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May 11, 2011

The Truth about Sodium Guidelines

Despite surprising findings, Americans should continue to limit sodium intake to 1,500 mg daily.

It can be difficult to keep up with dietary guidelines these days, especially with the mixed messages we often hear in the news. Recently, one of the most confusing guidelines has been regarding salt - how much sodium should we really be consuming daily?

You may have heard about the new sodium guidelines set by the American Heart Association for 2011, encouraging Americans to consume no more than 1,500 milligrams a day of sodium to help reduce risk for high blood pressure, heart attacks, stroke, and kidney disease. This adjustment has been quite controversial, as the previous guidelines stated that only those suffering from heart disease or high blood pressure or those over 51 years of age should limit their sodium intake to 1,500 mg daily. According to the 2011 guidelines, experts now believe that everyone, including adults and children, can benefit from limiting their sodium by improving their heart health.

While controversial, these guidelines were generally received by healthcare providers. Salt intake has increased exponentially over the years as a result of prepared, processed foods, which has had significant health implications. Therefore, experts welcome this new change to lower population-wide sodium intake.

Why then have findings of a recent study suggested that sodium reduction may not be beneficial but in fact harmful to your health? A new European population study followed 3,681 people for about 8 years, and found that while those with lower sodium excretion had slightly lower systolic blood pressure, they also had an increased risk for cardiovascular death.

While the media took immediate interest in these surprising findings, it is important to consider the many limitations of this study. Not only was this study conducted in a mostly white population in Europe, most participants were quite young – on average, 40 years old. Blood pressure tends to rise with age, so the effect of sodium reduction on this young population does not accurately demonstrate possible health benefits from limiting salt intake. Also, due to the homogeneity of participants, findings cannot be applied to the U.S. population as a whole. Blood pressure affects ethnic groups very differently, and unfortunately disproportionally. Lastly, this is only one study of hundreds. The majority of studies, many of which are of higher-standard, have shown that lowering sodium intake can significantly improve blood pressure among providing other health benefits.

So again, how much sodium should we really be consuming? Until any changes are made to national guidelines, Americans should follow the guidelines set forth by the American Heart Association, limiting salt intake to no more than 1,500 milligrams each day.

Questions for You to Consider

  • How can too much salt be harmful to your health?

  • While some salt is necessary to maintain the proper balance of fluids in the body, too much salt causes the kidneys to retain water, which increases blood volume and pressure and puts a strain on the heart. These effects can cause hypertension and significantly harm those with pre-existing heart problems.
  • What foods should I avoid when trying to limit sodium intake?

  • While many foods naturally contain small amounts of sodium, it is estimated that 75 percent of dietary sodium comes from processed foods. When limiting salt intake, try to avoid prepared meals and limit consumption of condiments, canned and frozen foods, and packaged snacks, which contain some of the highest concentrations of sodium. Always read food labels when possible to help accurately measure your salt intake each day.

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