New study: Low-salt diet kills

By Steve Milloy

Which is more dangerous: dietary salt or the government’s dietary guidelines? A new study confirms some old truths.

A new study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (May 4), reports that among 3,681 study subjects followed for as long as 23 years, the cardiovascular death rate was more than 50 percent higher among those on who consumed less salt.

The researchers concluded that their findings, “refute the estimates of computer model of lives saved and health care costs reduced with lower salt intake” and they do not support “the current recommendations of a generalized and indiscriminate reduction in salt intake at the population level.”

But that sort of reduction is precisely what the U.S. government now recommends.

In April 2010, the National Institute of Medicine issued a report calling for Americans to reduce salt intake from an average of 3,400 milligrams per day to 1,500 milligrams per day and less for those over 50.

The IOM report claimed that such population-wide reduction could prevent more than 100,000 deaths annually. “Sodium intake is too high to be safe,” was what Dr. Jane Henney, former commissioner of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and chairman of the IOM committee that produced the report, told the media at the time.

Then this past February, the U.S. Department of Agriculture incorporated the IOM’s recommendations into the federal dietary guidelines.

So who should we believe?

The new JAMA study didn’t break any ground with its finding. In fact, a host of studies published since 1995 fail to show any improved health outcomes for broad populations on reduced salt diets.

While the new study authors rightly acknowledge that “[our current findings] do not negate the blood-pressure lowering effects of a dietary salt reduction in hypertensive patients,” only a small portion of the population has that pathological condition.

Given that there is no scientific evidence showing dietary salt by itself to cause hypertension, as opposed to simply contributing to the condition once it already exists in individuals, a population-wide recommendation to reduce salt intake is simply not warranted.

Imagine if the government made a population-wide recommendation limiting sugar intake because some people have diabetes. Personal health matters are more appropriately handled on an individual physician-patient basis.

But of course the matter is more serious than simply the Nanny state taking away tasty food by making it less salty. Proverbially rubbing salt in the wound, the federal government’s advice could actually kill people, according to the new study as well as prior research.

There is a larger point here that goes beyond salt.

Since the 1970s, the federal government and the alarmist public health establishment have been telling Americans what to eat. Don’t eat butter and switch to margarine. Reduce egg intake. Eat less meat. Eat more fiber and grains.

But there isn’t any sound science behind any of this advice. As it turns out, the public health establishment now ranks the trans-fat containing margarine as less heart healthy than the butter it replaced. Oops. Eggs too have been exorcised except perhaps for those individuals with a pathological cholesterol condition. And the dietary fiber myth was never based on any science to begin with, junk or otherwise.

The reality is that while many tasty foods are easily demonized and made politically incorrect, and while many not-so-tasty foods are halo-ed and made politically correct, precisely what foods and how much of them individuals can healthfully consume is far more complex than the Nanny state is willing to admit.

The vast majority of us can enjoy, say, regular sodas, salted pretzels, hot dogs, buttered popcorn or whatever as part of a healthy lifestyle. There are no good foods and bad foods, despite food nanny badgering.

And then imagine passing up the pleasure of salty chips only to have that sacrifice actually caused or contribute to your heart attack.

Yes Virginia, there are also scientific reasons for the government to stay out of our personal lives.

Steve Milloy publishes JunkScience.com and is the author of “Junk Science Judo: Self-defense Against Health Scares and Scams” (Cato 2001).

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19 responses to “New study: Low-salt diet kills

  1. Jorge Quackenbush

    Does this mean that we can once again have salt around the edge of our margaritas? Ai-yi-yi – Vamanos a Maude’s Mexican Cafe!

  2. Helen Westover

    Great article. I’ve eaten tons of salt all my life, and I have LOW Blood pressure. I also follow an Atkins type diet, and I am slim, and my blood-fat levels are ideal. Thanks for your site – so much IS “junk science”.

  3. Jos. Addonizio

    The sodium hypothesis was shot down in 1988 in a huge ,well designed study called INTERSALT. I think 32 countries were involved.It found no link between salt and high blood pressure for the vast majority of the population.Not one peep from the media.One of the study’s researchers,Stamler from Northwestern U. went on an anti -salt crusade in spite of the mountains of data which did not support his salt/high pressure hypothesis.I first heard of INTERSALT from Eating Well magazine ,april 1991. I saved the magazine and found it last week .The article ends with a quote from Dr. La Rosa,head of the American Heart Ass. Nutrition Committee,”Wer’e trying to figure out how to back away from the salt recommendation without looking like fools.”

