Health organizations have been warning us about the dangers of salt for a long time.
That's because high salt intake has been claimed to cause a number of health problems, including high blood pressure and heart disease.
However, decades of research have failed to provide convincing evidence to support this (1).
What's more, many studies actually show that eating too little salt can be harmful.
What Is Salt?
Salt is also called sodium chloride (NaCl). It consists of 40% sodium and 60% chloride, by weight.
Salt is by far the biggest dietary source of sodium, and the words "salt" and "sodium" are often used interchangeably.
The essential minerals in salt act as important electrolytes in the body. They help with fluid balance, nerve transmission and muscle function.
Some amount of salt is naturally found in most foods. It's also frequently added to foods in order to improve flavor.
Historically, salt was used to preserve food. High amounts can prevent growth of the bacteria that cause food to go bad.
Salt is harvested in two main ways: from salt mines and by evaporating sea water or other mineral-rich water.
There are actually many types of salt available. Common varieties include plain table salt, Himalayan pink salt and sea salt.
The different types of salt may vary in taste, texture and color. In the picture above, the one on the left is more coarsely ground. The one on the right is finely ground table salt.
In case you're wondering which type is the healthiest, the truth is that they are all quite similar.
Low Salt Intake Can Be Harmful
There is some evidence suggesting that a low-salt diet can be downright harmful. The negative health effects include:
Elevated LDL cholesterol and triglycerides: Salt restriction has been linked to elevated LDL (the "bad") cholesterol and triglycerides (12).
Heart failure: One analysis found that restricting salt intake increased the risk of dying for people with heart failure. The effect was staggering, with a 160% higher risk of death in individuals who reduced their salt intake (17).
Type 2 diabetes: One study found that in type 2 diabetes patients, less sodium was associated with an increased risk of death (22).
High Salt Intake is Linked to Stomach Cancer
Stomach cancer, also known as gastric cancer, is the fifth most common cancer.
It is the third leading cause of cancer death worldwide, and is responsible for more than 700,000 deaths each year (23).
A massive review article from 2012 looked at data from 7 prospective studies, including a total of 268,718 participants (28).
It found that people with high salt intake have a 68% higher risk of stomach cancer, compared to those who have a low intake.
Exactly how or why this happens is not well understood, but several theories exist:
Growth of bacteria: High salt intake may increase the growth of Helicobacter pylori, a bacteria that can lead to inflammation and gastric ulcers. This may increase the risk of stomach cancer (29, 30, 31).
However, keep in mind that these are observational studies. They can not prove that high salt intake causes stomach cancer, only that the two are strongly associated.
Which Foods Are High in Salt/Sodium?
Most of the salt in the modern diet comes from restaurant foods or packaged, processed foods.
In fact, it is estimated that about 75% of the salt in the US diet comes from processed food. Only 25% of the intake occurs naturally in foods or is added during cooking or at the table (32).
Salted snack foods, canned and instant soups, processed meat, pickled foods and soy sauce are examples of high-salt foods.
There are also some seemingly un-salty foods that actually contain surprisingly high amounts of salt, including bread, cottage cheese and some breakfast cereals.
If you are trying to cut back, then food labels almost always list the sodium content.
Should You Eat Less Salt?
However, if you are a healthy person who eats mostly whole, single ingredient foods, then there is probably no need for you to worry about your salt intake.
In this case, you can feel free to add salt during cooking or at the table in order to improve flavor.
Eating extremely high amounts of salt can be harmful, but eating too little may be just as bad for your health (16).
As is so often the case in nutrition, the optimal intake is somewhere between the two extremes.
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