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The Skinny on Sodium Intake: Is Salt Bad for You?

Written on January 26, 2012 at 7:22 am, by Eric Cressey

Today’s guest post on sodium intake comes from current Cressey Performance intern, Jordan Syatt.

Sodium intake is a highly controversial topic within the fitness industry, mainstream media, and even the medical community.  Very simply, everyone wants to know: “Is salt bad for you?” Nobody seems to have a clear-cut answer.

While many are quick to demonize the tasty mineral, I’ve long wondered if the evils associated with salt are the result of poorly constructed and misinterpreted research or actual cause for concern.

In an attempt to settle the debate once and for all, I began to dig up all the research I could find pertaining to sodium intake, high blood pressure, cardiovascular disease, and general health.

To make things as simple as possible, I’ve outlined my findings below. I think the results may surprise you!

Sodium Intake: What Does the Research Say?

First and foremost, high-blood pressure is perhaps the most prevalent risk factor associated with cardiovascular disease (CVD). Bearing in mind that CVD is currently the world’s leading cause of death, any information we can find to aid in reducing the risk of CVD is of the utmost importance.

Therefore, considering it is well established that diets excessively high in sodium may result in increased blood pressure (BP), it should come as no surprise that doctors and health professionals alike strongly encourage maintaining a low-sodium diet in the long-term.  Epidemiological research suggests high-salt diets may not only affect blood pressure (BP) and thereby cardiovascular disease (CVD), but could also “increase the risk of stroke, left ventricular hypertrophy and renal disease.”

Perhaps worst of all, great sodium consumption tends to cause water retention, thus giving leaner individuals a noticeably “softer” appearance. In other words, their abs won’t appear to be as cut-up.

What the hell, salt!?!?

Based on the information provided above, it would appear as though high-salt diets are the primary cause of illness, death, and guys making excuses for why they don’t look as lean as they should.

We should probably cut it out of our diet, right?

Not so fast.

While high BP is certainly a major risk factor of cardiovascular disease, recent research has clearly shown the ratio of sodium intake to potassium intake within the diet has a much greater effect on BP than sodium (or potassium) alone.

Other studies have confirmed this finding and even the USDA recommends individuals place an emphasis on increasing potassium-rich foods and/or lowering sodium intake in order to lower BP.

While excessive sodium consumption can have a negative impact on BP (thus increasing one’s risk of various diseases), simply increasing the amount of potassium consumed on a daily basis holds the same benefits as lowering salt intake.  As low-sodium diets are rather difficult to maintain in the long-term, placing an emphasis on potassium-rich foods may help individuals keep BP in check without causing undue stress notably in social situations.

In addition to the ratio of salt to potassium within the diet, other factors such as age, gender, genetics, activity level, and body fat are tremendously significant in determining ones risk of high BP, CVD, and other related illnesses. Not surprisingly, exercise and weight loss significantly reduce the risk of CVD. As such, rather than solely focus on reducing salt intake, beginning an appropriate training routine and maintaining a healthy body weight would most likely be the ideal first step in preventing CVD.

Finally, one need only look at the extremely high amounts of sodium in processed foods to understand why greater sodium consumption is associated with high BP and CVD. I’d venture to guess that those individuals who base their diets largely on processed foods are not only consuming too much salt, but are also not eating enough potassium, neglecting to exercise, failing to get an adequate amount of sleep, not maintaining an appropriate body weight, nor living a healthy lifestyle in general.

Taking the above into consideration, is it really the heavy sodium consumption causing high BP and CVD? Or, could it possibly be the overall sedentary lifestyle, overconsumption of processed foods, being overweight, etc?

I bet it’s the latter.

If otherwise healthy individuals are eating a diet largely consisting of whole/unprocessed foods, consuming adequate potassium, regularly exercising, and maintaining a healthy bodyweight, they can probably stop worrying over the minutia and feel free to add a dash, or two, of the ever-so-tasty mineral.

My General Recommendations:

Individuals should maintain a diet largely consisting of whole/unprocessed foods and make a concerted effort to acquire enough potassium on a daily basis. Examples include, but are not limited to, baked potatoes, cooked spinach, bananas, oranges, and cooked beans. For a detailed list of potassium-rich foods, click HERE. Additionally, I encourage individuals to follow an appropriate strength and conditioning program designed specifically for their individual needs.

Note: those who already have high blood pressure, first and foremost, you must consult with your primary care physician and follow his/her directions, as various anti-hypertensive medications can interact differently with food and exercise.  Plus, you want to find out why you are hypertensive in the first place in order to individualize your treatment approach.

I hope you enjoyed this article, and if you have any questions please feel free to leave them in the comments section below.

About the Author

Jordan Syatt is a strength training and nutritional consultant out of Boston Massachusetts. He is Westside Barbell Certified, currently interning at Cressey Performance, and studies Health Behavior Science at the University of Delaware. In addition to actively competing in various Powerlifting Federations, Jordan works with a diverse population of clientele, focusing on fat loss, mass gain, and athletic performance.  Jordan is the owner and operator of www.syattfitness.com. Feel free to contact him directly at: jsyattfitness@gmail.com.

