Health organizations have been on alert about the dangers of salt for a long time.

There are claims that excess salt intake causes high blood pressure and heart disease. Yet, decades of research have observed conflicting results.

What’s more, some evidence shows that eating too little salt can be harmful.

This article takes a detailed look at salt and whether it’s healthy.

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Photography by Aya Brackett

Salt is the most significant source of sodium in your diet. Also known as sodium chloride (NaCl), it comprises 40% sodium and 60% chloride. Today, the terms “salt” and “sodium” are often used interchangeably (1).

Some salt varieties are fortified with iodine, iron, folic acid, or a combination of these. For example, table salt often contains added iodine (2, 3, 4).

Sodium is essential for many essential body functions, including fluid balance, nerve health, nutrient absorption, and muscle function (1, 5).

Countless foods contain sodium — even foods that may taste sweet, such as bread, cereals, cured meats, sauces, condiments, cereals, chips, crackers, and soups.

Historically, salt has been used to preserve food. High salt concentrations help prevent bacterial growth that can cause food to spoil (1).

Salt is typically harvested from salt mines or by evaporating seawater or other mineral-rich water (6).

Many types of salt are available. Popular varieties include plain table salt, Himalayan pink salt, and sea salt. These may vary in taste, texture, and color.

Summary

Salt mainly comprises the minerals sodium and chloride. It has many important functions in your body and is prevalent in many foods.

While your body needs some salt to function properly, too much of it can be detrimental to your health.

Might harm heart health

Excess sodium intake is a global concern. For example, it’s a risk factor for hypertension, also known as high blood pressure. Hypertension increases your risk of heart failure, a condition in which your heart can’t properly pump blood throughout your body (7, 8, 9).

Salt affects blood pressure via several complex pathways that affect your body’s hormonal, inflammatory, immune, and digestive systems. Overeating salt may also suppress the renin-angiotensin system, which regulates blood pressure and sodium levels (8, 10).

Fortunately, reducing your salt intake might lower your blood pressure level, especially in people with a medical condition called salt-sensitive hypertension (11).

In a 2016 analysis of 4 large studies including 113,118 people with and without hypertension, the risk of heart disease and death was higher in those who had a high sodium intake, compared with those with a moderate sodium intake (12).

Similarly, a review of research in 229,785 adults who were followed for 13 years found that higher intakes of sodium were associated with death from heart disease (13).

Plus, a 2020 review that included 616,905 people found that every 1-gram increase in daily sodium intake led to up to a 6% higher heart disease risk (14).

Still, other studies have observed opposing findings and concluded that there isn’t enough evidence to support a link between high intakes of sodium and heart disease (15, 16, 17).

There are also doubts about how beneficial it is to restrict sodium, with some studies suggesting that a moderate sodium intake of around 1–2 teaspoons daily isn’t linked to an increased heart disease risk (1, 15, 18).

Interestingly, it also remains unknown whether reducing your salt intake has any blood pressure benefits if you don’t have hypertension.

A 2014 review found that reducing daily dietary sodium by 2.3 grams decreased systolic blood pressure by an average of only 3.82 mmHg — both among people with and without hypertension (19).

Systolic blood pressure is the top number of blood pressure readings. It signals the pressure your blood applies to artery walls with each heartbeat. Worldwide, mean readings sit around 125–144 mmHg, making the importance of a 3.82 mmHg reduction questionable (20).

What’s more, a recent review found that when reducing sodium intake, people with hypertension experienced a steeper decline in blood pressure than people without hypertension (21).

Ultimately, continued research on the effects of salt intake on heart health is needed — both in people with and without hypertension.

Possibly linked to stomach cancer

Stomach cancer, also known as gastric cancer, is one of the most common types of cancer and the fourth leading cause of cancer death worldwide (22).

Several studies associate high salt diets, typically including foods like salted meats and pickled vegetables, with an increased risk of stomach cancer (23, 24, 25).

A 2016 study in 40,729 Japanese adults found that those with stronger preferences for salty foods had a 30% greater risk of developing gastric cancer than people who preferred less salty foods (25).

The reasons why salt may promote gastric cancer are not well understood.

It’s speculated that high salt intakes may increase the growth of Helicobacter pylori (H. pylori) in your stomach. H. This type of bacteria can lead to inflammation, gastric ulcers, and possibly the development of gastric cancer (26, 27).

Through continued research is needed, some research postulates that a high salt diet may increase cell mutations and cell multiplication, which are characteristics of cancer development (23, 28).

Still, keep in mind that these studies don’t prove that a high salt intake causes stomach cancer, only that the two might be strongly associated. In the end, more research on the topic is warranted.

Summary

Limiting your salt intake might reduce blood pressure and stomach cancer risk. However, research is mixed, and more studies are needed on the effects on salt intake and health.

While too much salt can be harmful, so can too little. Some evidence suggests that a low salt diet can cause low blood pressure, dehydration, low sodium levels, and elevated blood fat levels.

Low blood pressure or hypotension

It’s possible for those with normal blood pressure to become hypotensive, which is when your blood pressure is lower than normal.

