All Shook Up over Salt

In Diet and Nutrition, Featured Article

The wheels have come off the low-fat bandwagon. Scientific studies have stopped it in its tracks. Dietary experts have accepted defeat and revised their earlier national guidelines. But not before making a fortune in marketing-and-selling low-fat products.

The dust has had a couple of years to settle since then. But it looks like the industry is at it again. When the National Dietary Guidelines are released this year there could be a new, lucrative dietary experiment in the mix. And they’ll be using you as the guinea pig!

Be warned: don’t be duped… experts on the inside are telling you to take this new “experiment” with a grain of salt…

Look to Yesterday for Tomorrow’s Answers

Back in the late 1970s, George McGovern released his “Dietary Goals for the United States.” The key recommendation? Cut your daily fat intake. That opened the door to the “ban-fat” campaign of the 1980s and 1990s.

Just three years later, the 1980 National Dietary Guidelines recommended “population-wide reduction of total fat intake.”

“The food industry quickly produced a slew of “low-fat” products,” says Dr. Al Sears. “But without the tasty fat, the food produced was bland. High amounts of sugar became a common additive.”

Over the next 20 years, low-fat products became big business and Americans became… well, bigger too. Much bigger. Searching for an answer to America’s weight gain, studies pointed to the low-fat “experiment.” For the first time in 20 years, people began to wonder if fat really was the enemy. High-carb diets seemed more destructive than high-fat ones.

“In response to an unanticipated epidemic of obesity and diabetes, to which the authors concluded the 1980 recommendations might have contributed, the 2000 committee withdrew its earlier recommendation,” said Dr. Michael Alderman from Albert Einstein College of Medicine, NY.

In other words, after experimenting with the public’s health for 20 years, the “experts” reversed their low-fat advice. Worse, they admitted their advice may have caused America’s obesity epidemic.

Now – in 2010 – it looks like the industry has identified a new “big bad” with which to market and create new products. And just like fat, it’s an easy target. And that target is: salt.

Salt: The New Experiment

Salt reformers are keen to have us cut our sodium chloride intake. They argue that low-salt diets lower blood pressure. And it seems that they may get official backing this year. The New York Times reported that experts are hinting that the 2010 National Dietary Guidelines will lower the recommended levels of salt. Further, public health officials will push companies to use less salt in foods. It sounds great, on the surface.

Let me make one thing clear at this point: I’m not saying that you should shun this advice and start heaping salt on your food. Nor should you blindly purchase processed foods without keeping an eye on how much sodium they contain. There is too much medical research linking sodium chloride to high blood pressure and strokes to blindly ignore this thinking.

However, when national guidelines impose new regulations on existing food groups that are already part of our natural balanced diet you need to think twice. Why are these recommendations being made now? Is there solid, compelling evidence supporting them? And who stands to gain from them?

There are already leading medical experts telling the 2010 guideline authors to hold off on their recommendations. They state that clinical evidence does not support this advice. They say clinical testing needs to be conducted first.

As for who stands to gain… well, the last time this was tried with fat, the food industry made millions in new low-fat products… Just stay informed. Don’t blindly listen to what the industry tells you. Especially when there’s money to be made from it.

The Case against Salt

A supporting study by the New England Journal of Medicine was published earlier this year. The study projects the “effect of dietary salt reductions on future cardiovascular disease.” It reviewed the effects of salt reduction. It then presented a series of projected savings in lives and health care costs.

In a nutshell it concluded that reducing salt by 3 g per day could save 44,000 lives each year; and $10 – $24 billion each year in health care costs. Despite these compelling and conveniently quantifiable figures, other experts aren’t convinced. In fact, reviewing the plateau of studies on the subject, the case against sodium chloride is as shaky as a salt cellar.

Breaking the Case

Hypertension expert Dr. Alderman says the case against salt is not nearly so straight forward. There’s no “beyond-a-reasonable-doubt” evidence here. He reviewed the findings of over a dozen key studies that examined low-salt diets. He concluded the evidence was “shaky.”

