Ask LH: Is Salt Actually Bad For Me?

Ask LH: Is Salt Actually Bad For Me?

Dear Lifehacker, I don’t really have a sweet tooth, so I don’t worry too much about my sugar intake, but I do like salty foods. Is salt just as bad? What health concerns should I have about the stuff? Sincerely, Sodium Junkie

Dear SJ,

Many years ago, we drew a simple conclusion: too much salt is bad for you because it can cause blood pressure and heart-related problems. Now studies show that might not apply to everyone and the effects of sodium intake vary from person to person. What does that mean for you? You should talk to your doctor rather than take advice from some guy on the internet. But, since you’ve asked, we’ve sought out some expert information to find you an answer in the form of studies and Dr Spencer Nadolsky, medical editor at Let’s take a look at how salt can affect us humans.

Note: For the sake of simplicity, we’re speaking about salt and sodium interchangeably. We know they’re not the same thing, as typical table salt is sodium chloride, but in terms of the question here the distinction isn’t really relevant. We’re talking about your sodium intake, of which salt generally serves as the main contributing factor, and hence its use. Please read with that in mind.

Nobody Really Knows How Much Salt You Should Have

We’re confused over salt intake because major health organisations can’t agree on how much we should have. After all, if the effects vary quite a bit from human to human, how can they come up with a safe and healthy number that works for all of us? Dr Nadolsky explains the problem:

Salt/Sodium is something we are all told to cut back on by major health organisations. Since sodium intake effects one’s blood pressure (more so in some than others), and higher blood pressures are related to strokes and heart attacks, the thought is for EVERYONE to limit sodium as much as possible in the diet. The American Heart Association recommends no more than 1500mg per day while the USDA recommends no more than 2300mg per day. To make things more confusing, the most recent Institute of Medicine report on sodium says there is very little to no evidence that going below 2300mg of sodium per day will actually benefit anyone, and may even harm some.

That doesn’t mean you should go out and start chugging cans of Morton’s, but rather that nobody can agree on the right amount. While you probably won’t hurt yourself with a little extra, you should ask your doctor to help you figure out the right amount for you rather than follow a poor standard.

People With Special Conditions Should Watch Their Salt Intake

Most people won’t have a problem with salt in higher amounts than prescribed by AHA or USDA, but everyone’s a little bit different. Dr Nadolsky explains who needs to pay closer attention to their intake:

While there doesn’t seem to be a consensus for everyone to cut their salt intake to very low levels (to or below 2300mg), some folks should be conscious of their intake. Those with hypertension (high blood pressure), congestive heart failure and chronic kidney disease are the most susceptible to problems with changes in sodium intakes. If you have one of these diseases it is best to talk with your doctor to find out how much sodium you should have in a day.

Again, consult your doctor to find out if you have or are at risk for any of these conditions. If you are, you may need to pursue a low sodium diet. If not, you may not have as much of a problem.

High Sodium Can Indicate Unhealthy, Processed Foods

You ought to watch out for salt where it doesn’t belong. Coca Cola, for example, balances out an excess of sugar (or, more often, high-fructose corn syrup) with high amounts of sodium. This helps to create an addictive flavour, but it has an negative impact due to the many other less-healthy ingredients. You’ll also find high amounts of sodium in processed food, so it can serve as an indication of what not to eat. While the salt, itself, won’t have a huge impact on most of our lives, you want to make sure you don’t allow highly processed, unhealthy foods into your diet because the sodium won’t have much of an effect.

So, just keep an eye on the food as a whole. Check with your doctor to find the right sodium intake levels for you. With that small amount of attention and research, you can find the proper way to enjoy salt without adverse effects.


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Photos by Dubravko Sorić, Joanna Bourne, Tim Simpson, Mike Turnauckas.


  • Alternatively, if you have problems with low blood pressure, you may need to go to town on the salt! A friend of mine has such low blood pressure that she risks passing out if she stands still too long. Her doctor told her to increase her salt intake as much as possible, so she now carries sachets with her everywhere (in case she’s getting woozy), and adds it to most of her food.

    Unfairly, this means that people tsk at her if she eats in food courts, because everyone thinks salt is really bad for you. In her case, not so much!

  • Most doctors don’t know, and still believe that less or none is better. But salt is vital for certain function and organs, the adrenal gland being one of them – producing adrenaline, which is obvious, but also the lesser known hormone cortisol. Too little salt, and the adrenal gland can’t nomalise cortisol levels.

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