Hypertension: A Salty Tale?
I just read about a new study that concluded eating less salt actually can help lower blood pressure. But I thought I also heard cutting salt doesn't really help. Who's right?
I don't blame you for feeling confused -- there has been a lot of contradictory information on the subject of salt and blood pressure. The latest study -- probably the one you just read about -- was sponsored by the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute (NHLBI) and conducted at five hospitals throughout the United States. The 412 people participating were divided into two groups: One ate the average American diet; the second followed the "DASH" diet (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension), which is low in saturated fat and total fat, and emphasizes vegetables, fruits, and low-fat dairy products. At different stages of the study each group ate 3,300 mg of sodium, 2,400 mg, or 1,500 mg. The blood pressure of those on the DASH diet (some had high blood pressure and some didn't) dropped dramatically when they consumed only 1,500 mg of sodium. Their systolic pressure (the top number) dropped an average of 8.9 mm and their diastolic pressure (the low number) fell by an average of 4.5 mm.
The researchers described their study as the most definitive one ever done on the effects of salt on blood pressure -- and said that the results should settle the controversy about how salt consumption affects blood pressure once and for all. Not surprisingly, the results generated suggestions that the current dietary recommendation to limit sodium intake to 2,400 mg be lowered to 1,500 mg per day.
Despite the latest findings, I still feel that while salt is very harmful for some people, it really won't hurt most of us. About 20 percent of the population are salt sensitive and tend to retain excess fluid as a result of consuming salt. This leads to increased circulatory volume, which adds to the workload of the heart and kidneys. The fluid retention can also lead to headaches and obvious swelling, particularly among women. Unless you're salt-sensitive or have a family history of hypertension, I don't advise limiting salt intake too stringently.
However, most Americans each much too much salt and should learn to make do with less. It's easy to change your taste for salt. Just cut down gradually and avoid heavily salted foods. While you can continue to use salt in cooking, try to add less than what most recipes call for.