Can eating less salt really benefit your heart health? A recent meta-analysis that appeared in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) in 2011 found that a reduced salt intake lowered blood pressure in participants. This analysis, and a large number of additional studies, point to the health hazards of too much salt:

  • A separate study in JAMA of nearly 30,000 people over more than four years found that people with heart disease could increase their risk of stroke, heart failure, and dying from heart-related causes if they consumed a diet high in sodium.
  • Researchers who analyzed the amount of sodium excreted over a 24-hour period among more than 10,000 adults from 32 countries found that the greater the salt consumption, the higher the average blood pressure and the greater the increase in blood pressure with age. Results were published in the British Medical Journal (BMJ).
  • A meta-analysis of controlled trials showed that children who eat a diet high in salt are likely to have high blood pressure later in life, as reported in the journal Hypertension.
  • Another meta-analysis of over 175,000 participants, published in BMJ, found that high salt intake significantly increased the risk of stroke and total cardiovascular disease.
  • Several studies, including one published in the Journal of the American College of Nutrition, indicate that a high-sodium diet may raise the risk of osteoporosis. This is because more salt seems to encourage the excretion of calcium.

The Benefits and Dangers of Salt

Sodium, or salt, plays an integral role in maintaining the proper balance of fluids in your body. Salt contains electrolytes, substances that carry an electric charge through your body.

Keeping the proper amount of salt in your bloodstream improves the function of your cell membranes, which impacts major bodily functions. Sodium also helps your body absorb other vitamins and minerals during the digestive process and maintain normal blood volume and pressure.

But the fact is, while your body does need a certain amount of salt, most Americans consume significantly more than they need. It’s the excess amount that can sometimes lead to problems.

High blood pressure is the primary health condition associated with consuming more salt than your body needs. Too much salt can cause your blood pressure to rise, putting you at risk for potentially serious health conditions.

Blood pressure that measures higher than 140/90 mm/Hg is considered high blood pressure (hypertension), and puts you at risk for heart disease or stroke. Reducing the amount of salt in your diet is a positive step toward lowering your blood pressure and reducing health risks.

Intake Recommendations

A wide variety of foods contain salt—foods with cheese, salty snacks like potato chips, and fast food could be causing you to consume much more sodium than you need.

The Food and Nutrition Board of the Institute of Medicine recommends an intake of between 1200 and 1500 mg of salt per day for adults—a modest amount that equals less than one teaspoon of table salt per day.

The National Heart, Blood, and Lung Institute (NHBLI) has a looser guideline for adults: less than 2300 mg of sodium daily to avoid health problems such as high blood pressure. However, experts believe that most Americans already eat more salt than either of these recommended upper limits.  

What You Can Do

Cutting back on sodium doesn’t mean you can’t eat anything with salt in it. But it does mean that it pays to do some planning. The good news is that even slight reductions can help: consuming just half a teaspoon less a day creates health benefits.

According to studies published in the New England Journal of Medicine, the cost benefits of reducing the amount of salt you eat every day by just a half-teaspoon would equal those of reduced smoking, obesity, and cholesterol levels. Research has also shown that cutting back on salt intake now improves health later. Two studies reported on in BMJ tested the health effects of consuming less sodium, and found that it not only reduced blood pressure, but after 10 to 15 years, people were 25 percent less likely to have had a heart attack or stroke.

By eating just half a teaspoon less per day, you can see the short-term benefits of reduced bloating and risk of edema and lowered blood pressure. On a longer-term basis, this small change solution can help you lower your incidence of heart disease, stroke, heart attack, osteoporosis, and kidney disease. Speak to your doctor if you have concerns about the amount of sodium you consume or if you need help making changes to your diet. The steps you take now can pay big dividends toward a healthier future.