It was the type of news story headline writers love.
A report from an Institute of Medicine committee seemed to raise doubts about public health efforts to get Americans to reduce their sodium consumption.
Cue the “Take health warnings with a grain of salt” headlines.
Not so fast.
Trumpeted online and in print, the “news” from the report – that drastically cutting back salt consumption could be hazardous to your health – was at best misleading, at worst, flat-out wrong.
“There’s definitely been a lot of misunderstanding about the report,” said Brian Strom of the University of Pennsylvania, one of its editors. “People on both sides of the issue were able to cherry-pick what they were looking for and ignore the rest.”
First, some background: The recent IOM report followed one from 2005 that, among other things, helped establish the current U.S. dietary guidelines that say we should eat between 1,500 milligrams and 2,300 milligrams of sodium a day.
How are we doing at hitting these targets? Not so well.
Eight years later, the average American still consumes more than 3,400 milligrams of sodium daily. Many eat much more than that. That 1,500 milligrams recommendation, Strom said, is “a target no one can reach.”
Now comes Strom’s group, which reviewed research on the health benefits of reducing salt intake for those already within the 1,500-2,300 milligrams range – a range, to repeat, most of us are nowhere near.
The committee could find only two studies that showed any benefit of lowering salt intake to 2,300 milligrams a day and none that showed benefits of cutting intake below that. Several studies mentioned in the report even raised the possibility of potential harms – including increased risk of heart attack and death – of cutting intake below 2,300. However, the report cautioned, all these studies were “insufficient and inconsistent.”
To public health officials, none of these findings was earth shattering. Yet Strom was alarmed when news stories spotlighted the flawed studies and seemed to question the wisdom of reducing sodium intake. He knew that when New York Times readers saw the headline “No Benefit Seen in Sharp Limits on Salt in Diet,” they probably skipped right over the word “Sharp.” An editorial elsewhere in the paper headlined, “Doubts About Restricting Salt” seemed even more definitive.
The point is, debating how little salt is too little seems foolish when most of us regularly consume 50 percent or more than the uppermost-recommended amount. Worrying about what might happen in some bizarro universe in which we eat too little salt is like the four-pack-a-day smoker who avoids drinking tap water because it’s treated with minuscule amounts of fluoride. And worrying about exactly how much salt you’re consuming is a losing game.
Even Strom admits he has no idea how many milligrams he eats each day. Just know that if you’re living in America in 2013, you probably have to cut back. How? Well, in a society where three-quarters of our daily sodium comes from processed and restaurant foods, eating less of that stuff is a good place to start. So is eating less overall.
Strom makes an interesting point: Our No. 1 source of sodium is bread. But the problem isn’t that bread contains so much salt, it’s that we simply eat too much bread.