I just read Jane Brody’s article in today’s New York Times about Clearing Up the Confusion About Salt.
As usual Ms. Brody just strings a whole bunch of quotes together some people call research and then calls it gospel. She has done this with cholesterol, low fat diets and many other health related topics.
The equation of high salt consumption equals high blood pressure is so ingrained in our views about diet and health, that to question the dogma is to be instantly labeled a heretic.
Ms. Brody writes, “Several studies have shown that when more salt is consumed, blood pressure rises in a dose dependent manner.” It would have been helpful and pertinent to reference that knowledge in this poorly supported article.
It’s not all Ms. Brody’s fault, the medical profession has reported for years that humans need less salt to be healthy. This has resulted in a disservice to millions of people by misleading them into thinking they need to avoid salt in their diets. It’s ironic that our blood is salty, our cells are salty, our tissue fluids are salty, our nerves work because they are salty, the list goes on. The “heart healthy books” as well as the American Heart Association always give the recommendation to eat no more than a teaspoon of salt a day. But there’s one big problem with this: most of us don’t need to eat low-salt diets. In fact, for most, more salt would be better for our health, rather than less.
Eating more salt can help protect you from a host of ailments, including insulin resistance, diabetes, and even heart disease. (The real culprit—sugar.) Consume too much salt and your kidneys will just excrete it in urine. Too little, and your body will trigger several biological systems to retain it. A lower salt intake can, in some instances, result in increased blood pressure, which is exactly the opposite of what mainstream medicine keeps telling us.
What Salt is and What Salt is Not
Besides missing the point that salt is not bad for us, the NYT article misses defining what salt is and what it is not; the difference between processed and unprocessed salt. Salt that is added to boxed and processed foods has nothing to do with salt that is natural and largely unprocessed. Real salt comes with about 80 minerals; processed salt is mostly devoid of these minerals. Ms. Brody is correct in that most processed foods contain too much processed salt (and sugars). Processed salt should not be the standard. Salt isn’t inherently evil – it makes vegetables and other natural foods taste better, and you need it to stay alive. I did an entire podcast with Miesha Tate (UFC fighter) discussing everything salt and health.
Sugar – Killing us Slowly but Surely
Ms. Brody is quoted saying, “Hats off to companies like General Mills, which lowered sodium in 10 categories of foods and snacks by 18 percent to 35 percent by the end of 2015. Kudos as well to companies like Pepperidge Farm, Sara Lee and Oroweat, …” For a person who makes their living from health and wellness, she needs to take a long walk in the hall of mirrors. General Mills and other companies like them are largely responsible for the fact that 1 in 3 Americans are Insulin resistant and 1 in 5 have diabetes! Hypertension and obesity have gone up at nearly the same rate as sugar consumption, while the amount of salt added to pre-packaged food has been on a steady decline for years.
The sugar connection makes sense if you think about our current attitudes toward sugar. Sugar is added to practically everything that comes pre-packaged these days – sodas, breads, pastas, frozen meals, chips, candy bars…the list goes on and on. Each American consumes nearly their body weight in sugar each year (see my previous post about this). The only thing that salt and sugar are not added to are WHOLE UNPROCESSD REAL FOODS. We as a society potentially consume ten times more sugar than salt!
Lies, Damned Lies, and Statistics – Mark Twain
One of the main studies that show that salt increases high blood pressure is called the INTERSALT study. As with any study, you can slice the data in many ways. By adding in a specific population, you get one result, take that population out, you get another. Much akin to the Ancel Keys 7 country studies. When you read the back information on the INTERSALT study, it shows very clearly that the researchers (there were hundreds), left out heart rate data, which bolstered the hypothesis that salt increased blood pressure. Statisticians Freedman and Pettiti published an article showing that the positive correlation between blood pressure and salt consumption observed in the InterSalt study was entirely driven by four outlying data points of the 52 total data points. These four communities had much lower salt consumption than the average community, as well as much lower blood pressure. When these four points were excluded, the correlation was in fact negative, contradicting the original interpretation of the data by the researchers. Whenever these types of things show up in research, it simply means the researchers were bending the statistics (conformation bias) in whatever way possible to prove the hypothesis. Unfortunately, this is very common in just about every type of research done these days.
DIY Salt Study
If you really want to get to the bottom of whether or not salt is a bad thing, EXPERIMENT on yourself. Go out and buy a home blood pressure machine for about 20 dollars. Get a baseline blood pressure over a couple of days. Then proceed to add in various amounts of real-unprocessed salt and measure your blood pressures over several weeks. Don’t depend on your doctor to do this for you because it will never happen. But you might consider showing your data to your doctor and individualize your health care.
My recommendation is to first find a doctor who understands the whole salt and sugar situation. Second, lose some weight on a low-carb diet, which will improve insulin sensitivity, salt levels, and decrease glucose levels, all of which have a greater impact on the cardiovascular system. You get all these benefits from a low-carb diet. Too bad Ms. Brody hasn’t figured this out. Or maybe she has, but she just doesn’t want to give up her salt free / low fat ice cream. Salt consumption alone does not account for the epidemic rise of hypertension around the world, and it’s time to stop demonizing salt.