How Bad Is Salt? A New Study Links It to High Blood Pressure, Says This Doctor
Have you ever wondered why bar snacks are always salty? Because the bar owner wants you to be thirsty and order another beer. But all that salt may be doing more harm to your health than the excess alcohol, according to a recent study that found that for every extra dose of sodium you consume, your risk of heart disease goes up.
"We have known the connection between salt and strokes, heart attacks and heart disease since at least the time of FDR," says Dr. Joel Kahn, Clinical Professor of Medicine at Wayne State University School of Medicine and bestselling author of The Whole Heart Solution. Salt's role in heart disease has been known for decades, or even longer, but certainly, since FDR struggled with blood pressure and ultimately died of a stroke at age 63, Dr. Kahn noted.
"We know that saturated fat [in meat and dairy] is a major contributor to cardiovascular disease, but now this definitive study points to salt as a culprit in driving up cardiovascular disease as well," Dr. Kahn adds.
"But this study shows that salt works as predictably as a drug: They could calculate that for every extra 1,000 milligrams of salt you consume, your risk of heart disease goes up 6 percent." That may not sound like a lot, but most Americans have no idea the vast amount of salt they eat daily, since it is added to foods to preserve and boost their taste, and we can't escape sodium in just about everything we buy.
"So if you are doing 8,000 milligrams–or the equivalent of 8 grams of sodium a day–you are eating four times the recommended amount and raising your risk by 30 to 40 percent," which is easy to do given how much sodium food manufacturers add to processed food, he adds.
Just a small serving of 15 Lays potato chips will run up the sodium clock to 170 mg, and it's easy to eat more than that if you're not watching. Add that to an Impossible Whopper, which has 1080 mgs and you're well on your way. Not to single out one type of meat alternative, a single KFC Beyond nugget has 145 mgs of sodium, and chances are you're eating 4 or 5 at a sitting. Fast food, processed food, and alternative meats are all super high in sodium.
"The good news is, if you can learn to enjoy whole foods with their natural flavors, you will get an advantage, healthwise, and lower your risk of heart disease and high blood pressure," advises Dr. Kahn
Americans are salt-a-holics, and nearly half of us have high blood pressure
On average Americans consume 3,400 milligrams of salt a day, or twice what is considered to be a healthy level of between 1,000 and 2,000 milligrams per day or about one teaspoon. If you have an extra 1,000 milligrams a day, you raise your risk 6 percent, and for every extra 1,000 milligrams, it goes up another 6 percent. He warns that some people eating a highly-processed diet full of chips, fast food, and salty snacks could be exponentially multiplying their risk, according to the new data.
How salt raises your risk of heart disease, according to a cardiologist
The process by which salt acts to raise your risk of heart disease is by driving up blood pressure. It does this by hardening the arteries, making them harder for blood to flow through freely, Dr. Kahn explains. It happens almost instantaneously, he adds.
"When they gave young healthy 20-year-olds a salty meal, their arteries were measurably harder and their blood pressure went up, compared with a control group, and if you keep on eating salty food, again and again, that state perpetuates," Dr. Kahn explains.
As of today, 45 percent of American adults suffer from high blood pressure, or about 108 million people. High blood pressure is called the "Silent Killer" because it is hard to detect, has no clear symptoms, few warning signs, and short of keeping your personal arm cuff reader at home, you probably have no idea what yours is. Yet hypertension, which is anything over 130/80, drives up your risk of heart disease, heart attack, and stroke, as well as chronic kidney damage.
"Individuals with high sodium intake had a higher adjusted risk of cardiovascular disease," according to the study authors. "Our findings suggest that there is a significant linear relationship between dietary sodium intake and cardiovascular disease risk. The risk of cardiovascular disease increased up to 6% for every 1 gram increase in dietary sodium intake. A low-sodium diet should be encouraged and education regarding reduced sodium intake should be provided." What that means is the more salt you eat, the higher your risk of cardiovascular disease, explains Dr. Kahn.
"It's as predictable as a drug dosage," he explained. "Dose by dose, for every extra salt dose, your risk goes up a quantifiable amount, so if you have 1,000 milligrams more than the recommended daily salt intake, your risk of heart disease goes up six percent. "What's remarkable is that for every extra 1,000 milligrams, your risk goes up another six percent," Dr. Kahn explains.
