SALT, The Grim Reaper in a Shaker, or No?

by Ravi

Loooove salt – yes!

…and have spent my WHOLE adult life scared of that love.

Salt - the Grim Reaper of seasoning, the savory 5th Horseman of the Apocalypse ready to strike me down with every shake.

But guess what?

It’s just not true.


The debate against salt has been described as the longest and most contentious debate in modern nutrition *even though there exists virtually NO definitive, conclusive data as to the harm of higher salt intake*! In fact – low-sodium/low salt diets are now being shown to be either only marginally helpful, not helpful, or even dangerous in treating a variety of conditions they have been enthusiastically prescribed for.

A study published in the Journal of General Internal Medicine (Volume 23, Number 9, 1297-1302, DOI: 10.1007/s11606-008-0645-6) indicates that low-sodium diets specifically prescribed may even result in higher rates of mortality! To quote this analysis of the study by Sandy Szwarc, BSN, RN, CCP, The lowest sodium intakes — the 1500 mg/day amount some are saying we should all be eating — were associated with an 80% higher risk of cardiovascular disease compared with those consuming the highest salt diets. The lowest salt intakes were associated with a 24% higher risk of all-cause mortality.”

Does this sound familiar?  Rather like the 40 year old cholesterol lie/nightmare we are currently waking up from. I have now read and searched dozens of pages and compilations of studies and it is true – those convinced of a connection between salt/sodium and heart disease/hypertension have been railing against salt and trying, for close to 40 years, to prove that connection – and they simply have not been successful.  Studies showing marginal results this way or that are argued to death because there is simply no definitive study that has established any substantial connection.

Metabolic Responses to Salt

While currently in 2011, such excellent journalists as Gary Taubes are busy aiming the right guns at the right carbs – sugars and starches – and backing up their arguments with hard data about the actual negative metabolic responses our physiology has to carbohydrates, the facts about salt are actually less complex. Interestingly, the one and the same Gary Taubes took journalistic aim at the salt issue and published this piece back in 1998 – it is an *excellent” compilation of the history of the salt literature and debate over the 30 years before (it’s long but very thorough…) .

You see, we have biological design mechanisms to deal with too much salt – the body increases the thirst response, we drink more water and our kidneys do their job removing excess salt from our bloodstream.  Done deal. One could argue that excessive salt over-burdens the kidneys and certainly this can be demonstrated – but what are the kidney’s upper performance limits?

The other side of the coin, however, hyponatremia, (being deficient/low in salt/sodium) is much more devastating.  Symptoms of  hyponatremia include tiredness, disorientation, headache, muscle cramps, and nausea. Severe hyponatremia can lead to seizures and coma, and even death.  These neurological symptoms are thought to result from the movement of water into brain cells, causing them to swell and disrupt their functioning.

Wait a Minute – Salt HAS been Proven Bad… Hasn’t It?

No, actually not.   Studies claiming to show negative results are studies looking at sodium/salt intake combined with other dietary factors – cheap hydrogenated vegetable oils, consumption of fast food (VERY high in sodium AND cheap fats AND carbohydrates) and numerous other exceptionally bad dietary practices.

That salt has been singled out as the culprit in these studies does not hold up in a vast array of other, more specific studies attempting to point at salt.  For example, researchers postulated that salt was the reason for the increased stroke in a salt-consuming population in Japan while another isolated population consuming less salt had lower stroke rates.  This was an “inter-population” study – meaning a observational study of two separate population groups eating different diets.  The diets themselves were sufficiently different that to point at salt as the causative factor is a biased “observational” distinction – an assumption not then tested and proven by “in vivo” (actual life) studies.

Against that consider “intra-population” studies that compares the salt intake of different members of the same population group.  In those studies, no significant difference in disease and/or hypertension was found based on low/high salt intake. This seeming paradox of the salt issue has been pondered and even studied in it’s own right.

As Gary Taubes says in his 1998 writeup on salt: University of Glasgow clinician Graham Watt calls it the “Bing Crosby approach to epidemiological reasoning”–in other words, “accentuate the positive, eliminate the negative.” Bing Crosby epidemiology allows researchers to find the effect they’re looking for in a swamp of contradictory data but does little to establish whether it is real.”

Soooo, can a Paleo feel OK salting the Meat?

What’s the upshot? Salt has proven not to be the “most dangerous food additive” as was the rallying cry 30 years ago – and in fact, may ultimately be  an insignificant factor in good health within a wide range of consumption habits.   For the Paleo diet crowd – who we align with – the purist’s contention that salt is bad may only be another developing dogma (like the “no dairy” cry…) – depriving our taste buds of all the savory enhancements to those delicious fatty meats.

Finally – as with all your foodstuffs – quality is paramount… and not cheap. The very best salt is NOT the over-processed white poison in the round tubes at Walmart for 39 cents.  Check out the sources below to acquire excellent Himalayan Salt – totally unpolluted (mined from ancients salt sources in the Himalayan mountains), packed with minerals and a wonderful salty taste.


This post part of Fight Back Friday – to return click here

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