When I eat with other people, they often express concern for my health—not because of the needle full of insulin plunging into my arm, but because of the excess of crystals I joggle out of the salt shaker. I like salt, and I like to put a lot of it on my food, more than is deemed acceptable or appropriate in polite society. I’m told my grandfather was the same way—that he “put salt on salt”—and he never had a problem with high blood pressure, the health problem most commonly associated with high sodium consumption, so I’m not particularly concerned as of now about how it will affect my health. I figure it’s genetic: an oft-unmentioned truth of health is that, while we all have human bodies that require roughly the same things, all of our bodies are also different and require different things, and my body needs salt just like grandpa’s did. “[Studies suggest] how much salt we eat is determined by physiological demands, not diet choices,” Gary Taubes wrote in the Times last year. But try telling that to a concerned dining companion across the table.
The idea that salt is bad for you is entrenched in the American mindset; sodium’s right up there with trans fats and cigarettes, even becoming a bugbear to Bloomberg, whose administration recently rolled out a new series of ads warning New Yorkers of the high sodium content of processed foods, like the old ads that cautioned there was more salt in a bowl of cornflakes than a bag of potato chips. In reality, the idea that salt is bad for you was never really based on solid evidence. And worse, the idea is dangerously wrong: we need salt to live, and not eating enough can make you die.
“People eating salt at the lower limit of normal were more likely to have heart disease than those eating smack in the middle of the normal range,” Taubes writes in his must-read takedown of salt science. The anti-salt campaign began in the 70s, based on two pieces of flimsy research. “Although researchers quietly acknowledged that the data were ‘inconclusive and contradictory’ or ‘inconsistent and contradictory’… publicly, the link between salt and blood pressure was upgraded from hypothesis to fact,” Taubes explains, probably because there was no other good suspect at the time to blame for hypertension.
After studying new research conducted since 2005, a committee commissioned by the Institute of Medicine and CDC issued a report that “said there was no rationale for anyone to aim for sodium levels below 2,300 milligrams a day,” the Times reported today. One study found that among people with moderate to severe heart failure, those who consumed less salt were more than three times more likely to be readmitted to the hospital; another found that older folks with high blood pressure consuming less than 3,000 mg of sodium a day were as likely to suffer heart problems and strokes as those eating more than 7,000 mg a day. (The average, across cultures and generations, is 3,700 mg, suggesting this is what’s healthy.) The American Heart Association has said it will not amend its low-sodium recommendations in light of this new evidence, but the government will issue new dietary guidelines based on this new report by 2015. In the meantime, I’ll keep doing what I was doing: pocketing packets from the deli for emergencies, just in case I’m ever not near a shaker, because there’s no shame in salt.
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