Salt – Friend or Foe?

Yesterday, the New York Times published a feature called “We Only Think We Know The Truth About Salt.” The article discussed the flimsy science behind low sodium diets. It even goes so far as to suggest that cutting salt levels can do more harm to our bodies than good. The timing of the article was perfect, because for the past month I’ve dramatically cut my salt intake… which is a subtle form of torture for a salt lover like me.

Why did I cut salt? A few weeks ago, I went to a routine doctor’s appointment and the doctor took my blood pressure. He looked concerned, which is never a good thing to see in the face of your doctor.

“You’re blood pressure is very high,” he said. “We’ll check it again at the end of the appointment to see if it’s gone down.”

I was shocked. My blood pressure has always been on the low end of the spectrum. I am a really healthy person. We both wondered if it was the stress of being in a doctor’s office that was causing an unnatural spike. But at the end of the appointment, nothing had changed. I asked him if perhaps it has to do with my recent workload. I’ll admit that I’ve been somewhat stressed lately… there are a lot of exciting developments happening with The Shiksa in the Kitchen, and I’m having trouble keeping up with it all. But my doctor felt that my blood pressure was too high to be stress-related.

This appointment was the beginning of weeks of medical tests, as my doctors tried to determine the cause of the blood pressure spike. While all of this was going on, I quickly reworked my diet to see if something I was eating might be causing the problem. I cut salt drastically on the advice of the doctor. Salt is my weakness, so this was difficult. I started drinking more water and exercising more frequently. I cut caffeine, which caused a week of headaches—nothing worse than what I feel every Yom Kippur. But beyond those small changes, there wasn’t much to be done. My diet is extremely healthy. I eat unprocessed, lowfat, low cholesterol, and mostly vegetarian. I cook from scratch most of the time, which means I avoid the hidden salt in processed foods. I consume lots of vegetables and fruits on a daily basis. Those treats you see me blog about every once in a while are just that… treats. They are enjoyed very sparingly, and I haven’t touched them for the past month as I went through this period of medical tests. Despite this, my blood pressure remained high.

To this date, it remains a medical mystery why my blood pressure spiked. I was given every test that was medically indicated, and even some that weren’t. Everything came back perfect—my cholesterol levels are great, my hormones are in check. I am, by all accounts, the picture of health. The doctor concluded that I am one of those rare cases where a person’s blood pressure rises for no apparent reason. I don’t totally buy that—there is no effect without a cause—but we have ruled out every potential cause known to the medical community at this particular moment.

Meanwhile, the changes I made over the past month didn’t change my blood pressure a bit. The increased exercise didn’t bring it down (although I do feel great, so I think I’ll stick with that). More significantly, the dietary changes I made did nothing—cutting the salt didn’t help at all. I love salt, so you can imagine my frustration at having cut it out for over a month with no positive results.

That’s why I was happy to read the article from the New York Times about salt’s rather unfair reputation for being unhealthy. In fact, according to this article, cutting salt to the government recommended limit can actually have a harmful effect on the body. I’ll still be watching my salt intake, but after reading this article I don’t think I’ll be quite as strict about it.

Do any of you have high blood pressure issues? Did you cut salt to help your blood pressure come down naturally? Did this New York Times article change your views on salt? I’m curious to hear about your experiences.

Comments (27)Post a Comment

  1. I was also diagnosed with (a fairly early and mild degree of) hypertension a few months ago. I found it so difficult to cut out salt and it didn’t seem to have much effect that my doctor preferred to just give me a low-dose pill to manage my blood pressure. One a day and I’m under control and good to go – and good to enjoy things like cheese and Chinese food again. It may not be the solution for everyone but it’s working very well for me, keeping my blood pressure under control without forcing drastic lifestyle changes on my family (we do eat fairly well to begin with).

    1. Hi Robin, there is no shame in taking medication! If you need it, you need it. I was hoping to resolve this problem naturally, but my levels were dangerously high so my doctor prescribed a BP med short term to see how it goes. We’ll reevaluate in a few months.

