The Great Salt Debate: Is Sea Salt Healthy? (Special Report)

Saturday Aug 13 | BY |
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salt

Is salt good or bad? Is it something we should even worry about?

Health authorities tell us to consume less sodium. On the other hand, we read contradicting statements on the Internet and in newspapers. For example:

  • The problem with salt is the refining process. But Himalayan or Celtic sea salt is healthy.
  • Practices such as drinking salt water are very beneficial
  • We’ve been misled by health authorities, and salt is actually good for us and essential to health
The New York Times Published Several Articles Questioning the Link Between Salt and Health

The New York Times Published Several Articles Questioning the Link Between Salt and Health

What is the truth behind this?

Those leading health organizations have many things wrong. They might be wrong about salt. Fair assumption.

Even Dr. McDougall, an alternative doctor, wrote many articles redeeming salt, and had the interesting point that salt is just the, “Scapegoat of the American Diet.”

Why? According to him, it’s easier for health organizations to blame salt for all of our health problems instead of talking about foods we should avoid, like meat and dairy products. And after all, salt is often most found in those same foods: like cured meats. So people blame the salt when in fact they should blame those animal foods that are rich in salt.

Here, I have to question Dr. McDougall’s logic. What about pickles? Bread? Pasta sauce? There’s a lot of sodium in everything, not just in animal foods, like bacon.

Natural Hygiene and Health Experts of the Past

My background in Natural Hygiene naturally leads me to question the idea that salt is harmless or “essential to life.”

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Sylvester Graham (1794-1851)

Natural Hygiene is a health philosophy synthesized by Dr. Shelton, but that actually has its origins in the writings of the health reformers in the United States of the 19th century. Those were groups of doctors that have been given too little credit for what they accomplished, introducing concepts we now take for granted, such as the importance of pure air, public sanitation, and bathing. They also believed in water fasting, the self-healing powers of the body, and pretty much came up with the concept of “healthy eating.”

Natural Hygienists have always been against salt. Sylvester Graham (1794-1851) from the Graham cracker fame, was one of the earliest advocates of healthy eating. His followers were called “Grahamites” and tried to follow the most natural life possible, abstaining from alcohol, practicing vegetarianism and regularly bathing and brushing their teeth (which was uncommon at the time). They also abstained from salt, as Graham considered it corrosive to the living tissues.

Dr. Herbert Shelton, who coined the term Natural Hygiene and became the most influential Natural Hygienist of all time, wrote several essays on salt. In one essay called “Man Does Not Need Salt, he wrote” :

If it were true that salt  indispensable we should find its use universal among mankind and nearly so among the lower animals. This is not the case. There are numerous peoples who do not use salt. Indeed, the greater part of the human race have lived and died without ever knowing of its existence.

He then goes on to list several examples of human groups who have lived for centuries without salt. He then writes: 

About 1912 I gave up the use of salt. Up to that time I had been a heavy user of salt. At first I missed it from my foods. After a time I did not relish foods in which I could detect the taste of salt. I enjoy the fine delicate flavors of the foods much more than I ever enjoyed the flavor of salt. I have never missed salt after the first weeks after giving it up. I have never had a craving for it. My health has not suffered in any manner from lack of it.

I have brought up three children–ages 23, 20 and 17–without salt. Their mother did not take salt before and during pregnancy nor during lactation. These children have been reared from conception without salt. They are well developed, strong and healthy and brimming over with energy and enthusiasm. Although they were reared as vegetarians, who are supposed to need salt most of all, they have not needed salt.

Since the time Graham started his crusade and condemned the use of salt along with all other condiments, literally hundreds of thousands of people in America have discontinued the use of salt, many families of children have been reared without it, and no harm has ever come from abstinence from this “essential of animal life.”

For more than twenty years I have excluded salt from the diets of my patients and have watched them get well without this supposed-to-be indispensable article of “diet.” Some of these patients have not returned to the use of salt after leaving my care. Some of them have reared their children without it. Nowhere has any evidence of any harm from a lack of salt been observable.

Why, with all the historical, observational, empirical and experimental evidence that is available bearing on this subject, will men continue to declare that “salt is essential to animal life”? Why will they ignore the facts and cling to a superstition?

The True North Center, a modern fasting centers that is a natural descendant of the Natural Hygiene philosophy, also advocates a salt-free diet that they call SOS-free. (That is, free of sugar, oil, and salt.)

