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Do you really need to cut back on salt?

By Rachel Johnson, Ph.D., M.P.H., R.D., September 12, 2011 - 11:44am

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Do you really need to cut back on salt?

In spite of decades of advice to lower our salt intake to prevent high blood pressure, recent headlines screamed that a low-salt diet is ineffective—spurred by the results of a study published in the American Journal of Hypertension. The New York Times ran with “Cutting Salt Has Little Effect on Heart Risk” and the UK’s Daily Mail used, “Cutting back on salt ‘does not make you healthier’ (despite nanny state warnings).” In the study, researchers from the UK and the U.S. looked at seven studies with a total of 6,489 participants and the impact of lowering salt intake. The conclusion was that eating less salt did not prevent heart attacks, strokes or early death.

After reading that, friends are cornering me—because I’m a nutrition professor and the chair-elect of the American Heart Association (AHA) Nutrition Committee—wondering if they can stop watching their salt intake.

Related: “Bad” Foods You Should Be Eating

So are the headlines to be believed?  Did the results of this study turn decades of advice about lowering salt intake on its head?  I don’t think so and here’s why:

  • Of the seven research trials that were included, the study participants, on average, made only modest reductions in their salt intakes resulting in relatively small reductions in blood pressure.  So even though the participants weren’t very successful at lowering their sodium intake, the researchers pushed ahead anyway trying to determine if salt reduction not only reduced blood pressure but also lowered heart disease and death. 
  • Because the researchers analyzed the data from study participants with normal blood pressure separately from those with high blood pressure, they lacked the number of subjects needed to show statistical significance. In other words, because of the small changes in blood pressure, they needed more people to show any benefits on the ultimate outcomes of heart disease and death. 
  • Two scientists from the London School of Medicine and Dentistry reanalyzed the data combining all the subjects and found a 20 percent reduction in heart disease and stroke despite the small reductions in salt intake.

Related: 10 Easy Ways to Help Your Heart
15 Foods You Should Be Eating for Your Heart

In light of all this, what should you do?   You can retrain your taste buds to enjoy food with less salt.

  • Keep the salt shaker off the table—and while cooking, season your foods with a variety of low-sodium herbs and spices. It’s easy to cook with less salt when you use the right ingredients, like in these 19 Delicious Low-Sodium Dinners.
  • Read food labels and steer away from high-sodium processed foods, such as cured meats (ham, salami, hot dogs, bacon, etc.), pickled and fermented foods (dill pickles, soy sauce, sauerkraut), salty snacks (potato chips, pretzels, cheese puffs) and most canned soups.
  • Work toward achieving the AHA recommendation of consuming 1,500 mg or less sodium a day. Try these 6 Cooking Tricks to Cut Sodium from Your Diet.
  • Put the pressure on food suppliers. Americans get more than 75 percent of their sodium from processed and restaurant foods. Buy low-sodium foods and request that no salt be added in the kitchen at your favorite restaurants.



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TAGS: Rachel Johnson, Ph.D., M.P.H., R.D., Health Blog

Rachel Johnson, Ph.D., M.P.H., R.D.
Rachel K. Johnson, Ph.D., M.P.H., R.D., is an EatingWell advisor and Professor of Nutrition at the University of Vermont. Dr. Johnson is Vice Chair of the American Heart Association Nutrition Committee and a member of the President's Council on Fitness, Sports and Nutrition Science Board.

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