Why Salt Isn’t Public Enemy Number One for Health

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If you eat out more than a handful of times a week, it’s near-impossible to cut all your salt — whether in your Reuben, salad dressing, or even sparkling water. Though the American Heart Association suggests only 1.5 grams max per day, most people consume at least 3.4 grams — prompting doctors and dietitians to repeatedly ask patients to eat less salt. High sodium intake has been linked to high blood pressure, which can up your chances of having a heart attack or stroke.

But findings from a new study turn this whole idea on its head. Analyzing more than 100,000 adults ages 35 to 70 all across the globe, researchers concluded that consuming more salt than recommended may not be so bad for you after all — as long as you don’t have high blood pressure.

Of the people studied, 90 percent had either high (more than 6 grams) or moderate (3 to 6 grams) daily sodium intakes, while just 10 percent consumed less than 3 grams a day. Only 4 percent of the total population fell in line with the suggested 1.5 to 2.3 grams per day.

The researchers noticed a steep increase in high blood pressure among the high-sodium group. But in the moderate-consumption group, sodium intake had very little impact on blood pressure. And in the low-sodium group — most of which still consumed more sodium than is advised — salt consumption had no effect.

This means the overarching order to reduce salt intake could be misguided, says study author Andrew Mente, an epidemiology professor at McMaster University in Canada. If you’re in the moderate range — which, again, still means twice as much salt as the AHA recommends — the amount you’re consuming may be just fine. "If you’re in the high range of sodium consumption, you want to get down to moderate," Mente says. "After that, the benefits you get in terms of blood pressure become smaller and smaller."

But the message here isn’t to go nuts with the salt shaker. And it certainly isn’t license to eat more salty processed foods. "Don’t become complacent about salt intake, because a very high amount is bad," Mente says. "You still should avoid super-high-salt foods like cured meats. But don’t become overly preoccupied with reducing salt, either. As long as you don’t have high blood pressure, you probably don’t need to consciously restrict your intake."