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Scientists Advise: Low-Salt Diet Not for Everyone

Some experts question the extent to which cutting salt in the diet would mean fewer heart attacks and strokes.
Some experts question the extent to which cutting salt in the diet would mean fewer heart attacks and strokes.
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Editor's Note: Esther Kinyua wrote this story after taking the VOA Learning English online course, " Writing Science in Plain English" at the American Resource Center in the U.S. Embassy in Nairobi, Kenya. Her story is the runner-up winner of the contest sponsored by the U.S. Embassy and VOA Learning English.

Low-salt diets are actually harmful to our bodies, a recent study found. These diets may actually increase the risk of developing heart disease, or even cause death.

These findings, says WebMD, a public health website, are contrary to the popular wisdom that has long said low-salt diets are healthy.

Scientists at McMaster University’s Population Health Research Institute, working with researchers from Hamilton Health Services, conducted the study. They examined medical information about 130,000 people from 49 countries.

The scientists, led by Andrew Mente of McMaster University, wanted to find out if the relationship between salt, strokes and heart disease is different for those who have high blood pressure.

They found that no matter whether one has high blood pressure or not, low sodium intake increased the risk of stroke, heart attack and death.

The study goes on to suggest that only certain people should be concerned about reducing sodium in their diets. “The findings … emphasize the importance of reducing salt intake among people with hypertension and who eat food with high levels of sodium," Mente said.

McMaster University’s Martin O'Donnell, the study’s co-author, said in a press release in May 2016, "This study adds to our understanding of the relationship between salt intake and health. The study also questions the correctness of present guidelines that recommend low salt intake for everyone.”

He noted, "An approach that recommends salt in moderation, particularly focused on those with hypertension, appears more in-line with current evidence."

Mente added that the current general recommendations relating to the maximum healthy salt intake seems too low, especially since they do not consider an individual’s blood pressure.

"Low sodium intake reduces blood pressure modestly, compared to average intake, but low sodium intake also has other effects."

"One of those effects includes harmful elevation of particular hormones - and this offsets any benefits. The main issue is not whether very low sodium intake lowers blood pressure, but whether it results in improved health," Mente said.

In the McMaster University study, the researchers found that only around 10% of people had high levels of both hypertension and sodium consumption. In general, health experts consider a high level of sodium consumption to be over 6 grams daily.

Mente pointed out that this indicates that many people around the world are taking in healthy amounts of salt.

He also said that efforts should be targeted at reducing salt intake among the people who are most likely to get hypertension and who take in high amounts of salt.

Mente does not agree with the current strategy of reducing sodium intake in almost all countries. However, he would accept efforts to reduce salt intake in some areas, such as China or Central Asia, where the average salt consumption is abnormally high.

At present, Canadians normally consume about 4 grams of sodium daily. But there are recommendations that they should lower this amount to less than 2.3 grams each day. U.S. guidelines for sodium intake are for people under 50 to have less than 2.3 grams a day. For those over 51 and persons of any age who are African American or have hypertension, diabetes, or chronic kidney disease, the U.S. guidelines suggest having less than 1.5 grams a day.

In Kenya, the Ministry of Public Health and Sanitation recommends general reduction of salt intake to levels below 5 grams as recommended by the World Health Organization. This is as a measure to reduce the risk of hypertension and other non-communicable diseases. Less than 5% of people in the world consume such low levels of sodium. Kenyans are the lowest consumers of salt, averaging 4 grams a day.

The WebMD report says Elliott Antman, past president of the American Heart Association (AHA) criticized Mente's study.

Antman says the study does not correctly measure sodium intake, and it should not make Americans stop worrying about salt. The American Heart Association continues to recommend less than 1.5 grams of sodium per day from all sources," he said.

Most Americans get more than 3.4 grams of sodium a day.

I'm Alice Bryant.

I'm Jill Robbins.

Esther Kinyua wrote this story for Learning English. George Grow was the editor.

Esther Kinyua
Esther Kinyua

This article was written by Esther Kinyua. She earned a Masters Degree in Chemistry from Kenyatta University. She has been teaching for nine years. She says, "The thing I love most about teaching is that it always opens my mind to think and work creatively with learners of different personalities and interests."

Outside of class, you will find her participating in church-based community service. She also enjoys playing games with her kids and baking pastries.


Words in This Story

diet - n.

contrary -

wisdom -

conduct -

sodium - n. a soft silver-white element that is found in salt, baking soda, and other compounds

emphasize - v. to give special attention to (something) : to place emphasis on (something)

intake - n. the amount of something (such as food or drink) that is taken into your body

offset - v. to cancel or reduce the effect of (something) : to create an equal balance between two things

hypertension – n. high blood pressure

Do you think you eat the right amount of salt? Why or why not? Write to us in the Comments Section.