trying to police our salt intake. Indeed, instead of putting out guidelines limiting the amount of salt in processed foods, the FDA should forgo limiting salt altogether. Doing so will prevent food manufacturers from being forced to substitute other, more potentially dangerous substances, such as artificial preservatives or sugar, in their place.

 

Published June 28, 2017.

 

The Salt Fix Book CoverReprinted from The Salt Fix: Why the Experts Got It All Wrong — and How Eating More Might Save Your Life. Copyright © 2017 by Dr. James DiNicolantonio. Published by Harmony Books, an imprint of the Crown Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC.


James DiNicolantonio, PharmD, is a cardiovascular research scientist and doctor of pharmacy at Saint Luke's Mid America Heart Institute in Kansas City, Missouri. A well-respected and internationally known scientist and expert on health and nutrition, he has contributed extensively to health policy and medical literature and serves as the associate editor of BMJ Open Heart, a journal published in partnership with the British Cardiovascular Society. Follow him on Twitter @drjamesdinic.

 

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