The 'truth' about salt: Eating more is probably OK

High salt intake is a global phenomenon

Americans have long been encouraged to eat less salt, but some scientists say U.S. guidelines are too strict and consuming more salty products would be fine for our health, Peter Whoriskey writes in the Washington Post's "Wonkblog."

Although U.S. dietary guidelines say people should consume less than 2,300 milligrams of sodium per day, the average American actually consumes 50% more—about 3,500 milligrams. But Whoriskey notes that global salt intake is also high: 95% of the world's population eats more salt than is recommended by the U.S. government.

Natural consumption

Some experts argue high levels of salt intake across a diverse range of cultures and socioeconomic backgrounds suggest that the natural and healthy level of salt consumption is higher than has long been recommended. 

For instance, Niels Graudal, a researcher at Copenhagen University Hospital, calls U.S. warnings on salt consumption "the most radical existing nutrition recommendation."

JAMA: Eating more salt than recommended may not lead to heart disease

Joel Geerling, a researcher at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, notes that "all over the world, people tend to eat a consistent amount of sodium that isn't super high and isn't really low." "That doesn't happen by chance in biology," he argues.

Geerling has studied the effects of salt on brain activity in mice. "What our work did was put a group of neurons on the map, showing neurons that fire when you take salt out of the diet," he explains. Whoriskey says similar neurons may be what cause humans to eat more salt than is nutritionally required.

Research by Graudal also found that when people eat the low level of salt recommended by many dietary guidelines, the body produces a hormone that may damage blood vessels. "I cannot see why the society should spend billions on sodium reduction," Graudal concludes.

The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (AND) recently warned that U.S. government guidance on salt consumption is misguided—and potentially harmful. Low sodium consumption is "actually associated with increased mortality for healthy individuals," argues Sonja Connor, president of AND.

An alternative explanation

Although some scientists say the high global levels of salt intake prove that sodium is safe, CDC scientist Mary Cogswell has an alternative explanation: "Our salt taste preferences are based on what we commonly eat and what we're used to," she says.

And Graham MacGregor, a medical professor at Queen Mary University, says that even if humans naturally crave high levels of salt it doesn't mean it is natural or healthy. "Our need for salt is entirely hedonistic—that is, it is a pleasure it kills you," he says (Whoriskey,"Wonkblog," Washington Post, 5/26).

The takeaway: Some experts say U.S. recommendations for healthy levels of salt intake are too restrictive, pointing to globally high levels of salt consumption as evidence that humans naturally need more sodium than is commonly understood.

More Daily Briefing stories about salt

Next in the Daily Briefing

Around the nation: May 28, 2015

Read now