Sorry, WHO. The Data Just Doesn’t Support Super-Low Sodium Diets.

Sorry, WHO. The Data Just Doesn’t Support Super-Low Sodium Diets.

Salt. We can’t seem to get enough of it. From breakfast to dinner, we sprinkle it all over our plates for that added texture and taste. However, the World Health Organization (WHO) recently released a set of dietary guidelines on sodium that might leave you feeling a bit…wait for it…salty.

In a recent report, the agency claims excess sodium is linked to nearly 2 million deaths globally yearly, and, therefore, suggests reducing your sodium intake to no more than 2 grams or just under half a teaspoon daily.

We’re no dietitians, but this limit seems way too low, particularly for active folks. And while we’ve always been told that sodium will cause our blood pressure to skyrocket and take years off our lives, emerging research questions whether ultra-low-sodium diets truly benefit everyone.

So, before throwing out your saltshakers and clearing your pantry of anything salty, let’s explore all sides of this debate.

WHO’s New Guidance on Sodium: A Brief Overview

Per the report, the WHO is urging governments worldwide to implement “mandatory sodium reduction policies” to curb citizens’ sodium intake—a move they anticipate will help reduce the amount of salt consumed globally.

This suggested reduction is based on their latest scientific findings, which revealed “an alarming impact of high salt consumption on global health.”

If you’re wondering how exactly the WHO intends to achieve this low-salt future, the report states that their plan includes targeted policies and interventions, such as:

  • Running media campaigns to sway us away from salt.
  • Mandating “low sodium” labeling on food packaging so we can quickly identify and select products with low salt content.
  • Requiring food companies to reformulate products to contain less sodium and setting targets for sodium in foods and meals.
  • Limiting salty eats in public facilities and institutions, including government buildings, hospitals, and schools.

This salt shakedown will supposedly help “lower blood pressure, boost heart health, and potentially save 7 million lives by 2030.” From a public health standpoint, it seems like a step in the right direction. But looking at the whole picture, the WHO’s strategy seems pretty flawed—life-threatening, even.

This raises two crucial questions:

  1. Do the WHO’s data and analysis justify such strict, sweeping guidelines?
  2. When scrutinized, does their analysis hold up?

Keep reading as we try to uncover these mysteries.

Why You Should Take The WHO’s Updated Sodium Guidance with a Grain of Salt

A few things stuck out to us while examining the WHO’s sodium report. Hang tight because the findings are eye-opening. Yes, we know all this research stuff might sound boring, but lousy science affects us all, so we’ve got to be informed!

Here are a few red flags we picked up:

  1. A One-Size-Fits-All Approach

First, the model the WHO uses doesn’t account for differences in age, fitness, or health status. It focuses mainly on people with hypertension (high blood pressure). These folks tend to be more salt-sensitive due to underlying metabolic issues and will most likely see a drop in blood pressure drop by reducing their sodium intake.

On the other hand, active, healthy people will most likely need more sodium to replenish what they’ve lost through sweating, etc., and stay hydrated. So, for the WHO to enforce or even suggest a blanketrecommendation is irresponsible. A more nuanced approach would make more sense here.

  1. Omitting Contradictory Evidence

Secondly, the WHO conveniently leaves out reputable studies showing their sodium limits may harm, not help, healthy folks. Believe it or not, two grams of salt per day could spell trouble for almost anyone following a moderate workout regime—headaches, muscle cramps, brain fog, you name it. For a giant health authority, you’d expect them to be more candid than that.

  1. Cherry-Picking Data

Disappointingly, the WHO’s boldest claims about the dangers of sodium aren’t backed by any high-quality peer-reviewed studies. Much of their findings come from questionable models or old data rather than rigorous clinical trials.

For instance, the report claims that excess sodium is responsible for almost 2 million deaths worldwide each year, but this statistic is referenced from a non-peer-reviewed source. And the claim about WHO’s sodium policies potentially saving 2 million lives by 2025 and 7 million by 2030? That also isn’t from a peer-reviewed source. That’s a big no-no when making public health policies!

