Of all the ingredient chemicals that have been demonized over the years, sodium has to be one of the most significant. What started as biased ‘reporting’ by one individual in the 60’s has taken on a life of its own as the great sodium myth, and for all the wrong reasons.
Despite the FDA’s sodium-reduction push, recent research has proven that not only is sodium not nearly as bad as it’s said to be, but you might actually be missing out on the benefits of it.
To prove that, we took a deep dive into some of the major misinformation associated with sodium (and salt as a whole). In doing so, we decided to debunk the sodium myth with actual science-backed data.
Let’s get into it.
What started the ‘salt-scare’?
There is some common consensus on when we actually started to avoid salt. A research study published by Lewis Dalh started the sodium myth and the entire anti-salt movement in the 1960’s.
The entire basis of the study was that massive doses of sodium can cause high blood pressure and overall blood volume. For the sake of clarity, the amount of sodium administered was 150 times the regular human equivalent dose.
What the study completely ignored was the fact that realistically, people consume a lot less sodium on a daily basis.
In fact, the CDC found in a study on the dietary guidelines for Americans for 2020 – 2025 find that at around 3,400 mg of sodium, we’re not eating even close to the huge doses that Dahl was administering.
There is evidence that the sodium myth and the subsequent salt-scare has both directly and indirectly led to people developing sodium deficiencies over time. This is even more concerning for athletes and generally active people who lose more sodium and mineral content on a regular basis.
Recent sodium guidelines by the FDA
It’s not surprising that the FDA’s sodium guidelines have remained the same since the 1980’s, considering the mostly cherry-picked and non-contextual data from the start of the salt-scare.
The current guidelines contain mostly the same reasoning from the older ones. The only difference between the two is that they have portions directed towards food producers and restaurants, asking them to limit sodium content in their product.
Although the guidelines take a more direct approach to regulating sodium intake in the general population, there’s still a catch. They prove that most of the sodium in the standard diet of most Americans comes from “outside sources”.
However, that still doesn’t change the fact that cherry-picked data doesn’t hold weight in the greater picture.
The role of the Standard American Diet in increased sodium intake
What all of the studies, especially the ones done by the FDA, fail to consider is how the Standard American Diet contributes to a higher sodium intake. This oversight is actually a fundamental reason for the sodium myth existing.
The standard American diet consists of ultra-processed, calorie-dense foods including fast food, sugary drinks, and meals laden with ingredients that increase palatability.
One of the caveats of such a diet is that it’ll deliver a lot more sodium that you need. in some cases it’ll be multiple times the suggested intake.
It doesn’t take a dietary expert to realize how that could be detrimental to health in the long term in most cases.
It’s also important to look at what else causes bad health conditions that get falsely attributed to salt.
A high-sugar diet when combined with a sedentary diet can be damaging when continued for extended periods. In fact, we have tons of evidence linking sugar-sweetened beverages with diabetes.
All of this points to an obvious discrepancy between what ‘experts’ say the causes of health conditions are, and the actual causes, in this specific context.
The REAL connection between salt and bad health
Simply put, salt alone is NOT to blame for conditions such as high blood pressure, at least in the vast majority of people.
It’s only when you combine a high-salt diet consisting of tons of junk food, with a sedentary lifestyle and generally poor health choices that you get the harmful effects of sodium.
This clarifies three things:
- In most cases, sodium intake is just one aspect of a larger picture of poor health
- Salt-sensitivity is often a result of other underlying conditions
- Bad lifestyles choices are often the main reason for conditions associated with high sodium intake
For the sake of clarity, this is NOT to say that you won’t experience any ill health while eating more salt than recommended.
If you have pre-existing conditions such as salt-sensitivity, you may have to limit your salt intake. Similarly if some foods that contain higher sodium also have other ingredients that don’t suit your body, you may have to cut them out.
What we’re trying to say is, it’s crucial that we look into this on a case-by-case basis, and not make blanket statements about vital minerals.
Sodium myth about heart health
Eating higher amounts of sodium for long periods is often associated with lower heart health in general.
As mentioned earlier, this may be true in some isolated cases, but certainly not true for the general population at large.
Additionally, it’s a common myth that eating more salt on a regular basis puts you in greater danger of sudden heart attacks. Once again, this is not supported by science and there’s no data directly proving sodium as the cause in most cases.
The truth about sodium and heart health
Contrary to some of the biased reporting as part of the sodium myth, we have a study that finds that people eating less than recommended sodium had a 19% higher risk of dangerous heart-related events.
This study took a look at 28,000 patients of heart disease that were deemed high-risk. Researchers found that consuming between 4 and 6 grams of sodium actually presented as the lowest-risk scenario!
So not only was a higher-than-recommended sodium intake not as bad for high-risk heart disease patients, but restricting sodium was found to be detrimental.
