Americans know that salt raises your blood pressure.
Or do we? A recent study out of Europe suggests that salt intake has zero correlation to higher or lower blood pressure. The study followed several thousand people in Belgium, Bulgaria, Italy, Romania and Russia, all of whom had normal blood pressure at the beginning of the study. At the end of the study, 8 years later, sodium levels were determined by urinalysis and blood pressure levels were once again recorded.
Blood pressure was no higher in those who consumed more salt, and in fact their instance of heart disease was actually lower.
The study faces criticism from American researchers. The level of sodium in someone’s urine on one particular day (here, the final day of an eight year study) doesn’t necessarily represent the amount of sodium that person ate over that eight year period. Plus the study doesn’t seem to suggest how salt could actually reduce the risk of heart disease. It’s not clear what the differences were between diets of those who ate more salt and diets of those who ate less; and so it’s difficult to know for certain whether salt was the cause of the drop in heart disease.
Finally, the American researchers point to decades of studies showing a tie between salt, blood pressure and heart disease.
But I hesitate to disregard the study. For one, every time I hear about salt and blood pressure I think of Gary Taubes’ Good Calories, Bad Calories, in which he questions the connection between the two. Having reviewed large quantities of research on blood pressure and heart disease, Taubes was not necessarily convinced that the one leads to the other.
And indeed it would be easy for researchers over the past few decades to believe that salt leads to high blood pressure. The foods Taubes seems to believe lead to high blood pressure–refined carbohydrates and other heavily processed foods–tend in the United States today to be loaded with salt. If these foods lead to high blood pressure, and contain a great deal of salt, then studies will tend to show a relationship between salt consumption and high blood pressure. But that doesn’t mean the salt is causing the high blood pressure. It could well be the refined carbohydrates that also permeate these highly processed foods.
So it’s tough to know for sure. I’ve limited salt in my diet since childhood because in my household, it was viewed as harmful. And because it’s hard to imagine that pouring on the salt will improve my health, I continue to avoid it. But I’m no longer so sure it’s harmful. And if the European study is correct, then it may actually be good for me.
Do you think salt leads to higher blood pressure and heart disease?