I’ve talked a lot about salt here on Darwinian-Medicine.com lately. That’s not something I planned, rather it happened spontaneously as I discovered that an unnerving, salty trend was gaining momentum within certain sections of the nutritional community. A growing number of people, most of whom seem to have no formal training in diet and health-related matters, appeared to consciously be developing a closer and more loving relationship with salt. They were grouping together, forming a kind of protective sphere around the nutrient they’d started to develop more positive feelings towards, in an attempt to protect it from the many scientists and nutritionists that were saying bad things about it and trying to push it out of the human diet.
I obviously know that the health & fitness community is rife with disagreement and conflict; however, I thought there were some things that even people who know little about nutritional science and/or are very gullible would be unlikely to go along with. Seeing as the idea that it’s unproblematic to consume a lot of salt and that a lot of industrialized people would benefit from taking in more salt, as opposed to less, goes against pretty much everything we know to be true about optimal nutrition and the evolution of the human body and diet, I was surprised to see that it was gaining traction.
I started writing about the detrimental health effects associated with high sodium intakes in an attempt to limit the spread of the vicious, salty cancer that appeared to be spreading online. I’m not so stupid as to think that my work is so potent and impactful that it, by itself, can cure the cancer; however, I thought it perhaps could help limit its spread and get more people to think twice before they classify the rumor as benign or even beneficial, as opposed to malignant.
I’m not the only one who’s noticed that more salt has been washing in over certain parts of the world of nutrition lately. Several scientists have as well, some of whom have long been trying to block more salt from entering our world. Like me, they regularly speak and write about the many problems that salt brings with it…
It’s widely known among nutritionists and nutritional scientists that a high salt intake is a risk factor for hypertension, cardiovascular disease, and a variety of other health disorders
Late last year, as I was browsing the web, I happened to stumble upon an article on salt in The Guardian. The article, which was published some months back, has attracted quite a bit of attention online and has been shared on many different health and medical-related websites. Unlike many other newspaper articles on nutrition, this one is fairly good, in large part because the journalist has talked to health professionals and scientists and gotten them to share their opinions on the topic at hand. She doesn’t just present a flashy headline and a dumbed-down conclusion of a recent nutrition study that is easy to swallow, but that could cause some gastrointestinal distress, which is unfortunately what many journalists do these days.
The article includes statements from both sides of “the salt war”. More representatives from the army that’s fighting against the notion that our bodies need a lot of salt to function well than from the salt-friendly army get to speak their mind though. This may seem unfair; however, it’s not surprising, considering that the former army is a hell of a lot bigger than the latter.
You don’t have to look far and wide to find a health professional or nutritional scientist who holds the belief that it’s unwise to consume a lot of salt. One could argue that all rationale, well-informed, and educated people who work within the health/medical field hold this belief. The scientists and health professionals who claim that all of the salt that’s found in the processed diet of the modern man isn’t doing him any harm are a much rarer breed. Those who go as far as to say that the modern man shouldn’t just be unconcerned about all the salt he’s taking in, but that he should actually be taking in more salt, as opposed to less, are an even rarer breed: they are unicorns.
I much prefer to stand up and fight alongside an underdog as opposed to alongside a big beast. I generally like Davids better than Goliats. Moreover, as you know if you’re a regular reader of this site, I don’t agree with the nutritional or medical establishment in everything. That said, when it comes to the debate on salt, I feel compelled to side with the side that’s trying to block more salt from making its way into our modern diets, seeing as that is the side that is backed by the best and most powerful science. I would actually go as far as to say that that is the only side that has good science in its corner.
Leading scientists are taking up arms in an attempt to hinder more salt from infiltrating the already salt-heavy diet of the modern man
In the aforementioned newspaper article, which is entitled A danger to public health? Uproar as scientist urges us to eat more salt, health experts condemn the idea that we shouldn’t be concerned about all of the salt the food industry infuses into our food supply. This makes me happy to see. I’m glad people are standing up for science and try to knock out the fallacious notion that our bodies are adapted for salt-rich conditions. Not because I like seeing the underdog in this battle get hurt (I don’t), but rather because it may trigger more people to think twice before they add a lot of salt to their meals or include salty foods into their diet. I think it would be very problematic if the idea that salt isn’t harmful after all was given the opportunity to spread unimpeded among the population. It’s good that it’s meeting some resistance.
In this article, I’m not going to revisit the science on salt (See the following scientific papers for an overview of why it’s unhealthy to consume a lot of salt: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6. 7, 8, 9, 10). What I thought I’d do instead is to highlight a quote from the aforementioned newspaper article that I feel perfectly summarizes why we should be on our guard with respects to how much salt we’re taking in. Here’s what Graham Macgregor, a professor of cardiovascular medicine who started investigating the health effects of salt consumption many decades ago, has to say about the science on salt:
It you look at the totality of the evidence on salt, it is much stronger than for sugar or saturated fat or fruit and vegetables – in a positive way. It’s overwhelming because we’ve got all the epidemiology, migration studies [where people have gone to live in another country and changed their diet], treatment trials, mortality trials and now outcome trials in countries. (11)
Other experienced scientists echo the concerns of Graham Macgregor. For example, Loren Cordain has recently published several articles (e.g., 12, 13, 14) on his website in which he takes an in-depth look at the science on salt.
An inconvenient truth
I can completely understand why a lot of people are fond of salt. Salt agrees with many people’s taste buds, at least when it’s combined with food. We’re hard-wired to like salt, seeing as salt was a rare, but important, commodity in the ancestral environments in which we evolved. It’s a lot easier to adopt the belief that salt is largely benign, as opposed to acknowledging that it isn’t, seeing as the former action isn’t accompanied by any nutritional restrictions or worries about the detrimental effects of salt consumption.
Personally, I don’t feel a need to take in much salt; however, I would have no problem with living in a body that was designed to function well on a high-salt diet, seeing as it would mean that I wouldn’t have to worry about my salt intake at all. I’d argue though that it’s important to let the science speak for itself, as opposed to believing what is convenient to believe.
With that said, salt is obviously not solely responsible for the many deaths that occur every year as a result of chronic diseases such as heart disease. The high salt content is just one of many problems with the modern, western diet. Also, it’s important to point out that there’s no reason to shun salt like the plague. A little salt here and there won’t do you much harm, if any at all.
The bottom line
The nutritional community is rife with disagreement and debate. If you round up a dozen nutritionists, dietitians, or nutritional scientists and ask them all identical questions pertaining to what constitutes a healthy human diet, you’ll probably find that many of the answers conflict with one another. However, you’ll probably also find that there is some agreement. Chances are that all of the people you’ve gathered agree that it’s healthy to consume fruit and vegetables on a regular basis and that we would all be wise to restrict our intake of highly processed foods. They’ll probably also agree that it’s unhealthy to consume a lot of refined sugar, salt, and refined fat.
There’s a reason why these beliefs are shared by almost all nutritionists, dietitians, and nutritional scientists, and that is that they are backed by well-established scientific theories, a myriad of scientific experiments, and basic facts regarding how the physiological systems of the human body work.
It’s perplexing that some people claim that the massive infusion of salt into the human diet over the most recent millennia hasn’t harmed our health. It’s even more perplexing that some people claim that we would be wise to consume more salt, as opposed to less.