And there’s not just one study claiming that. Another review looked at whether eating less sodium was actually helpful in any meaningful way towards reducing the risk of heart disease.
This review found no significant proof that higher sodium was the direct cause of heart failure in all the patients who were observed.
This basically means that for the general population, there is no significant risk of either immediately developing or worsening any existing heart health issues via sodium.
That’s not to say you can consume all the sodium you want and keep a healthy heart. Nothing is beneficial in excess (except good ramen vibes!). However, based on the findings, it’s clear that eating a little bit extra salt should not set off heart health alarm bells.
Sodium myth about blood pressure
According to the FDA, lowering sodium intake can lower the risks related to high blood pressure.
Actually, blood pressure is what the FDA has always banked on when trying to scapegoat salt as part of the sodium myth.
Just to be clear on the facts about blood pressure. It is one of the leading causes of heart conditions and events such as stroke, full heart attacks, and even dementia. It’s also been found to be harmful towards brain health and may cause cognitive decline over time.
However, as we have already and will discuss further in the article, that’s not directly due to sodium alone. There are a ton of variables that all contribute to poor health and we should definitely not be demonizing salt for it.
The truth about sodium and blood pressure
The data paints a completely different picture, once again debunking the sodium myth completely.
For example, the Intersalt study found no relation between eating more salt and developing high blood pressure. It wasn’t an isolated study on a single population either. It was done on 10,000 people from 48 different population groups. No correlation!
Another great example is the Framingham Offspring study which found that a sodium intake of less than 2.5 grams a day was actually related to a higher risk of hypertension. In other words, people restricting sodium were found to be at higher risk of increasing or developing high blood pressure.
Lastly, a more recent review from 2020 actually found that the negative effects of restricting sodium were more consistent than its effects on overall blood pressure.
In short, blood pressure is something we should definitely consider when putting salt in foods. We should put in a healthy amount instead of cutting it out entirely, we mean!
Benefits of a healthy salt intake [+ Expert advice]
Dr. Andrew Huberman is a professor of neurobiology at Stanford University School of Medicine. According to Dr. Huberman, sodium is one of the key elements that promote healthy physical and especially brain function.
During one of his many instances of addressing the sodium myth, he tells how sodium is crucial to what’s called the action potential. In simple terms, this is the ability of our nerves to activate and function normally.
A healthy concentration of sodium in our body makes our nervous system more efficient and able to fire more rapidly. This gives us an edge in terms of physical activity and sports that need quick reflexes and movements.
An interesting study about consumption of natural sea-salt in salt-sensitivity cases found that eating sea salt actually offers some protection against hypertension and kidney damage.
On top of that, salt has proven to be highly effective to combat dehydration and related conditions.
Other than those, the benefits of a healthy sodium intake include:
- Better cellular function throughout the body
- Protection against weakness and shakiness caused by intense physical activity and/or high temperatures
- Counteraction of dehydration caused by water loss due to drinking coffee
- Protection against dehydration caused by diarrhea and/or vomiting
- Stronger kidney function
- Better mood regulation
- Generally higher energy
- Better sleep duration and quality
- Better muscle contractions and performance over time
Of course, all of this follows a “healthy” salt intake which the sodium myth completely overlooks.
It certainly doesn’t mean that we should bring out the shaker with every meal, just that we stop demonizing a chemical that’s so vital to normal bodily function.
Benefits of sodium for active people and athletes
There’s a reason why the majority of sports drinks you’ll find in the supermarket taste slightly salty!
Sodium is a major ingredient in isotonic drinks which serve to rehydrate and provide sustained energy for long periods of exercise. This is because of sodium’s ability to encourage cells to store more fluid, which lets us hold more fuel, in a way!
In addition to that, salt is beneficial if you’re someone who performs vigorous exercise on a regular basis.
Exercising anywhere from 60-90 minutes a day at moderate to high intensity will likely result in a considerable amount of sweating. More sodium is lost by way of sweat than any other of the constituent minerals such as potassium.
This means that exercise can literally cause you to consistently lose sodium (if you sweat during it), enough to warrant replenishment. You could do so by either consuming isotonic workout drinks or simply adding ingredients containing sodium such as salt to your food.
Harmful effects of a low sodium intake
What the sodium myth conveniently leaves out is how bad it is to have a sodium deficiency.
A lower than recommended sodium intake isn’t just inconvenient. It’s actually been linked to adverse effects on both overall health, as well as physical performance.
For example, eating less sodium forces the body into a sort of sodium-saving mode. This is when your body doesn’t get enough sodium from the regular diet and so the kidneys start to save as much sodium as they can for regular bodily function.
This is done by releasing hormones such as renin and aldosterone, both of which cause the body to retain sodium and lose potassium. This, in turn, increases blood pressure.
Now, remember how we talked about people with high blood pressure being more vulnerable to the side effects of a high sodium intake?
