Experts Advise Taking Those Sodium Intake Recommendations With a Grain of Salt

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Morton Satin wants you to eat your vegetables. He wants you to consume broccoli, carrots, cabbage – all the good-for-you greens, reds and yellows out there. But most importantly, he wants you to enjoy them so you will eat them every day. And that means you must add salt. Bring that salt shaker out of hiding and start enjoying your food again, is Satin’s advice.

Who is this maverick whose concepts on salt fly in the face of years of advice handed out by most all public health institutions?

You probably won’t be surprised to learn Satin is the vice president of science and research of the Salt Institute, the Virginia-based, nonprofit, salt-promoting trade association. But before you say “no wonder this man is promoting salt’” and go about your merry, low-sodium day, you should hear the rest of the story. It’s a tale that includes a large, isolated tribe of Indians in South America, some fancy footwork involving figures and the dire consequences of consuming too little sodium — which can include a significantly increased risk of heart disease and diabetes.

"Salt Guru" Morton Satin
“Salt Guru” Morton Satin

Satin, who was seemingly alone in his quest to set the record straight about salt, has recently been joined by other doctors and scientists who appear to have come “out of the closet” in response to a report issued this spring by the Institute of Medicine (IOM) at the request of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Almost all studies on salt up to a few years ago were myopically focused on a slight blood-pressure drop achieved by a low-sodium diet of “two to four points systolic,” says Satin, adding, “they don’t give you the numbers, they just say it reduces blood pressure.”

But the recent conclusions of this IOM expert committee that there is no scientific basis for the majority of people to work at keeping sodium intake below 2,300 milligrams a day, and that salt intake of, or below, 1,500 milligrams a day is a risk proposition for many, has pretty much thrown everything we’ve been told up to now about salt consumption out the window.

Dietary sodium expert Dr. Michael H. Alderman with the Einstein College of Medicine, called the conclusions “earth-shattering,” and was quoted by The New York Times as saying the health consequences of low-sodium levels are “…all bad things” and that “(a) health effect can’t be predicted by looking at one physiological consequence.”

Satin agrees, telling Food Identity Theft in a phone interview that “what’s happening is that a reduction in salt is ending up with more sickness and death than (for) people who are not on low-salt diets.”Hypertension myopia

What we’ve repeatedly been told, and what the American Heart Association still preaches, is that we should eat no more than 1,500 milligrams of sodium each day, with an upper limit being bandied about of 2,300 milligrams a day.

Now admittedly, there are some people – a minority of the population – who are adversely affected by sodium and ought to be limiting their intake. But, according to Satin, there’s a specific test for that condition, and it’s not something on which to base recommendations for how a majority should eat.

So just where did the numbers on salt consumption originate? According to Satin, they are nothing more than mystical, contrived numbers picked by an IOM committee that, in effect, “made up a myth” about sodium consumption.

Those unsubstantiated figures are what’s known as the Dietary Reference Intake (DRI) for sodium — a set of documents for nutrients “that basically establish what should be the reference amount the average person should eat,” as Satin puts it. These DRI numbers for all major nutrients “morph” into the better known Recommended Dietary Allowances, or RDA, that you find on the Nutrition Facts panel that appears on every processed food product.

However, not having any “dose response studies” for sodium on which to base the RDA, the committee went by a rule allowing it to use what’s called an “adequate intake” – that is, one determined by analyzing a “healthy population” and seeing what it consumes.

And here’s where the story starts heading to bizarro land.

The low-sodium tribe with low longevity

It turns out that “healthy population” was a tribe of Indians living in the Amazonian Rain Forest called the Yanomami. Now these Yanomami, they don’t eat much salt at all, only around 500 milligrams a day, and they also have no problems with high blood pressure.

So in a decision Satin describes as “not based on any evidence,” an official RDA was set for sodium based on the habits of the Yanomami, but not at the 500 milligram level, as that was a ridiculously low number. Since “everything is better in threes, (they) arbitrary tripled it,” said Satin. “They didn’t make one single reference to a study to justify that figure, they just tripled it.”

For the upper limit amount of 2,300 milligrams, Satin’s guess is that the committee took the molecular weight of sodium, which coincidentally is 23, “a nice round figure” and used that.

While the Yanomami may not have high blood pressure issues, that’s not to say they are the picture of health. “What they don’t acknowledge is that there is no age-related rise in blood pressure because there is not much of a rise in age,” Satin said, pointing out that the Yanomami only “have a life span of 45 to 48 years.”

Those numbers, now firmly set in our minds as being the healthy way to eat, were immediately and widely accepted as they came from “one of our prestigious, great institutions,” said Satin. “So the World Health Organization throws their hat in, and all the other health institutions accept it. Nobody ever questioned it; it became entrenched. The people who did this thought they were doing good. The problem is that they are incompetent.”

When Satin first came to the Salt Institute in 2002 “knowing nothing” about the issue, he asked the ‘experts’ the $65,000 question: “Don’t we have any data on the historical usage and consumption of salt?” No, he was told, being further assured that never in history have people consumed so much of it. But Satin said he was going to find out. And he did.

The war on sodium from a military history perspective

Searching military records going back to the war of 1812, Satin found that rations for both soldiers and POWs contained twice the amount of sodium we now consume. Other data Satin has uncovered reveals that just about everybody in the world, with the exception of the Yanomami, are consuming a range of approximately 3,000 up to 5,500 milligrams a day of sodium – “regardless of culture, geographical location or economic status.”

Despite all the new findings the Food and Drug Administration and other government agencies have continued their war on sodium, especially related to the national school lunch program, although Satin says “they have slowed down a bit…they need to find an exit strategy.”

Satin describes what is going on in the school lunch program as ludicrous – “should you have this child eat a nutritious vegetable or salad with a touch of salt to make it palatable, or say ‘don’t eat salt’ and the kid doesn’t eat it at all.”

Satin, who says he is not fond of our processed-food-heavy U.S. diet or lifestyle, feels that if the government abandoned its narrow focus on the supposed evils of salt, it might be able to do more good addressing our miserable eating habits in general.

This whole issue, he adds, is much bigger than salt. It’s about “the way we manage science in this country.”

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