The first thing you have to do when taking control of your health is this: question everything. Yes, even me — especially me. I work hard to gain your trust, but I will also tell you that “trust, but verify” is still the best way to approach this stuff.
Question everything is a strategy that will eventually lead you to slaughtering some sacred cows. “Saturated fat will kill you” is one of the big sacred cows that’s finally dying.
Another sacred cow that needs to die is “salt/sodium is bad for you.” The CDC is in on the scam — it doesn’t get anymore sacred than that, does it?
“Most of the sodium we consume is in the form of salt, and the vast majority of sodium we consume is in processed and restaurant foods. Too much sodium is bad for your health. It can increase your blood pressure and your risk for a heart attack and stroke. Heart disease and stroke are the leading causes of death in the United States.”
See what they did there? Sodium = salt, too much salt is bad, bad means death, and this form of death is highly probable, meaning you should be terrified.
They do note something about processed foods, which is great, but I think they’re missing the point: is it really the sodium in processed foods that’s killing people or all of the other crap? Hard to parse that one, though it might be important to note that while the prevalence of heart disease and high blood pressure has increased dramatically, average salt intake has not. Hmm…
“A new Harvard study finds salt intake is about the same today as it was nearly 50 years ago, an amount well above recommended guidelines, noted Dr. Adam M. Bernstein, the study’s lead author.”
So what’s the solution? According to the CDC, it’s a simple prescription: “Current dietary guidelines for Americans recommend that adults in general should consume no more than 2,300 mg of sodium per day.”
Awesome, another generalized approach that has nothing to do with you personally. What type of sodium? How active are you? What’s your family history? How much processed foods do you eat and how often?
At the minimum, we can agree that these generalized prescriptions — which they also do with calories, macronutrients, cholesterol, etc. — are completely unhelpful. I’ll go on record stating that anyone who offers a generalized prescription without asking deeper questions isn’t interested in helping you, they’re simply interested in appearing helpful.
Is Salt Bad For You?
If you’ve been a reader here for any length of time, you’ll know that this isn’t a geeky science blog. We don’t tear apart nutrition science textbooks, analyze studies, or anything like that. I leave that up to the Chris Kresser’s of the world. What I do is parse out the most important points on these topics and create actionable advice that you can put to use immediately — that’s what I’m good at.
So, let’s reframe the question for a moment. What we really need to ask is, “is salt helpful in some quantity?” And the answer is yes, which means salt is not bad for you.
The next order of business is determining which types of salt you should be consuming, which you should be avoiding, and whether or not a realistic overconsumption of salt is actually dangerous.
Side note: Lots of helpful things, including water, will kill you if you over-consume them. Anyone who defines something as harmful because, “it could kill you in X quantity” is wasting your time. So we’re going to focus on a realistic overconsumption of something, not an intentionally harmful overconsumption of something.
An essential nutrient.
Salt is a key nutrient, helping to regulate plasma and the lymph system, cellular metabolism, and cardiovascular health. Salt also has regulatory implications in the nervous system and gut health. If you’re salt deficient for too long, you’ll suffer brain swelling, heart failure, and other nasty side effects.
A 2011 study in the Journal of the American Medical Association demonstrated a low-salt zone where stroke, heart attack and death are more likely. Yet, the government is pushing a salt-reduction agenda.
I’m not trying to scare you, I’m just pointing out that this is another case of “too much is bad and too little is bad,” which means our job is not to run toward or away from, but to determine what’s optimal.
It’s also important to point out that the science for linking salt intake to hypertension could be severely flawed (similarly to how the link between saturated fat and heart disease was purposefully flawed). Lewis Dahl’s proof in the 1970s that salt causes hypertension was based on feeding rats 50 times more salt than the average intake.
Learning to listen to your body is important.
I work hard to teach my clients how to change their personal relationship with food so they can naturally reduce overconsumption and drop excess fat. One of the keys to doing this is to heal the damage that’s been done by your old diet so you can begin to trust your hunger and satiety signals.
The body is always trying to achieve homeostasis and it’s quite good at it, assuming you don’t break your body. The same is true for sodium consumption. A healthy, functional body will trigger you to seek more salt when you need it and have you ignore salt consumption when you don’t.
Obviously, we were not meant to consume “food products” — our body expects to receive real food and will function properly as long as we feed it just that. If you’re eating a bunch of processed foods that your body has to take radical steps to protect itself from, you’re going to suffer the consequences. One of those consequences is not being able to trust the signals your brain is sending you.
Action step: By avoiding ANTI foods, you’ll naturally cut excess sodium intake and reduce your consumption of hyperpalatable food products (“foods” that confuse the brain), and your body will begin to heal any damage that’s been done by your old diet. Once this healing takes place, you can start listening to your body. Just as it sends signals for hunger and satiety, your body has a preferred “sodium appetite” than you can listen to and trust.
The kind of salt you eat matters, so what’s the best salt?
There are natural sources of sodium in real foods (meaning you’ll be eating sodium even if you’re not intentionally adding it) such as: sea vegetables, fish, beef, shellfish, beets, carrots, celery, spinach, and turnips to name a few.
Adding additional salt “to taste” will probably land you right within the average healthiest range of salt consumption (between 3000 and 7000 milligrams). If you’re an athlete, you may need to be more toward the high end (as you’ll excrete more) and if you’re not, more toward the low end. But you should also listen to your body and/or engage in personal testing while judging how you feel at different intake levels (if you have the time or care to do so).
But what kind of salt you’re adding matters too. I can definitively say that I avoid standard table salt because of its extremely low mineral and essential trace element density. It’s also typically cut with additives like anti-caking agents.
The quality of salt you use also helps regulate how much you use: some salts have stronger flavor profiles meaning you’ll tend to naturally use less of them than table salt, which requires more salt to get the same flavor.
Action step: Most people will recommend “sea salt,” but my absolute number one recommendation for salt is Pink Himalayan Salt. It’s probably the purest form of salt on Earth and not contaminated by toxins or pollutants.
Have you considered changing the type of salt you consume? Do you worry about salt intake? Share your thoughts in the comments section.