Salt is a naturally occurring compound that is commonly used to season food.
In addition to increasing flavor, it is used as a food preservative and can help stop the growth of bacteria (1).
Yet over the past few decades, it has gained a bad reputation and has been linked to conditions like high blood pressure, heart disease and even stomach cancer.
In fact, the most recent Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend limiting sodium intake to below 2,300 mg daily (2).
Keep in mind that salt is only about 40% sodium, so this amount is equal to about 1 teaspoon (6 grams).
However, some evidence shows that salt may affect individuals differently and may not have as much of an impact on heart disease as once believed.
This article will take a deeper look at the research to determine whether or not salt is actually bad for you.
Salt Plays an Important Role in the Body
Salt, also known as sodium chloride, is a compound made up of about 40% sodium and 60% chloride, two minerals that play an important role in health.
Concentrations of sodium are carefully regulated by the body and fluctuations lead to negative side effects (3).
Sodium is involved in muscle contractions and losses through sweat or fluid can contribute to muscle cramps in athletes (4).
Chloride, on the other hand, is the second most abundant electrolyte in the blood after sodium (7).
Electrolytes are atoms found in bodily fluid that carry an electrical charge and are essential to everything from nerve impulses to fluid balance.
Low levels of chloride can lead to a condition called respiratory acidosis in which carbon dioxide builds up in the blood, causing the blood to become more acidic (8).
Although both of these minerals are important, research shows that individuals may respond differently to sodium.
While some people may not be affected by a high-salt diet, others may experience high blood pressure or bloating with increased sodium intake (9).
Those who experience these effects are considered salt-sensitive and may need to monitor their sodium intake more carefully than others.
Summary: Salt contains sodium and chloride, which regulate muscle contractions, nerve function, blood pressure and fluid balance. Some people may be more sensitive to the effects of a high-salt diet than others.
High Salt Intake Is Associated With Stomach Cancer
Some evidence shows that increased salt intake could be linked to an increased risk of stomach cancer.
This may be because it increases the growth of Helicobacter pylori, a type of bacteria associated with a higher risk of stomach cancer (10).
One study in 2011 looked at over 1,000 participants and showed that a higher salt intake was associated with a higher risk of stomach cancer (11).
Another large review with 268,718 participants found that those with a high salt intake had a 68% higher risk of stomach cancer than those with a low salt intake (12).
However, it’s important to note that these studies only show an association between stomach cancer and high salt intake. More research is needed to determine whether a high-salt diet actually contributes to its development.
Summary: Increased salt intake has been associated with an increased risk of stomach cancer, though further research is needed to understand this relationship.
Reduced Salt Intake May Lower Blood Pressure
High blood pressure can cause extra strain on the heart and is one of the risk factors for heart disease.
Several large studies have shown that a low-salt diet may help lower blood pressure, especially in those with high blood pressure.
One review with 3,230 participants found that a moderate reduction in salt intake produced a modest decrease in blood pressure, causing an average decrease of 4.18 mmHg for systolic blood pressure and 2.06 mmHg for diastolic blood pressure.
Though it reduced blood pressure in those with both high and normal blood pressure, this effect was greater for those with high blood pressure.
In fact, for those with normal blood pressure, salt reduction only decreased systolic blood pressure by 2.42 mmHg and diastolic blood pressure by 1.00 mmHg (13).
Another large study had similar findings, noting that reduced salt intake led to a decrease in blood pressure, especially in those with high blood pressure (14).
Keep in mind that certain individuals may be more sensitive to salt’s effects on blood pressure (15).
Those who are salt-sensitive are more likely to see a decrease in blood pressure with a low-salt diet, while those with normal blood pressure may not see much of an impact.
However, as discussed below, it is unclear how beneficial this reduction in blood pressure may be, as low salt intake has not been associated with a decreased risk of heart disease or death.
Summary: Studies show that decreasing salt intake may reduce blood pressure, especially in those who are salt-sensitive or have high blood pressure.
Low Salt Intake May Not Reduce the Risk of Heart Disease or Death
There is some evidence showing that high salt intake may be associated with an increased risk of certain conditions like stomach cancer or high blood pressure.