Dr. Klaper, one of the great MDs working at True North, also says he’s a recovering salt addict. And he advises his patients to avoid salt as much as possible. After my last stay there, he even gave me a parting gift: a bottle of Benson’s Salt-Free Seasoning.

So what’s the deal with salt?

lewiskdahl-250 Dr. Lewis Dahl was one of the first scientists who researched the effects of salt on blood pressure. When he found that a low salt intake lowers blood pressure, his natural question was “does a high salt intake cause increased blood pressure?”

In the 60s, he bred two strains of rats with different sensitivity to salt in developing hypertension. His experiments started building the case against salt.

Opponents will claim that this was insufficient to prove that salt is a major cause of hypertension in humans, and have often trashed Dr. Dahl’s work on that basis. However, they have failed to examine the rest of the evidence against salt. And since 1954,  the science has added up.

Here are the basic arguments:
* denotes reference number at end of article.

  1. Human beings are adapted to a very low sodium diet, through millions of years of evolution (from pre-human species to modern humans). We ate natural foods that were low in sodium. Breast milk is low in sodium. (Cow’s milk contains much more sodium, by comparison). Because of this, we are genetically programmed to function on a low-sodium diet and eliminate excess sodium in the urine.
  2. When Europeans discovered isolated tribes and communities that did not use salt, they found that they also never experienced hypertension in their lifetime. *1 *2 On the other hand, modern humans on modern diets have a 60-80% chance of developing hypertension in their lifetime.
  3. There were exceptions to this rule, and a few isolated tribes and communities used salt. For example, the Lau tribe in the Solomon Islands was studied in 1966-1970. They had the highest blood pressure readings in the region, and also happened to cook all of their fish, sweet potatoes and greens in sea water – so they had a high salt intake. *3
  4. It’s been discovered that the actual sodium requirement for humans is only 300-500 mg a day. Most people consume over 4000 mg. a day, sometimes up to 6000 or 8000 mg.
  5. Chimpanzees are 98% genetically similar to human beings. That noted, scientists tested the salt theory on a group of chimpanzees. Salt intake was progressively increased to 5800 mg a day. Their blood pressure rose by 33/10 mmHg. Even on just 1900 mg. of sodium a day, their systolic blood pressure increased 12 mm. When the scientists removed salt from their diet, their blood pressure slowly came down to their pre-experiment levels. *4
  6. Human experiments showed the same thing. *5-9
  7. The Rice-Fruit Diet by Dr. William Kemptner was one of the first diets ever used to treat hypertension before drugs were available. It contained 150 mg. of sodium per day. This diet was extremely efficient in treating the most severe case of hypertension — in most but not all people. It was found by later studies that it was the low-sodium content that gave the results. Blood pressure went up with added salt, but not with added protein. They were able to add 500 mg. of sodium a day without an increase in blood pressure, but not more than that. *10
  8. We know that Thiazide medicines lower blood pressure, probably by increasing sodium excretion. *11

How About Potassium?

We know that the more potassium we consume and the better the ratio we have of potassium to sodium, the lower our blood pressure is.

So consuming a lot of potassium in natural foods is important, as well.

How Salt Increases Blood Pressure

It’s not that complicated.

As I mentioned, humans evolved on a low-sodium diet. Our requirements are very low, under 1000 mg. a day. When we start introducing more and more sodium to our diet, our body must work harder to get rid of this extra sodium.

The blood becomes saltier. The body must dilute this salt. That means more water and more pressure.

Get too much sodium and your kidneys will work overtime to do their job.

To suck out all of this sodium and remove it in the urine, kidneys become the best reverse osmosis machine in the world. They’ll draw extra water from your blood. But when there’s extra pressure, it puts a strain on them. High-sodium diets damage the kidneys over time.

Because of all of this extra pressure, the walls of our arteries become thicker. Eventually, small arteries can become so narrow that they clog up completely, or burst entirely because of the pressure. There goes a stroke.

What’s a Normal Blood Pressure?

Normal blood pressure is not 120/80. This is simply the cutoff at which your doctor will start worrying about high blood pressure. They’ll probably not worry until you hit 140/90, the point at which the benefits of hypertension medications start to outweigh the risks.

