From KRISTIN WARTMAN
A new study finds that low-salt diets actually increase the risk of death from heart attack and stroke — and in fact don’t prevent high blood pressure.
For something that’s so often mixed with anti-caking agents, salt takes a lot of lumps in the American imagination. Like fat, people tend to think of it as an unnecessary additive — something to be avoided by seeking out processed foods that are “free” of it. But also like fat, salt is an essential component of the human diet — one that has been transformed into unhealthy forms by the food industry.
Historically, though, salt was prized. Its reputation can be found in phrases like, “Worth one’s salt,” meaning, “Worth one’s pay,” since people were often paid in salt and the word itself is derived from the Latin salarium, or salary.
Those days are long over. Doctors and dietitians, along with the USDA dietary guidelines, recommend eating a diet low in sodium to prevent high blood pressure, risk of cardiovascular disease, and stroke; and doctors have been putting their patients on low-salt diets since the 1970s. But a new study, published in the May 4 issue of The Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), found that low-salt diets actually increase the risk of death from heart attack and stroke — and in fact don’t prevent high blood pressure.
The study’s findings inspired much criticism and controversy — as research that challenges conventional dietary wisdom often does. When The New York Times briefly reported on it, even the title conveyed the controversy: “Low-Sat Diet Ineffective, Study Finds. Disagreement Abounds.” The Times reports that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention “felt so strongly that the study was flawed that they criticized it in an interview, something they normally do not do.” According to the Times, Peter Briss, a medical director at the Centers, said that the study was small, that its subjects were young, and that they had few cardiovascular events — making it hard to draw conclusions.
But most of all, Briss and others criticized the study because it challenges dietary dogma on sodium intake. These experts claim that a body of evidence establishes sodium consumption as a serious driver of cardiovascular disease. But if you take a careful look at the evidence, you’ll see that the case against sodium crumbles under the weight of its contradictions. Gary Taubes wrote about the controversy on the benefits of salt reduction more than 10 years ago in a piece for Science called “The (Political) Science of Salt.” He portrayed a clash between the desire for immediate and simple answers and the requirements of good science. “This is the conflict that fuels many of today’s public health controversies,” Taubes asserted…
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