Experts Dispute How Much Salt Is Too Much

An intellectual a-salt on federal dietary guidelines.

Image via Flickr user Dubravko Sorić

A modest Chipotle burrito contains around 2,000 milligrams of sodium. But if you live life to the fullest like I do, the sodium content of a Chipotle burrito can easily top 2,700 milligrams—or 117 percent of the daily intake suggested by current federal standards.

Federal dietary guidelines for sodium intake recommend consuming 2,300 milligrams per day, equal to just one teaspoon of salt. But now, an increasing number of scientists are saying that the government’s stance is unfounded and unnecessarily frightening.

According to the Washington Post:

“The current [salt] guidelines are based on almost nothing,” said Suzanne Oparil, a distinguished professor of medicine at the University of Alabama at Birmingham and a former president of the American Heart Association. “Some people really want to hang onto this belief system on salt. But they are ignoring the evidence.”

Shaky as the foundation for current recommendations may be, one area that most scientists can agree on is that excessive salt intake can be harmful, often leading to increased blood pressure and risk of heart disease.

The definition of excessive is where the consensus falls apart, however. While the average American’s sodium intake lies somewhere around 3,400 milligrams per day, studies from as recently as August contend that the word “excessive” should only be used to define daily intakes above 6,000 milligrams.

One research effort, the PURE study, followed more than 150,000 subjects over the course of six years and was published in the New England Journal of Medicine. Its findings suggested that the optimal sodium intake for those younger than 55 without high blood pressure actually lies around 3,000 to 6,000 milligrams. Most interestingly, it contended that those who abide by the federally recommended limit of 2,300 milligrams are actually at higher risk for heart complications. Researchers cited studies finding that a low sodium intake could stimulate the production of an enzyme called renin, causing blood vessels to constrict, and leading to higher blood pressure.

On both sides of the great salt debate, experts are butting heads. Elliott Antman, current president of the American Heart Association, chose to hold his ground, telling the Washington Post, “The totality of the evidence strongly suggests that Americans should be lowering their sodium intake,” and, “Everyone agrees that current sodium intake is too high.”

The dispute may persist for a while, as dietary studies on humans are notoriously difficult to conduct due to an innumerable array of variables stemming from personal urges and habits.

If there’s one thing to take away from this for now, it’s that until more concrete evidence is discovered, we have one less reason to feel guilty about scarfing down that fat burrito.

Julian Meehan

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