Well, it turns out that people who already have problems with high blood pressure due to hormonal or chemical imbalances are obviously going to have issues with higher sodium.
How does this tie back to salt-restriction? The answer lies in the hormones, once again! Consuming less salt causes release of hormones that might increase blood pressure in otherwise healthy folks.
One major downside of low-sodium diets is the risk for serious bone-related conditions such as osteoporosis.
The bones serve as storage for vital minerals such as calcium, potassium, and yes, sodium! Diets low on sodium cause the body to draw sodium from your in-body reservoirs, including the bones.
That last one’s troublesome because drawing out sodium also depletes the bones of other minerals, causing osteoporosis and weak bones in general.
What’s interesting is that inner body conditions are not the only drawbacks of eating less salt. There’s that general unease and discomfort that you feel especially when dehydrated or after a rough stretch of exercise (if you don’t drink water immediately after).
That’s actually the sodium stores being depleted, leading to slower nerve function and all-round sluggishness. It’s also why most workout drinks have sodium as a base mineral.
Low sodium in specialized diets (keto, paleo, etc.)
A lot of restrictive diets such as keto and paleo have one thing in common. They often leave out some ingredients that contain vital nutrients.
For example, the paleo diet cuts out most complex carbs while the keto diet limits all carb intake to a minimum.
Keto is interesting because the ‘keto-flu’ is a classic example of low-sodium symptoms.
This is when you feel drained, get headaches, and your mood drops below optimal as a result of restricting carbohydrate intake during the early stages of a keto diet. It’s fairly common and is considered one of the main reasons why people have trouble sticking to the diet.
While the keto flu has several primary reasons, the drop in sodium content is a basic one.
Carbohydrates, especially complex ones, help the body retain water (which helps retain sodium). With fewer carbs, you get a significant loss in the body’s fluid and sodium content.
This is why consuming more sodium is a common recommendation for people on keto.
Not surprising that it’s also what’s often recommended when you’re feeling drained in general, even when not on keto.
The truth about salt
Let’s face it; bland foods are not enjoyable at all and a large part of what makes food enjoyable are elements such as sodium, the main ingredient of “salt”.
It’s a natural flavor enhancer for most foods, regardless of the main flavor profile. In some cuisines and recipes, such as the delicious shio ramen, salt is actually the main flavor base.
Salt suppresses water activity, which concentrates flavor in most foods, even if they are sweet. This effect tricks the taste buds into experiencing a higher degree of flavor.
Another interesting fact is that salt adds a unique layer of flavor to foods that have a tangy or pungent base. For example, if you’re adding extra toppings to a bowl of delicious tom Yum “Shrimp” flavored immi ramen, you can sprinkle some flaky salt on top to both bring the flavor up and add another layer to the existing tang.
Flavor is not the only aspect of food and diets that salt is great for.
If we look at the overall benefit of a healthy daily sodium intake, we find that not only is it essential to several fundamental bodily functions, but it’s great for improving athletic performance.
That’s a win-win!
All of that aside though, it’s important to look at the facts when making dietary decisions. In the case of salt, we know that the body needs a healthy intake of it.
Of course, we’re not saying that any amount of salt is ok (it’s really not…). But, once again, it’s important to examine the actual data, and make more informed decisions instead of listening to cherry-picked factoids that support the sodium myth.
The ideal amount of salt
Talking about all the benefits brings up the question of how much salt you should really be eating.
Here’s the thing; it really depends on a ton of factors, many of which will be unclear unless you get a full series of medical exams done.
There is however, evidence to suggest that you should be consuming more than the recommended daily guidelines say. On the surface, it looks counter-productive, but once you think about it, it makes sense.
If you’re eating somewhat healthy, are drinking plenty of water, and getting light exercise on a daily basis, it’s likely that you’re already consuming and using up more sodium than the average person.
That alone makes it necessary to ignore the sodium myth and eat more salt!
But let’s say you’re fairly sedentary and don’t eat particularly healthy, but you don’t have any existing health problems. In this case, you may still benefit from a higher sodium intake, given you don’t have any health issues that could worsen with sodium.
The immi approach to sodium!
We were actually well aware of the sodium myth when we set out to create a healthy and delicious ramen. For starters, we believed in two basic things; using the highest quality ingredients such as natural sources of umami compounds, and being super transparent about sodium content in our ramen.
Plus, we recognize all the good sodium does and use it to our advantage. For example, it suppresses water activity which prevents microbial growth. This acts as a natural preservative for our ramen products.
This was one of our biggest priorities when creating a new delicious product.
It HAS to be healthy too, in every way!
However, we were also aware of the impact of the standard American diet, and how it’s responsible for a lot of adverse health effects that salt itself gets blamed for.
That’s why we created a product that you can eat daily but still stay well within the dietary recommendations for salt intake.
The best thing is, you can eat a serving of delicious immi ramen for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, and still remain well within the recommended daily sodium intake!