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Moderation remains key to salt consumption

low-sodium diets

Most people tend to gravitate to either sweet or salty foods. I’m a salt person – give me a choice between a piece of chocolate or a bag of jalapeno chips and I’m grabbing the chips.

So I was elated this morning to see a page one story in The Wall Street Journal about a new study from the New England Journal of Medicine that found low-sodium diets can actually be harmful.

The study, which tracked more than 100,000 people from 17 countries, showed that those who consumed less than 3,000 milligrams of sodium a day had a 27 percent higher risk of death or a serious health event such as a heart attack or stroke than those whose intake was estimated at between 3,000 and 6,000 milligrams. People who consumed more than 6,000 milligrams a day of sodium had an increased risk of death or a serious health event.

The new study has added fuel to the debate over how much salt Americans consume in their daily diet. The World Health Organization, the American Heart Association and other groups recommend a daily sodium intake of between 1,500 and 2,000 milligrams or lower, which this new study contends could increase your risk of death, heart attack or stroke.

Of course, most Americans consume well more than the recommended guidelines. The average daily American consumes about 3,400 milligrams – so we’re right in the range where the new study found the lowest health impact from sodium.

Now, before reaching for the salt shaker, an extra dash of hot sauce or a bag of chips, I decided to ask Darrell Youngman, DO, a cardiologist and Via Christi’s chief medical officer, for his thoughts about the new study. 

His advice sounded uncannily like my mother’s philosophy toward living a healthy life.

“I think it speaks to moderation in all things,” Dr. Youngman says. “I think there are conditions where you can see that low salt consumption is bad for certain patients – without doing a big study.

“You can also see that some people are very sensitive to salt and that their blood pressure goes up quite rapidly with salt intake. Those people should avoid high salt and watch their blood pressure closely,” Dr. Youngman says. “There are others who can eat a moderate amount of salt and their blood pressure seems to be just fine. So common sense and moderation is probably the best guideline at the moment.”

Dr. Youngman noted that most new health studies like this one should be taken, ahem, with a grain of salt.

“It’s really hard to come up with conclusions when something is really prevalent throughout a population – and sodium is everywhere in our food,” he says. “So it’s very challenging to study an area like that.”

About Skip Hidlay

I am the Chief Communications and Marketing Officer for Via Christi Health. I have written about medicine and science throughout my career in the news media, communications, marketing and health care.