In almost half of the studies, he concluded “there was no association between salt intake and clinical outcomes.”

“In four studies, sodium intake was inversely associated with cardiovascular disease,” explained Dr. Alderman. “Lower salt intake was associated with worse outcomes.”

Joining the case against the low-salt recommendation is Dr. David McCarron, a neurologist at University of California-Davis. Dr. McCarron has reviewed surveys from 33 different countries. He notes that most people consume similar amounts of salt, regardless of differences in culture and diet. He believes that’s not coincidental.

Because the results were so similar across vastly different peoples, he argues that the human body has a natural daily salt requirement. In fact, the human brain automatically balances our diet in order to meet that requirement.

His research showed that in controlled studies, human beings naturally balanced sodium intake levels. Food choices and diets might change, but the salt intake always remained the same.

Dr. McCarron noted that the people in each of the 33 countries consumed more salt than the current US guidelines. He argues that further lowering the recommendation could have unknown and adverse effects on the US public.

“Several studies from the US provide supportive evidence that humans naturally seek this range of sodium intake,” said Dr. McCarron.

As sodium levels lower in food products, people may just eat more food to increase their sodium intake. Those choices are made on a subconscious level. Therefore, caloric intake could further escalate. And before you know it, we could see obesity rates skyrocketing even further.

He backs this argument with contemporary logic: Americans have increased the amount of food they eat. However, reliable urinalysis studies suggest their sodium intake has remained the same. In theory, higher calories should have equaled higher salt consumption. But it hasn’t. The paradox provides powerful support to Dr. McCarron’s theory. He argues that as people ate more calories, they ate less salty foods.

That leads to the same problem: if the food industry promotes new low-salt prepared foods, the US public will just eat more of them (and the calories within) to maintain their salt levels.

Recommending Caution

Both Dr. Alderman and Dr. McCarron recommend caution before changing dietary recommendations. They argue that dietary guidelines that promote lower sodium choices are irresponsible, and may even be dangerous.

“To attempt to use public policy to abrogate human physiology would be futile and possible harmful to human health,” said Dr. McCarron.

Both argue that clinical trials are needed to properly investigate whether lowering sodium will benefit health – or cause harmful consequences.

“There are at least two paths forward,” said Dr. Alderman. “The rash route is through universal sodium reduction. For the United States, this means changing the diet of all its residents by reducing the sodium content of prepared foods.

“A more cautious approach, calls for rigorous, clinical trials. These trials will demand a commitment by thousands of individuals for several years but will result in greater precision and scientific credibility to help answer the question—and vastly smaller risk of human resources.”

Both doctors recommend the cautious route.

Alternate Options

A new “low-option” bandwagon has the potential for causing another health disaster. The government should be educating the public about making smarter choices about sodium. A recent study suggests it’s not so much your sodium intake that’s the problem, but its ratio to potassium.

The study revealed that people with a higher potassium-to-sodium ratio enjoyed better heart health. Those with a high-sodium, low-potassium ratio were at the greatest risk.

According to Dr. Joseph McCaffrey, an easy option for increasing your potassium intake is tomato juice. He recommends it over bananas – the oft-quoted potassium-rich food – because bananas have a high glycemic index, whereas tomatoes have a low glycemic index.

One cup of tomato juice has the same 500 mg of potassium as a banana. And tomatoes are also rich in lycopenes – which promote better prostate health.

Looking Forward, Looking Back

It’s yet to be determined whether the 2010 National Dietary Guidelines will recommend reducing your salt intake. The experts are demanding further clinical trials. Any new guidelines will lack adequate medical research to make an educated recommendation. Therefore, any guidance will amount to little more than another public health “experiment.”

Don’t be a guinea pig for the government or big business. And if those new low-salt products start flooding the market – avoid them. Just remember the low-fat disaster of the 90s…

To your health,

Ian's signature
Ian Robinson,
Managing Editor, Natural Health Dossier “Health Watch”