    • I’m confused. According to the INTERSALT study overview (http://www.ajcn.org/content/65/2/626S.abstract) “The INTERSALT results, which agree with findings from other diverse studies, including data from clinical observations, therapeutic interventions, randomized controlled trials, animal experiments, physiologic investigations, evolutionary biology research, anthropologic research, and epidemiologic studies, support the judgment that habitual high salt intake is one of the quantitatively important, preventable mass exposures causing the unfavorable population-wide blood pressure pattern that is a major risk factor for epidemic cardiovascular disease. ” Junkman – is this INTERSALT study any good? How does this affect the study that you cited?

      • Steve Milloy

        Intersalt’s primary hypothesis was that population systolic blood pressure would be directly related to population sodium excretion. The secondary hypothesis was that population diastolic blood pressure would be directly related to population sodium excretion. Both hypotheses were disproved by the data. The spin of the results, however, is another matter.

  4. Want proper margaritas? Si senor….
    And it seems we should all heed the message, its not the salt that kills you, its the cure for it…dietary salt and sugar . Yuck!

  5. rusureuwant2know

    Regarding “only a small portion of the population” having hypertension: funny how they keep creating new hypertensive patients, though – ever noticed they keep lowering the numbers whereby someone is considered to have it???

  6. Paul Penrose

    There are a few other rare conditions that require those afflicted to stick to a low sodium diet, but for the majority of us it is not a problem. If you ingest too much salt your system will flush it out, but if you get too little you could have negative health consequences. This scare, like many others, is just another attempt to control you by people that think they are superior to you and thus have the right to tell you what to do.

  7. Allen Brooks

    Several years back, they found that unwarranted low salt diets were throwing the electrolytes out of balance (too low sodium levels) and actually causing heart attacks. Something the MSM has conveniently forgotten.

    I have my electrolytes monitered at least once a year and cut back or supplement to balance them out. I’ve had to increase magnesium levels, something that Doctors often overlook. Go by the tests, not the scare stories.

  8. Snorbert Zangox

    I find it ironic that for years the nannies told us that saturated fats were poisonous and that we should avoid them by switching to unsaturated fats. Now, the same folks tell us that we must avoid trans fats. Only unsaturated fats can be trans or cis fats. So, manufacturers go back to the palm oils that are full of saturated fats.

    I prefer to ignore all of their warnings. That makes life so much simpler.

  9. My opinion is that any salt that we add to food, whether from the salt shaker at the table, or by the food manufacturer and/or processor is unecessary and potentially harmful in the long run (for some lucky folks, possibly the very long run). Many foods naturally have a bit of sodium content, and if you intake an adequate amount of calories, with a nice variety of fresh foods, you’ll probably intake the correct amount of sodium required for the day. Why should we assume that food, as it comes in nature, should have anything added or deleted (fats). This is the way early humans ate their food- if they found some bird eggs, I doubt that they threw out the yolk (because of their concern for cholesteral), and I also doubt that very early man reached for the salt shaker- I’d guess that they just cracked the shell and swallowed the damn thing whole (and raw). Same goes for meats, nuts, and anything else early humans ate. If it was good enough for them (I’d say it was, or we would not be at the top of the food chain), it’s good enough for me.

    • Even wild animals seek mineral supplements to their diet. Ever heard of a “Salt Lick”? Salt is as old ad civilization and probably older.

      • I know that animals seek “Salt licks”, that’s why humans don’t need to go to a “Salt Lick”, the animal flesh already has the salt in it, as well as other minerals. Plants have salt and minerals in them also.

    • Keep in mind that “survival of the fittest” means “whoever is good enough lives just long enough to have kids” not “whoever is perfect”. Just because our diet let people live to their 30’s back then doesn’t mean it’s ideal nutrition today. Furthermore, consider that we have different methods for cooking things; perhaps we did get enough salt eating whatever we found or killed, but that doesn’t mean our cordon bleu couldn’t use a dash of salt. And there’s no reason to think humans never took advantage of salt when they could find it. But all of this is ultimately irrelevant–science says it’s good, end of story. All the conjuncture in the world won’t change that.

  10. What are you talking about; the federal government DOES recommend less sugar because a small percentage of people have diabetes!

  11. It’s interesting to note that animals who eat plants and even other animals with the salt built in (as you pointed out), also attend salt and mud licks whenever they get the chance.

    • Jerry Riter, do you work for the salt industry? Why are you defending salt so much?

      • Naw! I just like the taste of it, and butter, and eggs, and bacon. They will probably all gang up and kill me someday, but it won’t be because the government told them to.

  12. The jerks that make us suffer for their whims should be punished. The worst of all was the bran muffin crusade to increase iron levels, whomever came up with that junk science killed about a million people that had to eat food they hated. I hope Karma is real.

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