Is salt a serious problem? Or merely a scapegoat?

Maybe a little of both — along with a bit of controversy

Most of our salt intake doesn’t come from this little guy — but from the highly processed foods and restaurant foods.

Just in the past week, I have heard two bits of good news about salt—in both the New York Times (see link below) and in Dr. McDougall’s new book. The Times ran an article by Gary Taubes, the author of Why We Get Fat and an independent investigator for the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

Taubes points out that while almost all the experts have agreed in recent decades that we should eat less salt, the evidence supporting that mass agreement has been somewhat flimsy. From his article:

Although researchers quietly acknowledged that the data were “inconclusive and contradictory” or “inconsistent and contradictory” — two quotes from the cardiologist Jeremiah Stamler, a leading proponent of the eat-less-salt campaign, in 1967 and 1981 — publicly, the link between salt and blood pressure was upgraded from hypothesis to fact.

In the years since, the N.I.H. has spent enormous sums of money on studies to test the hypothesis, and those studies have singularly failed to make the evidence any more conclusive. Instead, the organizations advocating salt restriction today — the U.S.D.A., the Institute of Medicine, the C.D.C. and the N.I.H. — all essentially rely on the results from a 30-day trial of salt, the 2001 DASH-Sodium study. It suggested that eating significantly less salt would modestly lower blood pressure; it said nothing about whether this would reduce hypertension, prevent heart disease or lengthen life.

Chapter 12 cuts us a little slack when it comes to both salt and sugar.

Enter Dr. John McDougall. In his new book, The Starch Solution, Chapter 12 is entitled “Salt and Sugar: The Scapegoats of the Western Diet.” He basically makes the case that if salt and sugar improves your chances of sticking with his improved starch-based (mostly whole plants) diet, then you should not be afraid to use them. As he says:

Scapegoating salt and sugar deflects attention from the real problems: meat, dairy, fats, oils and processed foods.

While researching for our book, I learned that we only need 50 mg./day, and that the maximum intake of sodium in our diet should not exceed 2,000 mg/day. But our love affair with the “problem foods” mentioned above has resulted in an average daily consumption closer to 4,000 mg. And most of that pile of salt is from the problem foods, not from  the salt we might sprinkle on our cooked foods. The same logic applies to the small amounts of sweeteners we might add to our coffee or food.

J. Morris Hicks

In my case, I do not keep salt or sweeteners in my house and I have not missed them at all. I’m sure I get all the sodium I need from my low-sodium popcorn or occasional V8 Juice and from the many whole plants that contain it. But as Dr. Mcdougall says, the inclusion of a little salt and sugar just might be the “tipping point” that enables many to actually stick with the health-promoting plant-based diet.

The Bottom Line. If we’re eating the right food (mostly whole plants), we’re getting very little salt from the problem foods mentioned earlier and a little bit of salt or sugar on food we cook at home is not going to hurt that much. We frequently see the phrase, “salt to taste” in many recipes. Maybe it should say, “try it first without the salt, then add salt if you prefer.” For me, I no longer need it—or want it.

One reason I no longer need it or want it is because of my Kirkland “No-salt organic seasoning” that I have been using for the last few months. Need more information; here are a few relevant posts on this subject.

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—J. Morris Hicks, board member, T. Colin Campbell Foundation

About J. Morris Hicks

A former strategic management consultant and senior corporate executive with Ralph Lauren in New York, J. Morris Hicks has always focused on the "big picture" when analyzing any issue. In 2002, after becoming curious about our "optimal diet," he began a study of what we eat from a global perspective ---- discovering many startling issues and opportunities along the way. In addition to an MBA and a BS in Industrial Engineering, he holds a certificate in plant-based nutrition from the T. Colin Campbell Center for Nutrition Studies, where he has also been a member of the board of directors since 2012. Having concluded that our food choices hold the key to the sustainability of our civilization, he has made this his #1 priority---exploring all avenues for influencing humans everywhere to move back to the natural plant-based diet for our species.
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7 Responses to Is salt a serious problem? Or merely a scapegoat?

