Doctor’s Tip: Too much salt causes health problems

Dr. Greg Feinsinger
Doctor's Tip
Dr. Greg Feinsinger

“Salt” refers to sodium chloride (NaCl). Don’t be fooled by terms like sea salt, Himalayan salt, and kosher salt—they’re all sodium chloride.

Some salt is necessary for human health.  Plants contain low levels of sodium, and as humans evolved from tree-dwelling plant-eaters over some 25 million years, the plants they ate provided 500-750 mg. of sodium a day. Then, centuries ago humans discovered that salt could be used to preserve food, and in most “developed” societies people now eat many times more salt than humans are genetically programed to eat. This is unfortunate, because too much salt results in the following health problems:

  • Hypertension:  over 100 well-done studies have documented a strong link between salt intake and hypertension—the main risk factor for strokes and an important one for heart attacks;
  • direct damage to the endothelium that lines our arteries;
  • kidney disease;
  • water retention, leading to leg swelling and contributing to heart failure;
  • stomach cancer– particularly prevalent in people who eat a lot of pickled (salted) vegetables;
  • damage to the gut microbiome;
  • exacerbation of autoimmune diseases such as MS, lupus, and inflammatory bowel disease.

The American Heart Association recommends less than 1,500 mg. of sodium a day, although in his book “The End of Heart Disease” Dr. Joel Fuhrman states that “for maximal disease prevention, sodium levels should probably be less than 1,000 mg. a day.” The average American consumes 3,500 mg. a day, which is one of the reasons ninety percent of Americans eventually suffer from hypertension.

Surprisingly, the salt shaker isn’t the primary source of excess sodium. Following are the main culprits:

  • In kids, the main source of sodium is pizza—cheese is laden with salt, which is also present in the crust, pizza sauce, and what’s often put on the pizza.
  • For adults between the ages of 20 and 50, the main source is chicken, which when raised commercially is usually injected with salt water to increase the weight—which is what determines price.
  • For adults over age 50, it’s bread.

The Salt Institute lobbies for salt and tries to cast doubt on established science. The American processed food industry is particularly strong in this country (and worldwide these days). As mentioned in last week’s column on added sugar, Big Food is concerned about their profits, not your health. Scientists they hire have found that sugar, salt, and fat (often in the form of added oil) are addictive, so they add these ingredients to their products so that you eat and buy more and they make more money.

If you’re concerned that your food will taste bland without salt, consider the following:

  • You will miss it for about 10-14 days, after which you will lose your taste for it as your taste buds change.
  • You can add other flavorings such as pepper, onions, garlic, tomatoes, sweet peppers, basil, parsley, thyme, celery, lime, chili powder, rosemary, smoked paprika, curry, coriander, and lemon. Or try Mrs. Dash’s salt-free seasoning, available in most grocery stores.
  • Try potassium chloride instead of salt (sodium chloride), which looks like salt but has a slightly different after-taste until you get used to it. It’s found in the salt section of the grocery store, one brand being No-Salt Salt. Try it on popcorn, along with nutritional yeast and cinnamon or chlorella.

Be an informed shopper and read food labels, keeping in mind that you should aim for less than 1,500 mg. of sodium a day. Avoiding salt in restaurants can be difficult, because they, too, take advantage of people’s addiction to salt, sugar, and fat. Request a low salt meal, and avoid the salt shaker.

Dr. Feinsinger is a retired family physician with special interest in disease prevention and reversal through nutrition. Free services through Center For Prevention and The People’s Clinic include: one-hour consultations, shop-with-a-doc at Carbondale City Market and cooking classes. Call 970-379-5718 for appointment or email

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