We consumers may find ourselves all shook up when it comes to salt — unsure about how to absorb the latest research, which can seem to conflict. One minute we are warned to be super-careful about our salt intake or hazard increasing our risk of a host of health woes, including high blood pressure — and are further cautioned that high sodium consumption could be raising our children’s risk of heart attack and stroke. The next minute we’re told our efforts to cut down on salt intake by easing up on our salt shakers is not going to help much — and that, in fact, consuming less sodium might not do much to lower blood pressure after all.
A recent New York Times headline seemed to sum up the current don’t-know-what-to-thinkness of it all: “Why Everything We Know About Salt May Be Wrong.” Oof. The Times article beneath the headlined filled us in on two new studies of Russian cosmonauts that found that salt may not make us more thirsty, as is widely believed, but actually less so — yet it may make us hungrier. Further research determined that mice burned more calories — and ate more — when they consumed more salt.
The studies contradict “much of the conventional wisdom about how the body handles salt and suggests that high levels may play a role in weight loss,” the Times reported. Still, one expert suggested to the paper, the studies results may not mean the conventional wisdom about sodium and blood pressure is wrong, but rather that we may be right about “the adverse effects of high sodium intake … for all the wrong reasons.”
Why is it all so confusing? “The biggest issues are that the general public doesn’t know all the places salt is hiding, plus when they see a value for salt content they don’t know when it’s too much,” says Dana Angelo White MS RD ATC, Healthy Eats contributor and owner of Dana White Nutrition, Inc.
Most Americans take in the majority of our sodium through processed convenience foods and restaurant foods, so if we eat a lot of these foods, we are probably consuming more salt than we should be, White says. “The daily recommendation is 2,400 milligrams per day, but many Americans take in far more than that,” she notes.
White advises consumers to check labels carefully to make sure we are aware of the sodium content of the foods we eat and to cut down when necessary. And those who cook at home, she says, ought to season the food as they go, adjusting to taste, so as to avoid going overboard.
We all need salt, which is a vital electrolyte, White says. However, she cautions, our bodies need only 1,500 milligrams per day, so most of us should at least aim to keep our consumption under 2,400 milligrams per day, an allowance White calls “generous.”
“Those with high blood pressure may need to be more conservative” with their salt intake, she says, “while athletes that sweat and lose more salt need to take in a bit more.”
And no, sweating out the calculations to figure out how much salt you’ve consumed probably doesn’t count.
Amy Reiter is a writer and editor based in New York. Her work has appeared in publications including The Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Daily Beast, Glamour and Marie Claire, as well as Salon, where she was a longtime editor and senior writer. In addition to contributing to Healthy Eats, she blogs for Food Network’s FN Dish.
*This article was written and/or reviewed by an independent registered dietitian nutritionist.