  2. Hi Tori, I hope your blood pressure is better now, I on the other hand have low bp but my husband found out a few months ago that he has high bp and refuses to take medicine for the rest of his life, like you his diet is very healthy but salty, he reduced salt with same results like yours but my Mom told him that passion fruit would help him to bring it down so he started drinking its juice and his bp itsn’t perfect now but it’s much better… so maybe try that, it tastes great and it’s natural, it won’t hurt… best wishes <3

  3. Hi, Tori, I hope your blood pressure problem has resolved. I’ve had white coat hypertension for a few years now, and tried everything natural I could think of to control it without medication, to no avail. My very patient doctor finally became rather insistent that I begin taking medication, especially since I am in my 60s and have a family history of heart disease, and I also have genetically high cholesterol. (Tried everything natural there,too, but my numbers just went higher. I am otherwise in quite good health, am thin, happy, eat a healthy vegetarian diet and excercise regularly.) Knowing how adverse I am to medications, she put me on a diuretic that doesn’t lower your potassium levels. It works to her satisfaction, and I’ve also become more serious about meditation…that helps with everything! I highly recommend it. I wish you the best.

    1. Thanks Bonnie… I’m so pleased to hear you bring up meditation, it is a fabulous tool! I have meditated for years, but I’m trying to set aside even more time for it now. I certainly need it with everything that has been going on!

  4. I always had lowish bp (110/70), but since cutting out grains and sugars, it plummeted to about 95/60. My diet is not low-fat at all, and I tend to add salt to my food; however, I’m not sure how my total salt consumption compares to that of people who eat processed food, which I never touch at all.

    1. Sugar is a big problem, we eat far too much of it in this country. I treat myself to sugar every once in a while, on special occasions or holidays. I’ll try a dessert if we’re at a new restaurant or traveling. Most of the time I use Stevia to sweeten things. But I don’t think I’d ever cut out grains… I love my whole grain toast and brown rice! I’m sure if you don’t eat unprocessed your salt intake is pretty low, the majority of salt in the American diet is hidden in processed packaged foods.

  5. Almost every western government/health authority now recommend reducing/moderating sodium intake. Who are you going to trust, the collective research of most of the western health authorities in the world, or one possibly biasly researched article in a newspaper?

    1. I don’t trust any one particular source for my health information, and I definitely don’t trust the government to tell me what’s best for my body. The USDA’s food pyramid has been the “trusted authority” on nutrition for years (until it was recently replaced by the plate), and it was totally out of whack with the way I choose to eat. I prefer the Mediterranean food pyramid. I felt this article was interesting, and made a lot of sense… it doesn’t mean to say I’m going to start eating tons of salt.

  6. Some of these things are genetic and not “your fault!” Sounds like everyone above has found solutions that work to some degree, whether it’s medication or diet changes.

    1. It’s true Nina… there is a genetic predisposition on both sides of my family for high blood pressure. The doctor felt the rise was too sudden and too strong to be genetic, but who knows? At any rate, we’re getting it under control now. Thanks for writing!

  7. Salt isn’t the only food getting and unfair reputation.

    I would recommend you also read Gary Taubes’s (same author as the salt article), “What if It’s All Been a Big Fat Lie?”

    link to nytimes.com

    “…there are plenty of reasons to suggest that the low-fat-is-good-health hypothesis has now effectively failed the test of time.”

    Ten years ago I also ate “unprocessed, lowfat, low cholesterol, and mostly vegetarian”. But I slowly realized this was not the answer to my family’s health problems.
    I healed my son from IBS by getting back to real foods and not always following mainstream nutritional dogma. My yearly sinus infections are gone.

    We have been taught to limit some of the most nutrient dense foods available (like eggs, butter, liver, and grass-fed meats). But culture throughout the world thrived on these foods.

    You would appreciate Weston Price’s “Nutrition and Physical Degeneration” with your interest in food history and anthropology. He observed diverse isolated societies around the world demonstrating robust health when their diets contained animal products, all included some salt, and were free of refined flour and sugar. There is a lot of wisdom in “primitive” cultures that we can learn from.

    This may also be of interest: link to westonaprice.org – there are diet related recommendations at the end.

    I don’t have personal experience with high blood pressure, but what I learned from my son’s and my own healing experience is that doctors don’t have all the answers and many times we need to be our own doctors.

    1. Lisa, I should have been clearer… I eat a lot of healthy fats (olive oil, fish, avocado). When I said lowfat, I meant my diet is low in saturated, processed, unhealthy fats (margarine, shortening, etc). I don’t eat a lot of meat, but when I do it’s generally grass fed. And I love eggs!