Hypotension can be dangerous. Some of the signs and symptoms include dizziness, nausea, fainting, blurred vision, depression, and dehydration (29, 30).

The risk of hypotension is especially high for those who have experienced heart failure, as many treatment plans significantly reduce blood pressure. If you fall into this category, it’s important that you regularly check your blood pressure levels (29, 30).

Dehydration

Because sodium plays a prominent role in managing fluid balance, a low salt diet could cause dehydration, which is when there isn’t enough fluid in your body (31).

Signs of dehydration may present as skin changes, mouth dryness, and thirst. If left untreated, dehydration can lead to hospitalization and even death (32).

Older adults and people with malnutrition are at a higher risk of dehydration and should pay close attention to their daily fluid intake and any symptoms of dehydration (32).

Low blood sodium levels

A low salt diet can cause hyponatremia, a condition in which sodium levels in your blood are lower than normal (33, 34).

People with hyponatremia may experience serious neurological problems like impaired mental status, seizures, water on the brain, coma, and death. Some people with the condition experience gastrointestinal (GI tract) symptoms like appetite loss, vomiting, and nausea (34).

Older adults are at a particularly high risk of hyponatremia, which can lead to falls and other medical complications. As such, it’s important they seek medical attention if they experience any of the above mentioned symptoms (35).

Elevated cholesterol and triglycerides

Salt restriction has been linked to elevated blood levels of LDL (bad) cholesterol and triglycerides.

A 2016 review in 12,210 adults with and without hypertension examined how reducing salt in the diet affected blood fat levels. Eating a reduced-salt diet increased cholesterol by 2.9% and triglycerides by 6.3% in both groups (36).

This is worth keeping in mind, as LDL (bad) cholesterol and triglycerides are known to contribute to heart disease risk (37).

Summary

A low salt diet has been linked to low blood pressure, dehydration, and higher LDL (bad) cholesterol and triglyceride levels in the blood.

Most of the salt in the modern diet comes from restaurant foods and packaged, processed foods.

Some of the top sodium contributors for adults and children in the United States include (38):

  • Bread: sandwich bread, baguettes, crispbread
  • Processed meats: salami, bacon, pastrami, ham, sausages
  • Salty snacks: chips, french fries, crackers, salted nuts
  • Cheese and cheese products: brie, cheese in a can, string cheese, cheddar, mozzarella
  • Grain-based desserts: muffins, cakes, cookies
  • Soups: canned, frozen, powdered

Make sure to always check the labels and nutrition panels of packaged foods. They provide helpful product information, including the sodium content per serving.

To easily identify low sodium foods, look for phrases like low sodium, very low sodium, or reduced sodium. You can also look for the amount of sodium per serving or 100 grams and compare this number with that of any products you’re considering (39).

Summary

High salt foods include bread, salty snacks, soups, processed meats, cheese, and some desserts. Check the packaging and nutrition labels of packaged foods to choose low sodium options.

For decades, health authorities have been firm in their recommendations to cut back on sodium.

The American Heart Association (AHA) advocates that adults get fewer than 2,300 mg of sodium per day, optimally aiming for 1,500 mg, which equals 3/4 teaspoon of salt (39, 40).

Despite this advice, the average American consumes 1.5 teaspoons of salt each day, which exceeds the recommended intake (1).

If you have any health conditions and have been encouraged to reduce your salt intake, it’s important that you follow your healthcare professional’s recommendations.

That said, if you’re in good health and eat a balanced diet, there’s likely no need for you to worry about your salt intake.

Summary

It’s important to follow the recommendations of your healthcare professional if you’ve been told to eat less salt. The optimal daily intake of sodium is 1,500 mg, equaling 3/4 teaspoons. If you’re otherwise healthy, eating a low salt diet is likely unnecessary.

Salt is essential for your body to function correctly, and it’s essential for good health.

However, eating too much or too little salt can be harmful and unhealthy. As with most other nutrients and foods, eating a balanced diet is key.

Many healthy, nutrient-rich foods naturally contain little to no salt, including fruits, vegetables, grains, and raw nuts, legumes, and seeds. Following a healthy eating pattern that includes whole foods like these can reduce your risk of salt-associated disease.

For example, the Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension (DASH) diet and the Mediterranean diet can help reduce high blood pressure. They’re high in vegetables, whole grains, fruits, low fat dairy, and lean protein, but low in sugar, unhealthy fats, and red meat (41).

If your healthcare professional has advised you to eat less salt, learning more about these two diet types may be worth your while.

Everyone needs salt for optimal health. Yet, eating both too much or too little carries some health risks.

The AHA recommends that you limit your sodium intake to 2,300 mg or fewer per day, ideally aiming for 1,500 mg, which equals 3/4 teaspoons of salt.

You can accomplish this by checking the nutrition fact labels of packaged foods and enjoying a balanced diet high in naturally low salt foods like vegetables, fruits, whole grains, low fat dairy, and lean protein.

If you’ve been diagnosed with high blood pressure or heart disease, it’s vital to speak with your healthcare professional and a registered dietitian to discuss what type of eating plan is right for you. Eating a low sodium diet might help reduce your blood pressure.