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16 Responses to “The Skinny on Sodium Intake: Is Salt Bad for You?”

  1. Adam Says:

    Great article Jordan! I especially like the inclusion of information about the sodium/potassium ratio.
    I would like to add one thing about sodium, though. Healthy kidneys regulate sodium levels in the body, given adequate water intake. http://www.teachingmedicine.com/pdf_files/U_Na_2007.pdf http://www.cvphysiology.com/Blood%20Pressure/BP025.htm http://www.kidneyatlas.org/book3/adk3-01.QXD.pdf

  2. Tim Peirce Says:

    Thanks Jordon,

    As a trainer I deal with fitness minded people who fall into the “salt is bad” clap trap. They eat no processed food, workout, and sweat. They ask me about their muscle cramps and I ask them if they’re taking in enough sodium and potassium as well as staying hydrated. They respond, “I eat a banana every day.” I ask them, “When’s the last time you put salt on it?” Once they add a little sodium to their diet the cramps “magically” disappear.

  3. Sepand Says:

    Hi,

    Why ‘cooked’ spinach??

  4. Mark Says:

    A good, common-sense article. A very wise doctor once told me that most of the risk around salt intake and high blood pressure was genetic – you’re either sensitive or you’re not. This observation has been borne out in my own experiences and is consistent with your article.

  5. Markus Says:

    It would help to know exactly how much daily sodium is recommended, in terms of both an adequate intake and a tolerable upper limit for adults up to the age of 50:

    AI: 1500 mg
    UL: 2300 mg

    This article has some of the typical confusion between sodium and salt. Table salt is sodium chloride, not pure sodium, which is why its recommended daily amounts are greater:

    AI: 3800 mg
    UL: 5800 mg

    Thus, trainees can indeed safely consume more salt than they usually believe.

  6. Domenic Says:

    Great Article!

    Your point about high sodium diets being typically high in other things is spot on. Ive always wondered why research studies were so greatly desired, when most are poorly constructed and can be picked to pieces with nothing more than logic. I say yes to excellent critical thinking articles like this and no to misleading research studies. Good work!

  7. Mike Says:

    Jordan,

    Why does potassium help regulate BP?

  8. David Says:

    Good article in regard to the basic understanding of salt.
    1st- table salt is sodium chloride, it has been stripped of it’s nutritional benefits through processing. all the trace minerals that are so important for enzyme and bodily functions are absent in table salt. Use unprocessed sea salts or Himalayan rock salt.

  9. Greg Jacobs Says:

    Good One Jordan.
    There is another issue relating to salt intake that some peole may need to consider.

    Im not sure what it’s like in the U.S. but for a lot of Australians, Iodised table salt was their only source of Iodine. The ‘avoid salt’ mentality took off here about 25 years ago and there is now widespread incidence of Iodine difficiency.

    While that is a seperate issue, it is another example of what happens when there is a knee-jerk reaction to incomplete information.

  10. Steven Says:

    @Sepand: Why cooked spinach?
    The cooking increases the bioavailability of nutrients in the spinach We’re not cows so don’t have the guts to break food down fully – eating it with vitamin c/orange juice further helps (if I recall correctly).

  11. Mohammed Says:

    Sepand:

    Why cooked spinach? Well, cooking vegetables can help in making certain vitamins and minerals- like lycopene in tomatoes- more available to the body. Maybe a similar principle applies here?

  12. Kennet Waale Says:

    Hi Jordan,
    Great article. Hope you’re doing alright, keep’em rolling!

    Mike:
    Researchers are debating if potassium actually have a direct effect on blood vessel relaxation, thus lowering the BP. Also, potassium, together with chloride and sodium, controls the fluid balance in our body. Additionally, K+ is needed in the Na+/K+ ATPase, and it therefore affects the movement of sodium (e.g,no function of the Na+/K+ ATPase will lead to water retention and increased BP.)
    That’s what I can come up with as far as potassium and BP are concerned. Hope it helps though, just sharing some thoughts :)

    Cheers

  13. ty w Says:

    Thanks! very informative

    Here is another article for some additional reading:

    http://www.charlespoliquin.com/ArticlesMultimedia/Articles/Article/798/My_Take_On_Salt_and_Your_Health.aspx

  14. mike Says:

    well done ty w.

    I was hoping someone would post the Poliquin article. Not all salt is equal and that processed white stuff we are used to isn’t the same as the unprocessed pink or grey salt.

  15. Lang Says:

    Hi Eric,

    What do you think about going on a lean cuisine frozen dinner diet ?

    Most of these frozen “tv” dinners, now have a healthy version. Sodium for most of these still are around 300 – 500 mg per meal .

    If I’m planning to eat frozen meals 2 or 3 times a day, would it really effect my fat burning ?

    I’m currently going to the gym doing mostly steady-state cardio work outs at 30 mins each, 3 times a week.

    What’s really holding me back is my fastfood habits. I was hoping to try out this frozen food diet, but I’m afraid of the sodium content.

    are my fears unfounded ?

  16. Eric Cressey Says:

    Lang,

    I don’t think it’s an issue of sodium alone with the proposed diet; I think that it’s more an issue of eating a lot of processed foods. I haven’t looked at labels for those products in years, though.

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