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Research Debate: Is a Low-Salt Diet Bad For Your Health?

Experts weigh in on the merits (and minuses) of the USDA’s sodium guidelines.

| October 10th, 2011
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Salt Debate

Imagine your life without salt: flavorless popcorn, bland soups. Life without the iconic girl in the yellow coat perched on the kitchen shelf or a chorus of “pass the salt” at the dinner table.

Salt gives our food flavor and turns an otherwise boring meal into something we might actually savor. But lately, the little white granules that work wonders on a recipe are shaking up quite a bit of controversy, and the USDA calls on us to cut back. Should we?

BACKGROUND

According to the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the average American eats approximately 3500mg of sodium per day. The current USDA guidelines, released in January 2011, are nearly half that.

“As we learn more about genetic diversity, we realize that one size doesn’t necessarily fit all when it comes to nutrition advice.”

- Carol Greenwood, Ph.D.

The average adult is encouraged to eat only 2300mg of sodium per day (a single teaspoon of salt), and those considered high risk for health problems (meaning African Americans, people over 51, and people with high blood pressure, diabetes or chronic kidney disease) are told to eat only 1500mg of sodium per day. (An order of the Asian Crunch Salad at Applebee’s would give you double that in a single meal.)

MORE: Healthy Eating for Better Blood Pressure

Those who already have hypertension eat a low-salt diet to reduce their risk of stroke, dementia and heart disease. Our bodies have a system of tiny capillaries that keep blood pumping to every nook and cranny and the combination of a high sodium diet with hypertension can lead to dangerous breaks and damage in those delicate pathways. There’s little dispute that, in those cases, a low-sodium diet is called for.

But should everyone try a low-salt diet? That’s not so cut and dry.

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