Another Dietary Axiom in Doubt – Study Finds Low-Salt Diet May Not Decrease Risk of Heart Disease

Each week seems to bring with it news that another “accepted” food-related maxim we had come to rely on is disproved or reversed. Eggs, alcohol, milk, coffee, and even fat (as of last week, at least) have been good (or bad) for you at different times. Now, yet another, dietary axiom has been put in doubt.

Salt has always been regarded as potentially harmful when consumed in excess amounts. Whether promoting the retention of water in body tissue, raising blood pressure, or being suspected of increasing the risk of heart-related problems, salt has been viewed as a “bad boy” of the diet world.

Put that belief on hold. Research now indicates that a low-salt diet may not decrease the risk of heart problems and may actually increase the risk of death from heart attack or stroke.

Data from a 13-year study finds that people whon reported eating low levels of salt were actually 37% more likely to die from cardiovascular causes such as coronary heart disease and stroke than people who ate salt in higher amounts than the U.S. government guidelines recommend.

Researchers also noted, however, that the findings do not prove that limiting sodium is actually bad for your health.

Surprisingly, evidence supporting the notion that low-salt diets protect against death from heart and artery disease has not materialized in the years since salt was blacklisted by heart experts.

Under current government nutrition guidelines, adults should limit their daily sodium intake to less than 2,300 milligrams – about a teaspoon full.

As more and more studies seem to be showing, “one size doesn’t fit all when it comes to diet,” as researcher Hillel W. Cohen, MPH, DrPH told WebMD. “The certainty with which these [U.S. government] recommendations are being made is just not supported by the data.”

In the study published in the February 22 issue of The American Journal of Medicine, a research team from the Albert Einstein College of Medicine reviewed data on the eating habits of people interviewed between 1976 and 1980.

In the roughly 13 years after the nutritional data was collected, there were 1,343 deaths among the 7,154 people included in the analysis. Of those deaths, 541 were from cardiovascular disease.

Even after adjusting for total calorie intake, age, and smoking status, people who restricted their daily salt intake to less than 2,300 milligrams a day were significantly more likely to have died from cardiovascular causes than people who ate more salt.

There were exceptions to the findings, however. The link between a low-salt diet and a higher risk of death was not seen among nonwhites, obese persons, and people who were under the age of 55 when enrolled in the study. Yet, no single subgroup appeared to benefit from eating a diet that was lower in sodium.

Thus, while some people may very well benefit from a low-salt diet, there is little clinical evidence supporting the general recommendation that everyone should eat that way. It now appears that salt affects different people differently. Unfortunately, health experts still don’t know who the “hyper-responders” are.

(Source: WebMD Medical News 2/21/06)

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