    1. I’m not strictly kosher, unlike many of my readers– for me, it’s more important that the meat be organic and grass-fed than kosher. However, grass fed organic kosher beef is available through Wise Organic Pastures. There is one butcher that sells the beef here in Los Angeles, and the chicken is sold at our local kosher market. Here’s a link to their site: link to wiseorganicpastures.com

  8. Well, I am certainly glad to hear that you are okay!! It’s funny… if my husband doesn’t like a dish that I make, it’s usually because I haven’t been heavy-handed on the salt. I’m just waiting for those bad health reports to come back on us now that we’re “getting older,” but thankfully nothing yet! We don’t do a lot of processed foods either. Maybe we’ll be okay for a while yet!

    1. Thanks Lori! My husband is just like yours, he loves his salt. I tell you, cutting salt was really tough. But after about a week, I noticed that I was tasting the natural salt in foods much more strongly… even my sprouted grain bread has a lovely hint of salt, which I had never really noticed before.

  9. I hope you figure out soon. It is annoying when we work hard to change something and it remains unaffected.
    I have not dealt with high bp nor anyone in my family so I am not familiar. I have been dealing with high cholesterol for a while, doctor tells me I have to go on a Med diet. I am trying to explain to her that I have been on Mediterranean diet ALL my life! I dont eat fast food, we eat lots of fish, grains, vegetables, fruit, limited red meat. At this point, I gave up trying to lower it.
    Hope your stress levels come down soon!

  10. Just wondering…did he check your Sodium levels? I’m curious to know how high they are? Also..any kidney tests were done? I’m going to read the article now but just from the title, we do need some Sodium in our bodies. My mom is on blood pressure meds, one is a diuretic and because of that her Dr insists on eating a bag of chips once in a while! Go figure! I hope they find a solution..and I agree with you, there is always a reason!

  11. I don’t have bp problems, but the spouse does and a few years ago we made the necessary adjustments in diet, food sources and weight. Since then, I’ve noticed that I experience some pretty large and disturbing fluctuations in weight when I eat out vs. eating at home. It’s not unusual for me to gain a pound or two from a restaurant meal. Clearly, the gain is just in water weight from the sodium because it quickly disappears over the next day or two. But I still find the bumps disconcerting… it seems like the recovery may be a bit of a load on the kidneys. OTOH, the alternative is to keep the sodium levels high so that I don’t experience the fluctuations. And that doesn’t seem healthy, either.

  12. So sorry about your sudden onset of hbp. Just a quick note about the NYT article. While I know that most of us have become skeptical of all of these “now-this-is-good(bad)-for-you” articles, please remember that the actual scientific results are almost always much more nuanced than the popular press summaries. Also, remember that even if the academic or medical journal article sounds like a breakthrough, it means nothing until it has been repeated independently. So, take all this news about salt with, well, a grain of salt. (Couldn’t resist that!)

    1. Hee! So true. I still think Julia Child gave the best advice when it comes to this kind of thing– everything in moderation, including moderation. ;)

  13. My BP spikes only during summer months. Being concerned, I started studying because it is only during the summer months it would spike. I have what is called a hot running system, a pita type, and during the summer I tend to swell and my BP tends to spike because my already high and hot running system gets even hotter and causes this issue. My answer has been basically to know my system and stay cool during the hottest part of the day. Chopra.com has a list of things, both dietary and other, to keep my pita system in balanced and from over heating. They have helped me a good deal. There is also a test, but I can tell you loving salty and sour foods is a good tale tale sign.

  14. I have had high bp for quite a few years. My BP reacts quite rapidly to when I have alot of salt and it rises quite abit. I have been on a low salt diet for years although I still enjoy my salt at times. Good luck

  15. My BP spiked twice before and I have been able to bring it down both times, once with medication and the other with losing weight and doetary changes. Like you there was no significant reason for the spikes except hereditary factors. Being a nurse, sodium does play a large part in high BP but it’s not the only factor so hang in there and it will come down.

  16. I am on a renal diet and must limit my sodium and potassium intake drastically. I have always loved salty foods so this change in my diet has been hard. However, I now cook with different various herbs and spices which contain no sodium or potassium. I am enjoying the delicious flavors. I don’t eat any processed foods and prepare all my meals. I feel much healthier with this new regime.

Leave a Comment

Please read through the entire post and comments section before asking a question, as it may have already been answered. First time commenting? Read the comment policy.