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Like salty foods? Study shows salt may not be all bad

More research needed to know how much salt each person's heart can handle

chef using seasoning blogOnly 1 percent of adults meet the current guidelines for dietary salt intake, which has led to efforts to reduce sodium in common foods like bread and soup. However, a new research study in over 2,600 seniors suggests that salt intake doesn’t strongly affect heart health in older adults.

Authors of the JAMA Internal Medicine study brought to a simmer the debate over which is better – longstanding federal guidelines to consume no more than 2,300 milligrams of sodium a day, or a new low of 1,500 milligrams or less. Based on information from dietary questionnaires, neither sodium guideline showed remarkable results in protecting from heart attack, stroke, or heart failure.

At first, this looks like good news for those who’ve eaten the same way for a long time and can’t imagine changing what’s on their plate – but the findings don’t necessarily mean patients can leave their doctors’ offices ignoring good advice about salt restriction.

Where do I stand?

The challenge of observational studies, like the one leading to the JAMA Internal Medicine article, is that it’s hard to be sure how accurately people report what they eat.

On the other hand, interventional studies that provide carefully curated meals are costly and tend to last only a few weeks. It’s difficult to tell a person’s long-term cardiovascular risk from a short-term study.

Are there specific populations of older adults who are vulnerable to high sodium diets? Are there others for whom eating a low sodium diet may actually be harmful? The current study adds helpful information but doesn’t answer all those questions yet.

The American Heart Association recommends that all people limit sodium intake to less than 1500 mg/day, especially those who are 51 years of age or older, those with high blood pressure, diabetes or chronic kidney disease, and African Americans.

In my view, rather than a blanket recommendation about sodium intake for the entire U.S. population, more research is needed to determine what amount is OK for each person. Until then, it’s best to consult with your healthcare provider and/or dietitian before making any big changes.

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Scott Lowell Hummel MD.thumbnailDr. Scott Hummel, M.D., is a cardiologist at the University Of Michigan Frankel Cardiovascular Center and the VA Ann Arbor Health Care System. He leads interventional dietary research in adults with heart failure or who are at risk for heart failure. Fellowship-trained in cardiology at the U-M, he completed his residency at New York Presbyterian Medical Center.