America has declared war on salt. The nutrition militia, claiming that the enemy is attacking you and your buddies, points to hypertension stats: More than 20 percent of American men between 35 and 44 have high blood pressure. Even the Institute of Medicine is leaning on the government to set standards for sodium content in foods; and the American Heart Association, along with the City of New York and 30 other cities, is promoting a new National Salt Reduction Initiative.
So should you enlist? It's a tough battle. "If people want to avoid salt, they really can't—not unless they skip processed, prepared, and restaurant foods," says Marion Nestle, Ph.D., M.P.H., a professor of nutrition, food studies, and public health at New York University.
What's more, salt may not even be the true enemy. Before you sign up to fight, tune out the hysteria and plunge into the latest nutrition intel.
Enlighten yourself! Discover the truth behind five food myths.
Can I live without salt?
Salt is essential to health. Your body can't make it, and your cells need it to function, says Aryan Aiyer, M.D., director of the heart center at Magee-Womens Hospital at the University of Pittsburgh medical center. In fact, the Institute of Medicine recommends consuming at least 3.8 grams of salt a day (just over 1/2 teaspoon), mainly for the sodium.
Sodium is an electrolyte, a humble member of that hyped class of minerals that help maintain muscle function and hydration; that's why sport drinks contain sodium. You're constantly losing sodium through sweat and urine, and if you don't replenish that sodium and water, your blood pressure may drop far enough to make you dizzy and light-headed. "Sodium acts like a sponge to help hold fluids in your blood," says Rikki Keen, R.D., an adjunct instructor of dietetics and nutrition at the University of Alaska.
You may not be short on salt, but check your intake of the five nutrients you're missing out on.
However, people who chug too much water can lower their sodium levels so far that they develop hyponatremia, a potentially deadly condition more common among recreational exercisers than professional athletes, says Marie Spano, R.D., a sports nutritionist in Atlanta. Salt does more than just make our food taste good; without it, we'd die.
Do I need to watch my salt intake like a hawk?
If you have high blood pressure, you've probably been advised to cut back on salt. The mechanism seems clear: Sodium causes your blood to hold more water, so your heart has to pump harder, making your blood pressure rise. If your blood pressure is already high, that's a problem. (A high intake of salt can also be dangerous for people who are salt-sensitive—that is, they have trouble excreting excess salt.)
What if you're a healthy guy? The Institute of Medicine is adamant in recommending that people ages 14 and over consume no more than 2,300 milligrams of sodium a day—about a teaspoon of salt. The Institute of Medicine sets a lower limit (1,500 milligrams, or slightly more than 1/2 teaspoon) for middle-aged and older adults, African Americans, and people with kidney disease, hypertension, or diabetes.