Normal blood pressure is probably UNDER 110/70. Few people in Western societies achieve such a blood pressure over a lifetime because of our diet and high-salt intake.

The Salt Skeptics

It would take too long to go through all of the arguments of salt skeptics. But basically, we can point out a few things:

  • Some studies have shown that people consuming less salt are living shorter. Explanation:This is due to a problem called “reverse causation.” In Western societies, the only people that tend to cut out sodium are those suffering from major illnesses. Therefore, it is normal to find an association between illness and low-salt intake.
  • In a few cases, a low-sodium diet can be deadly for people with serious heart failure, taking drugs that flush out their sodium reserves. Explanation: Those are rare cases and can’t extend to the rest of the population.
  • Many have raised doubts about the famous “Intersalt study,” which initially did not find a significant link between blood pressure and sodium. Explanation: The results were revised in 1996 after the authors had realized they had not corrected the numbers for a “regression dilution problem.” Salt intake was then found to strongly correlate with blood pressure. *12
  • Many of those studies are flawed and paid for by the salt industry. Dr. Greger has an interesting series of videos on this salt controversy. Check it out here.
  • Heavily controlled and rigorous human trials have showed that moderately lowering sodium to 1600 mg. a day significantly reduces blood pressure.
  • Because some people don’t react to sodium restriction, the average drop can appear small. But remember that every 1 point drop in systolic blood pressure leads to a 1% reduction in overall death.

Remember: the salt and processed food industry needs salt to stay alive. They will put out research to try to confuse the public about salt. Meanwhile, the scientific consensus is clear: too much salt is deadly.

Is Salt Paleo?

Vegans love salt, but so do Paleo bloggers. This seems strange, as salt is definitely an ingredient that was not part of our ancestral diet. We can have arguments about the role of animal protein in our diet, but one thing we can all agree upon is that salt is not part of a natural human diet.

Loren Cordain, author of the Paleo Diet, writes:

A disturbing notion has now crept into virtually all of Paleo diet cookbooks: salt is OK. Recipe after recipe seems to include either salt or sea salt as a key ingredient. Whoa! Where the heck did this idea come from? Certainly not from the peer review scientific which preceded and defined the modern Paleo Diet concept, indicating that added salt was never part of humanity’s original fare. Perhaps this erroneous belief has been promoted by popular, non-scientific Paleo bloggers? Read his excellent article : Click Here

How to Tell If Food Has Too much Salt?

My simple rule of thumb is this: if we’re talking about restaurant food, food your friends will make for you, or any type of processed food – if it tastes great, then it probably contains too much salt!

Chefs simply don’t know how to make food taste good without salt. Food companies don’t want to spend the money doing it.

Making food that tastes good without salt starts with simply using ingredients that taste great on their own, without salt. Good quality fruits and vegetables. Fresh and dried herbs and spices. And of course, a trained palate that is now used to a lower salt content.

My New Life With Much Less Salt

I’ve cut out most salt from my diet. Reluctantly at first, and then it became quite easy.

I cook without salt. I use plenty of herbs and spices (and only get the highest-quality ones). Many of my meals (like fruit) naturally don’t contain any salt. I use some salt-free seasonings. Salads are easy to enjoy salt free: simply dice up a mango in there!

I still occasionally use some condiments that contain salt, such as mustard. Yes, I know, those condiments are not ideal, but my palate never got and probably will never get to the point of being able to enjoy all of my food without any condiment whatsoever.

I’m not trying to militantly avoid every grain of salt, but on the whole I’m probably getting less than 1500 mg. of sodium a day now. Surprisingly, it’s not that hard to get 1000 mg. of sodium without salt, if you eat a lot of vegetables, like spinach and chart.

The results?

I’m now pleasantly surprised and even shocked when checking my blood pressure.

I’m now getting consistent readings under 120/80.

My average is now 112/74

For me, this is outstanding.

You have to understand that hypertension is rampant in my family. Everyone is on pills: my mom, my aunts. My dad had uncontrolled hypertension and died from heart disease.

Before that, my average reading was 125/86, which is considered pre-hypertensive. And that was on a purely plant-based diet! (With animal products, my blood pressure gets even higher).

So for me, it’s worth continuing this “low-salt” life.

Other Benefits

I’ve noticed other benefits with this low-salt intake. For one, I’m not as thirsty. I just don’t get that feeling that I’ve got to down some water after a meal to feel better.