Despite this, there are several studies showing that a reduced-salt diet may not actually decrease the risk of heart disease or death.
A large 2011 review made up of seven studies found that salt reduction had no effect on the risk of heart disease or death (16).
Another review with over 7,000 participants showed that reduced salt intake did not affect the risk of death and had only a weak association with the risk of heart disease (17).
However, the effect of salt on the risk of heart disease and death may vary for certain groups.
For example, one large study showed that a low-salt diet was associated with a reduced risk of death but only in overweight individuals (18).
Meanwhile, another study actually found that a low-salt diet increased the risk of death by 159% in those with heart failure (19).
Clearly, further research is needed to determine how decreasing salt intake may affect different populations.
But it’s safe to say that reducing salt intake does not automatically decrease the risk of heart disease or death for everyone.
Summary: Studies show that a low-salt diet may not decrease the risk of heart disease or death for the general population, although some groups may respond to salt differently.
Low Salt Intake Can Have Negative Side Effects
Although a high salt intake is linked to several conditions, a diet too low in salt can also come with negative side effects.
Several studies have shown that reduced-salt diets could be linked to increased levels of blood cholesterol and blood triglycerides.
These are fatty substances found in the blood that can build up in the arteries and increase the risk of heart disease (20).
A large 2012 study showed that a low-salt diet increased blood cholesterol by 2.5% and blood triglycerides by 7% (21).
Another study also found that a low-salt diet increased “bad” LDL cholesterol by 4.6% and blood triglycerides by 5.9% (22).
Insulin resistance causes insulin to work less effectively and leads to higher blood sugar levels as well as an increased risk of diabetes (26).
A low-salt diet can also lead to a condition called hyponatremia, or low blood sodium.
With hyponatremia, your body holds on to extra water due to low levels of sodium, excess heat or overhydration, causing symptoms like headaches, fatigue, nausea and dizziness (27).
Summary: A low salt intake may be associated with low blood sodium, an increase in blood triglycerides or cholesterol, and a higher risk of insulin resistance.
How to Minimize Salt-Sensitive Symptoms
Whether you want to cut down on salt-related bloating or you need to reduce your blood pressure, there are several simple ways to do it.
First of all, reducing your sodium intake may be beneficial for those who experience symptoms with high salt intake.
You might think that the easiest way to cut down on sodium is by tossing out the salt shaker altogether, but that’s not necessarily the case.
The main source of sodium in the diet is actually processed foods, which account for a whopping 77% of sodium found in the average diet (28).
To make the biggest dent in your sodium intake, try swapping processed foods for whole foods. Not only will this reduce sodium intake, but it can also help promote a healthier diet rich in vitamins, minerals, fiber and essential nutrients.
If you need to reduce your sodium even more, cut down on restaurant and fast foods. Opt for low-sodium varieties of canned vegetables and soups, and while you can continue seasoning your foods with salt to add flavor, keep it in moderation.
Besides reducing sodium intake, there are several other factors that can help lower blood pressure.
Magnesium and potassium are two minerals that help regulate blood pressure. Increasing your intake of these nutrients through foods like leafy greens and beans may help reduce your blood pressure (29).
Some studies have also shown that a low-carb diet could be effective in reducing blood pressure (30).
Overall, moderate sodium intake with a healthy diet and lifestyle is the simplest way to mitigate some of the effects that may come with salt sensitivity.
Summary: Eating fewer processed foods and increasing your intake of magnesium and potassium can help reduce symptoms of salt sensitivity.
The Bottom Line
Salt is an important part of the diet and its components play essential roles in your body.
However, for some people, too much salt may be associated with conditions like an increased risk of stomach cancer and high blood pressure.
Nevertheless, salt affects people differently and may not lead to adverse health effects for everyone.
If you’ve been advised by your doctor to reduce your salt intake, continue to do so.
Otherwise, it seems that those who are salt-sensitive or have high blood pressure are the most likely to benefit from a low-salt diet. For most, sodium intake around the recommended one teaspoon (6 grams) per day is ideal.