"Ideally, the best way to go is completely 'Salt Free.'"
advising on reducing salt intake
For many years now, it has been a received truth that if you suspect you are eating too much salt, then you probably are right.
In 2005, the American Heart Association (AHA) called for Americans to limit their salt intake to less than 2.3 grams daily, or just a teensy bit less than a teaspoon.
In 2010, the Centers for Disease Control took up the cudgel, recommending a maximum of 2.3 grams daily, and even less, 1.5 grams, for children and those over the age of 50.
In 2011, the AHA struck again. It recommended a maximum of 1.5 milligrams, between half and three-quarters of a teaspoon of salt daily, for all Americans.
According to the AHA, if we all followed this advice (average American salt consumption was just over 3.4 grams at the time), stroke and heart attack deaths would be cut by 20 percent and the country would save $24 billion in health care costs.
I don't eat much salt. I use very little in cooking, and we never put a salt shaker on the table. Our family eats very little packaged food. I probably meet the AHA guidelines.
But sometimes I wonder why I bother.
A Study in the UK
In 2011, a British journal reviewed the results of seven studies involving almost 6,500 people who were asked to reduce salt consumption from an average of 8-9 grams per day to 4 grams.
The result: "Intensive support and encouragement to reduce salt intake did lead to a reduction in salt eaten and a small reduction (emphasis mine) in blood pressure after more than six months."
The researchers' conclusion: "We believe that we didn't see big benefits in this study because the people in the trials only reduced their salt intake by a moderate amount, so the effect on blood pressure and heart disease did not change."
In other words, having found almost no improvement, the researchers recommended doubling down further on reducing salt consumption.
In 2011, the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence set a country-wide goal of reducing UK salt consumption by half, from 6 grams daily to 3 grams by 2025.
Based on numbers possibly drawn from a hat, the National Institute assured Britons that this dietary change would prevent 40,000 deaths from heart disease.
The Worldwide Study
No doubt you read news reports a couple weeks back about an article in the New England Journal of Medicine. It concerned a study of 100,000 people worldwide and how much salt they ate.
"In fact," the article said, "People who consumed 3 to 6 grams per day had a lower risk of cardiovascular events than those who had more than 6 grams or less than 3 grams."
So, while US health experts recommend 1.5 grams or less of salt per day, the healthiest people seem to consume between two and four times that amount.
Move along, nothing to see here.
According to the report, only four percent of study participants, in 18 different countries, met recommended American guidelines. In fact, most people ate from 3 to 6 grams, the amount of salt that correlated with the best results.
I know, I know, perhaps the people who consumed less salt already knew they were at risk of heart disease and had trimmed their consumption. Possibly that's the real correlation. Possibly everyone you know who is at risk -- anyone who takes a beta blocker or a statin drug -- also has taken all the salt out of his diet. Call me a skeptic. I also find it hard to believe that any of the 17 other countries in the study have as vigilant a bunch of dietary scolds as we do here.
More likely, different people people respond differently to salt. Maybe genetic differences or the age of the salt eaters has something to do with the inconclusive results. This has been suggested several times over the last 10 years, and when it has, it has been swatted down and dismissed as unscientific if not outright heresy.
After the latest report showing no correlation between salt consumption and cardiac health, the American Heart Association issued its own advice:
"Looking at the data, we consider it irresponsible not to make recommendations to reduce salt content...."
Well, of course.
Tomorrow: An Interesting Salt Story