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Eating less sodium may become easier

Created date

September 22nd, 2016

Salt, also called sodium chloride, is a fundamental element of life itself and remarkably complex when it comes to its impact upon our health. I am frequently asked about salt intake and whether salt is bad. Like many responses that physicians provide, the answer depends on your personal situation. 

Here’s some of what we know about salt and high blood pressure (hypertension):

High salt intake in individuals with hypertension increases risk for heart disease, stroke, and kidney disease. If you have hypertension, you can lower your blood pressure (BP) by decreasing your salt intake. The effect of this decrease is enhanced if you also follow a healthy lifestyle, exercise, and the Mediterranean diet—rich in fruits, vegetables, fish, beans, and nuts, and low in snacks, sweets, and red meat.

FDA’s new guidelines 

Because of the beneficial effects of a diet lower in salt for people with hypertension, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recently issued draft guidance on voluntary sodium reduction for food manufacturers and restaurant chains for just about all foods—literally from soup to nuts. The ultimate goal is to reduce salt intake and thus the prevalence of high BP and its consequences. But what about individuals with normal BP? Do they need to reduce their salt intake, too? 

Here’s some of what we know about salt and normal blood pressure:

For healthy individuals with normal BP, reductions in salt intake alone will typically have a modest effect in the range of 1 to 3 points on average in both the systolic, top number, and diastolic, bottom number. In other words, the BP might go from 120/80 to 118/78, both very normal numbers. In and of itself, there is no evidence that this reduction will decrease your risk of cardiovascular complications. What makes this even more complicated is that very low salt intake in healthy individuals may actually increase risk of heart disease and mortality. While we don’t understand why, we can certainly imagine that too low a salt intake might impact the body negatively when we consider how critical salt is to so many metabolic functions.

So how do you make a personal decision about salt? If you have high BP, it is important to avoid high salt intake. If you have a normal blood pressure, too much salt is typically not an issue; moderate salt intake is fine and may be better than salt restriction. 

While there are still many unanswered questions about salt, moderation and common sense once again win the day. It is always good to avoid packaged and processed foods, which typically have the highest concentrations of fat, salt, and, complex sugars. Coupling that with the Mediterranean diet, exercise, and healthy habits will be the very best way to stay fit and well.

As always, consult your physician because there is much more to this story and only he or she can give you the best advice for your individual situation.

Matt Narrett, M.D., is chief medical officer for Erickson Living and leads the medical team at all Erickson Living communities. He received his medical degree from Harvard Medical School and has been providing care for seniors for over three decades.