Earlier this month, a report was released that has challenged everything we’ve originally believed about salt, and how it affects our bodies. Everyone from the American Heart Association to top professors across the country have spoken out, but what does all of this research mean for you?
The Institute of Medicine, at the request of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, convened a committee to analyze several studies that have challenged our initial understandings of sodium intake, and how it affects our health. In short, the committee believes that our current intake range—at 2,300 milligrams for healthy individuals and 1,500 milligrams for those with high blood pressure, as recommended by the U.S. Department of Agriculture—is far too low, and that it should be raised in order to better protect public health.
As Dr. Brian L. Strom, chairman of the committee and professor of public health at the University of Pennsylvania, told the New York Times, “As you go below the 2,300 mark, there is an absence of data in terms of benefit and there begin to be suggestions in subgroup populations about potential harms,” including increased rates of heart attacks and increased risk of death.
A 2011 study published in the American Journal of Hypertension contained analysis of several studies, and came to the conclusion that reducing salt intake would not, in fact, reduce the risk for heart attacks, high blood pressure, or death. And, though the most recent dietary guidelines released by the USDA’s Center from Nutrition Policy and Promotion were released a little over three years ago, that’s still no excuse to not take the research into account. As the NYT write-up notes, research as early as 2008 challenged the guidelines, showing that low-sodium treatment was not effective in reducing hospital readmissions or, unfortunately, death.
Many organizations, like the American Heart Association, however, have not been swayed, telling the Times adamantly that their position remains unchanged. The Center for Science in the Public Interest also stands firm, with its director of nutrition citing that it would be “a shame if this report convinced people that salt doesn’t matter.”
So what does this mean for the average savvy citizen who's trying to live a little healthier? What should we take away from all of this?
The struggle that comes from studies that challenge our understanding of salt consumption and how it affects our bodies is that our salt intake often comes from junk food and unhealthily processed foods. Pinning excessive salt consumption on processed foods resulted in us all giving a second look at those nutrition labels, which for many of us resulted in positive benefits outside of the potential of lowering risk of hypertension. The push back on those guidelines might feel like a metaphorical green light to go back to all the junk food of the old days.
This isn’t the case, especially when there are countless other benefits experienced from ditching processed food. Don’t be swayed—processed food sodium levels are still excessively high, no matter how much leeway this new research may give us, and we should be wise to remember that.
The greatest challenge of healthy living is the fact that we want to follow the latest research, but science is always a moving target. There are always more and better ways to discover what is best for the public, and as research evolves, so does discovery. We can—and should—always be willing to embrace new understandings.
In terms of individual nutritional intake, anyone concerned about the specifics of their own habits should feel comfortable going to their doctor and asking to be referred to a registered dietician. (Those who are endurance runners should see a sports nutritionist.) This is doubly necessary for the Black community, where familial rates of hypertension are high, and those in inner-city environments, where the food soaked with the most salt would be hiding. The guidelines and the outcomes from these studies were vastly different and left such a wide range, that it’d be hard to make an assumption on your own without additional support.
Make yourself aware of what’s going on around you involving your body, and don’t be afraid to take current research to your physician and ask for insight on how to implement what’s best for you, and don’t be afraid to ask your physician for a referral to a registered dietician for insight. As I always say, your body will thank you for it!
Erika Nicole Kendall is the writer behind the award winning blog, A Black Girl’s Guide to Weight Loss, where she blogs her journey of losing over 150lbs. A trainer certified in women’s fitness, fitness nutrition and weight loss coaching, she can be found on Facebook and Twitter.