It's hard to avoid salt but you need to, for the sake of your blood pressure
The problem with salt, says Dr. Joel Kahn, is that it is so prolific in the American diet, very few people should worry about not getting enough salt. But the opposite is definitely true: Salt, in the form of table salt and sodium used as a preservative in processed food, is overwhelmingly present in our American diet and causing stiffness in our arteries. You can't avoid salt, he adds: It's in everything, from processed food to bread to meat, and even turkey is often pumped full of saltwater so it will weigh more at checkout
So why do athletes need salt when they are training in the heat or doing long runs to prepare for a marathon or triathlon? Dr. Kahn explains that sodium is essential to cellular function in the body, so athletes may lose it during an event, but when you look at the preponderance of research on the topic, most people get way too much sodium and only a few elite athletes are in need of replacing salt after endurance sessions.
"There are salt-sensitive people and those who appear to be less so," Dr. Kahn explains "but the average American starts eating too much salt in childhood and through their teen years and continues to over consumer salt throughout their entire lifetime. The number one source of sodium in the diet of teens is pizza and for adults, it's eating bread and canned soups.
"Even in hospital soups, you can find them feeding heart patients soups loaded with sodium, containing more than 1,000 milligrams in a small bowl," he says. "You can't avoid it unless you make your own home-baked bread or eat a whole food plant-based diet. It's in everything you eat. because it makes food taste good, but you can learn to love food without salt," he adds.
High blood pressure is the world's number one killer
"The number one killer in the world is high blood pressure," Dr. Kahn emphasizes. "It can cause bleeding in the brain or aortic rupture, or you can have kidney disease. When you look at cardiovascular disease, high blood pressure is an early warning sign and everything goes back to blood pressure. Yet it is very hard to spot unless you have an arm cuff at home.
You may not know you're at risk, so ask your doctor to test your blood pressure. If you are, then you may need to have a home blood pressure cuff and use it," he advises. If you are following that typical American salt-laden diet then you can see what it does to your blood pressure. What if your blood pressure is tested and remains low time after time? Well then you're fortunate, but that still doesn't mean you should add salt to everything you eat, he warns, since the correlation between salt and strokes, heart attacks, and disease is proven.
If you want to lower your blood pressure you need to do these things:
- Get better quality sleep
- Quit smoking
- Start eating a whole food plant-based diet and get rid of meat and dairy
- And start paying attention to the salt in your diet... and get it to under 2,000 milligrams a day
We only need about 250 milligrams of sodium a day to get by, and many doctors will make a recommendation that their patients lower their sodium intake to between 1,500 milligrams or 2,000 milligrams a day. Yet in this country, without knowing it, many people get 10 grams a day!
A study of the Yanomami tribe of isolated people living in remote parts of the Amazon, in the rainforests and mountains of northern Brazil and southern Venezuela, found that as humans age they don't have to inevitably suffer from cardiovascular disease, strokes or high blood pressure. The Yanomami diet, which has likely not changed in hundreds of years, is low in fat and salt and high in fiber. The research of the Yanomami concluded that "high blood pressure does not need to be a byproduct of aging." This isolated community of about 35,000 people never had a word for high blood pressure. The study, published by Johns Hopkins Magazine in 2019, found that their virtually salt-free diet led to having blood pressure so low, about 105 or 108, that they never experienced typical heart disease. The conclusion: simply not getting salt in one's diet meant living a long life that is extremely healthy.
How can you cut out sodium from your diet?
Choose other seasonings like your life depends on it, Dr. Kahn advises. "You can transition your taste buds. I have talked to patients about how to eat a whole food plant-based diet and cut out salt at breakfast and lunch and dinner. The best way to think is the SOS diet, cutting out Salt, Oil, and Sugar. There are clearly people with salt and sweet taste preferences, and if you have both, then it's harder, of course." To get away from using salt, he tells patients to try to substitute spices such as curcumin, turmeric, or rosemary. Or try Mrs. Dash Salt-Free Seasoning or Bragg Organic Herbs and Spices Seasoning which are flavorful but absent of salt. "And cut out: Processed foods, processed foods, processed foods," concludes Dr. Kahn. They're a killer.
Bottom Line: Cut out salt. Get your intake down to 1,500 to 2,000 milligrams per day or less. Look at every label. Do your best to consume less. You don't have to count sodium if you are not eating processed food, like fast food, chips or pizza, turkey, or red meat. Eat a whole food plant-based diet and use seasonings to make food taste great without salt.