  1. Unreliable Sodium Intake Data

WHO admits (crucial) sodium intake data is limited globally. In Layman’s terms, there wasn’t enough data on the amount of sodium different populations consumed, but the WHO used limited data anyway. What they collect came from dicey dietary surveys, which many countries don’t have in the first place. Shouldn’t we pin down reliable baseline stats before discussing the effects of drastically reducing sodium intake worldwide?

What Does Science Say About the Impact of Salt on Blood Pressure?

The whole “salt-is-evil” narrative started in the 1980s when research showed that high doses of sodium spiked blood pressure in salt-sensitive rats. However, there was no evidence that reasonable sodium intake had the same effect on blood pressure in humans.

Yet, the 1980 U.S. Dietary Guidelines warned folks to avoid salt, setting off decades of fearmongering around sodium. And the beat continues today, with the WHO pushing to slash salt intake around the globe. But is reducing salt a surefire way to prevent high blood pressure?

Let’s unpack some high-quality scientific research on how sodium impacts blood pressure:

  • The famous 1988 INTERSALT study found no link between salt intake and high blood pressure after analyzing over 10,000 people across 48 countries worldwide.
  • According to the Framingham Offspring study (2017), healthy adults without hypertension had higherblood pressure on low-sodium diets under 2.5 grams than those over that amount.
  • A meta-analysis in 2014 associated sodium consumption under 2.6 grams daily with increased cardiovascular deaths compared to moderate intakes of 2.6-5 grams.
  • Finally, the 2020 Cochrane review discovered that low-salt diets correlated with only a minor reduction in blood pressure of 0.4 mmHg in average white populations, with little evidence that this decrease benefits other ethnicities. The exception was white individuals with existing hypertension, who showed a significant 4 mmHg decrease. However, the review concluded that consuming very little sodium can be more dangerous than its minimal impact on blood pressure.

Does Limiting Salt Improve Heart Health? Here’s What the Latest Science Says.

Even if you don’t have high blood pressure, will cutting back on sodium protect you from heart issues like stroke, heart attacks, and even death? We hate to break it to you, but a 2018 Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) review expresses doubts about advising patients with heart failure that reducing their salt intake will improve their condition. Plus, skimping on sodium too much could harm your heart health. Two well-respected studies support this idea:

  • Interestingly, a JAMA study in 2011 found that people who limited their sodium intake to just 3 grams a day had more heart attacks and strokes than those who consumed 4-6 grams a day.
  • A 2014 analysis of various studies shared the same sentiments: people who consumed less than 2.6 grams of sodium a day had higher chances of dying or experiencing heart issues compared to those who consumed between 2.6 and 5 grams daily.

This shows that WHO’s recommended daily sodium intake might not be the best for maintaining good heart health. Read on to learn how insufficient salt can impact your health and well-being.

The Little-Known Dangers of Skimping Too Much On Salt

Okay, so low-salt diets don’t seem to help most people. But could they be downright unhealthy? Unfortunately, yes.

Sodium is an essential electrolyte, meaning the body needs it to stay hydrated, healthy, and energized, and uses it to perform various vital functions. When you consume too little of it, your body secretes hormones—aldosterone, renin, and angiotensin—to help the kidneys retain the amount of sodium left. However, these hormones raise blood pressure. Not good.

Also, without the right balance of water and sodium, you risk developing hyponatremia. This condition carries symptoms like muscle cramps, nausea, vomiting, dizziness, and even shock, coma, and death in severe cases. A few studies have linked low sodium diets to increased insulin resistance and high LDL (bad) cholesterol, major drivers of many serious diseases, including type 2 diabetes and heart disease, respectively.

So, How Much Salt Should I Consume Every Day?

Research suggests the sweet spot for sodium is 4-6 grams daily for health-conscious people. But if you’re active, pregnant, sweat a lot, or follow a lower-carb or intermittent fasting diet, among other factors, your needs may be even higher. Everybody’s needs differ, so talk to your doctor for guidance on your sodium levels and how much you need.

Wrapping Up

In this age of information overload, knowing who to trust for solid nutrition advice can be tricky. The WHO’s new sodium guidance appears noble, but we hope the evidence provided for both sides in this article empowers you to make the right choice. As for us, we’ll be keeping the saltshaker handy, prioritizing home-cooked meals made with real food, and avoiding overeating ultra-processed foods jam-packed with refined sugars and salts.