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).