Americans at high risk for heart problems who have been told for years to sharply cut salt from their diet may not actually benefit from ultra-low sodium diets and could even face some harm, an independent panel of health experts said earlier this week.
The Institute of Medicine (IOM), in a report to U.S. health officials, reviewed the latest data on the link between salt intake and health.
While blacks, diabetics and others more likely to have heart problems are urged to slash their salt intake, the IOM review showed there was limited evidence such a diet helped, and that too little salt might increase the risk of heart trouble.
That suggests higher-risk populations may not need such a drastic reduction of salt in their diets and that other steps to curb heart disease risk may be needed.
Americans are still consuming far too much salt, the IOM experts said. On average, U.S. and Canadian adults consume about 1.5 teaspoons of salt over the course of the day, or about 3,400 milligrams. Guidelines recommend that healthy people consume no more than 2,300 milligrams daily, which is more than the body actually needs.
But the latest data calls into question whether individuals with higher risk factors for heart disease or stroke should limit their daily intake to 1,500 milligrams, as the government recommends.
Experts said the newest studies back the known benefits of "reducing sodium from very high intake levels to moderate levels". "But they also suggest that lowering sodium intake too much may actually increase a person's risk of some health problems."
Still, the studies are limited and in some cases flawed, so more research is needed, the IOM panel told the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which requested the report.
Health advocates including the American Heart Association were quick to dismiss the findings, saying the recent studies reviewed by IOM focused on sick patients and not the majority of Americans, most of whom eat too much salt.
"The bottom line for consumers is still: cut back on sodium," said the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI).
Health advocates said the IOM's review was beside the point given the high levels of sodium that still plague U.S. foods. It's almost impossible to ingest just 1,500 milligrams a day, said the director of nutrition for CSPI.
"Virtually any meal at any restaurant would give you at least half-a-day's worth of sodium, maybe a whole day's worth, maybe more," she said. "You'd have to make everything from scratch. ... It's pretty tough."
Consumer groups and some lawmakers have for years called on the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to set federal salt levels for food, a recommendation that the IOM backed in 2010.
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