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The Great Salt Debate: Have We Been on the Wrong Side the Entire Time?

bowl full of salt with spoon representing the great salt debate

It is a substance synonymous with deleterious health effects including hypertension and an increased risk of osteoporosis. It is on every dining table in the United States as we use it to season our foods and transform bland fries into something delicious. Yes, we are talking about salt. However, new research suggests that the medical community is potentially on the wrong side of the great salt debate.

The War on Salt

For decades, politicians and health organizations have appealed to American families and told them to reduce their salt intake. Back in 2010, the Institute of Medicine urged the FDA to regulate the amount of salt included in products. In New York, Michael Bloomberg managed to convince a large number of companies to do so on a voluntary basis.

In 2016, the federal government proposed voluntary guidelines to the food industry in a bid to cut down the amount of salt added to produce. Public health advocates have long since claimed such an action would save thousands of lives in the long term. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 77 percent of the average American’s sodium intake comes from processed and restaurant foods. We exceed the recommended maximum daily sodium intake of 2,300 mg by almost 50 percent (we consume 3,400 mg on average).

Is the Negativity Surrounding Salt Justified?

In 2011, the American Journal of Hypertension looked at seven studies with over 6,000 volunteers. Its meta-analysis showed no clear evidence that a reduction in salt intake equated to a reduced risk of heart attacks, strokes, or deaths in people with normal or high blood pressure. In May 2011, a team of European researchers published a study in the Journal of the American Medical Association, and placed it online. In the study, the team found that the less sodium subjects excreted in their urine, the greater their risk of dying from heart disease.

Those who fight the notion that salt is bad for the human body believe the evidence was shaky from the very beginning. The first fears over salt began with a 1904 study from a French doctor who found that six of his patients with high blood pressure ate a lot of salt. In an extremely flawed 1970 study, Lewis Dahl, from Brookhaven National Laboratory, claimed he found conclusive evidence of salt’s negative effect on blood pressure.

There was a problem with the study, however. Dahl fed rats the human equivalent of 500 grams of sodium a day to induce high blood pressure, almost 150 times more than the average consumption by an American. While extraordinarily high consumption of sodium is unquestionably a bad thing, evidence that it is harmful in the quantities we consume is less than concrete. In addition, Russian researchers have discovered evidence of an expected health benefit associated with salt.

Can Salt Help with Weight Loss?

Conventional medical wisdom suggests that consuming too much sodium chloride (salt) causes extreme thirst. You drink water and dilute your blood to a sufficient level to ensure the sodium level in your body remains well maintained. This simple theory has long since become “fact,” but recent research in Russia suggests it is incorrect.

The studies involved Russian cosmonauts held in isolation (to replicate space travel), and when they ate more salt, they became hungrier, not thirstier. Further experiments, involving mice given larger than normal quantities of salt, showed that they had to eat 25 percent more food just to maintain their weight.

The studies are the culmination of around 25 years of research by Dr. Jens Titze who now works as a kidney specialist. During a 1991 study of Russian cosmonauts, he noticed that their urine volumes went up and down over a one-week cycle; this event was contrary to conventional medical wisdom. Three years later on a 135-day study of Russian cosmonauts, he discovered a 28-day rhythm in sodium consumption amongst the subjects not linked to urine production. Their sodium levels should have risen and fallen in concert with urine volume.

In 2006, Titze conducted yet another study, this time with Russian cosmonauts in 105-day and 520-day studies. In the shorter study, the subjects ate 12 grams, 9 grams, and 6 grams of salt a day in 28-day cycles. The subjects had another cycle of 12 grams in the longer study. After measuring urine volume and analyzing fluid intake, Titze found that the subjects drank less when they ate more salt.

In addition, the subjects complained of feeling hungry when on the high salt cycles. The urine tests on the crew revealed increased production of glucocorticoid hormones, known to influence immune function and the body’s metabolism. Titze ultimately tested his theory on mice and found that the more salt they ate, the less they drank because they produced extra levels of glucocorticoid hormones that broke down fat and muscle. Their bodies freed up extra water, so there was no need to drink more.

Final Words

While Titze’s findings are interesting, it is inadvisable to consume large quantities of salt to lose weight. After all, you become hungrier and more likely to binge on junk food containing salt, causing the cycle to continue all over again. In addition, high glucocorticoid levels could increase your risk of osteoporosis, Type 2 diabetes, and muscle loss. However, researchers are still unsure as to whether a high salt intake leads to an increased risk of hypertension.