My digestion has improved. I just feel better in general.

Without salt, my face reverts back to its natural shape. I lose the puffiness that so many people associate with aging.

The downside? If I inadvertently eat anything containing too much salt, I wake up in the middle of the night with an incredible, unquenchable thirst. That could happen if I eat out, as restaurant food inevitably contains too much salt.

What About Gourmet Salts?

I can’t end this article without answering a question that will inevitably come up. What about Himalayan salt? Celtic salt? Braggs Liquid Aminos?

The truth is that it doesn’t matter. Yes, some of these salts contain an array of minerals. But most of what’s in it is sodium chloride.

It’s not about salt per se — it’s about sodium. Too much sodium is the problem. And all of those products and more contain a lot of sodium. Because many gourmet salts are moist, one teaspoon of it might contain less sodium. But it still contains mostly sodium — which is a lot.

Braggs contains just as much sodium as soy sauce. It looks like it contains less on the label because they play with the serving size.

Even if you used dried celery juice as a powder, you could still get too much sodium if you ate enough of it. The source doesn’t matter. The quantity does.

That being said, if you cook your food without salt and add a tiny bit on the surface of your food, you’ll probably do just fine. In that case, choose the salt you love the most.

Exceptions to the Rule?

Perhaps due to genetic factors or certain health conditions, some people might not thrive on a low sodium diet. But when considering the fact that most people develop sustained elevated blood pressure at some point in their lives, we can say, for most people, eating less salt would be wise.

If you went out on a 100-mile run in the desert, like some ultra-marathons do, having some Gatorade or extra sodium might not be a bad idea. But under normal circumstances, athletes will thrive on an adequate sodium diet. That’s what I learned when working with Dr. Douglas Graham, who trains professional athletes on a low-sodium, high-fruit diet. Once the body adapts to the lower sodium intake, you can train heavily without requiring extra salt. And remember that many vegetables already contain a fair amount of sodium! It’s not that difficult to get up to 1000 mg. a day eating natural foods only (celery, chard, etc.)

Perhaps you’re one of those lucky people who can eat as much salt as they want and stay in perfect health and with ideal blood pressure. However, it could be that even if your blood pressure readings are “normal,” that the salt could be affecting your health in other ways. It’s certainly worth considering.

Is it time to ditch the salt habit?

REFERENCE 1: http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/0002870372902992
REFERENCE 2: Blood pressure in four remote populations in the INTERSALT Study. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/2767757
REFERENCE 3: Antecedents of Cardiovascular Disease in Six Solomon Islands Societies http://circ.ahajournals.org/content/49/6/1132.short
REFERENCE 4: The effect of increased salt intake on blood pressure of chimpanzees. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/7489355
REFERENCE 5-
Moderate sodium restriction and diuretics in the treatment of hypertension. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/4564947
Reference 6: Hypertension treated by sodium restriction.
http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/7033744
Reference 7: Double-blind randomised crossover trial of moderate sodium restriction in essential hypertension. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/6120346
Reference 8: Double-blind study of three sodium intakes and long-term effects of sodium restriction in essential hypertension. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/2573761
Reference 9: An overview of randomized trials of sodium reduction and blood pressure. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/1987008
REFERENCE 10: DIETARY TREATMENT OF HYPERTENSION. CLINICAL AND METABOLIC STUDIES OF PATIENTS ON THE RICE-FRUIT DIET. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC436162/pdf/jcinvest00410-0077.pdf
Reference 11: TREATMENT OF HYPERTENSION WITH CHLOROTHIAZIDE, http://jama.jamanetwork.com/article.aspx?articleid=325216
REFERENCE 12: Intersalt revisited: further analyses of 24 hour sodium excretion and blood pressure within and across populations. Intersalt Cooperative Research Group. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/8634612
Frederic Patenaude

Frederic Patenaude has been an important influence in the raw food and natural health movement since he started writing and publishing in 1998, first by being the editor of Just Eat an Apple magazine. He is the author of over 20 books, including The Raw Secrets, the Sunfood Cuisine and Raw Food Controversies. Since 2013 he’s been the Editor-in-Chief of Renegade Health.

Frederic loves to relentlessly debunk nutritional myths. He advocates a low-fat, plant-based diet and has had over 10 years of experience with raw vegan diets. He lives in Montreal, Canada.

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