  1. Joe McMahon says:

    Any added sugar, SALT or fat into a human diet is not a good thing. These are HIGHLY addictive substances and the food industry knows this and incorporate these substances into their processed nutrient deficient/devoid “spooge” which they call food…. better to detoxify from these substances altogether and just consume the right amounts for humans, which nature has already conveniently packaged within plant-based foods…

  2. Mitzi says:

    If we eat several times as much as we need of any nutrient, it will hurt us. Our society has encouraged us to eat way too much sodium for a long time. Both sodium and potassium are necessary for our nerves to function- and we need them in a roughly one-to-four or five sodium-to-potassium ratio. Most Americans reverse that ratio altogether, and normotensive 55 year olds have a 90% chance of developing hypertension at some point. My contention is that we find the potassium in foods the American diet lacks, in fruits and vegetables. If our diet consists mostly of these items, suddenly the sodium arguments, the fat vs. carb arguments, become moot. As long as you are eating out of a box, those arguments are important. But as soon as you start eating the food your system is designed to handle, your increasing good health tells you that you are finally fueling yourself properly. Some salt, especially if you live south of the Mason-Dixon line and/or sweat a lot, is needed. But the real need is the balanced complement of minerals we get in real food.

  3. Nathan says:

    The same trusted mentor who introduced me to The China Study (a plant-based diet athlete, and professor of biochemistry) also introduced me to a book about salt called Eat Right – Electrolyte, by W. Rex Hawkins.
    If I recall correctly, using information from the dash diet studies, Hawkins demonstrates that even a modest reduction in sodium intake across the US population as a whole could in fact prevent some 50% of stroke deaths due to high blood pressure. The dash studies also showed that a diet high in fruits and vegetables had similar effects on lowering blood pressure to sodium reduction. I think the book is definitely worth looking at, if you are interested in Salt (and the predatory actions of the salt industry).

  4. Jean Myers says:

    Dr. Fuhrman’s take on the salt issue:

    What I find most compelling is the fact that primitive populations eating a natural diet devoid of salt do not experience hypertension while 90% of Americans will develop it at soe point.


    WHEW! Rush may be well researched on political matters? GIVE ME A BREAK! With all respect to Bill, Rush Limbaugh represents American Journalism at its worst. Before rushing to any more Rush comments, I suggest that Bill study the scholarship represented in the following book
    Rush Limbaugh Is a Big Fat Idiot (ISBN 0440508649) – with over 400 reader reviews.

    The above fair and balanced book is a good read. The audio version is great also.

  6. I have suffered through Gary Taubes’ latest book. His “Sugar is bad” platitude rivals “The Pope is Catholic” and “The sun rises in the east” in value. McDougall has much greater GENERAL credibility. Nowhere does Gary cite “T. Colin Campbell” or the China Study.One big problem with Taubes is his useless definition of “low fat” in his straw man arguments favoring Aktins (RIP)..
    His recent comments on salt may be OK but how can he ignore several decades of research? Ignoring an area of inquiry does not make the issue go away.Taubes needs to study Campbell.

  7. Bill K. says:


    Earlier this week I was listening to the radio and heard Rush Limbaugh give a long talk about how salt was being wrongly accused of causing many of our current health problems. Although Rush may be well researched on political matters I am afraid he is not an expert on health and probably should not have been involved in this discussion. One of the key problems with this debate is the shear level of salt in the average persons diet. Almost all processed foods contain some level of salt. So by having people reduce their additional salt (added salt at the table) you are not really reducing their overal salt levels since they are receiving so much within the foods they are consuming anyway. I feel that salt falls within my definition of a highly concentrated chemical. Humans do not do well with concentrated chemicals because they place a great deal of burden on our interal regulation systems. In other words our body is always trying to maintain equilibrium and getting a big concentrated dose of a chemical like salt places our systems in emergency mode to re-establish balance. Running on your emergency systems long term is not a good way to maintain your heath. Our body was basically designed to get out minerals like salt inside of foods like celery or tomatoes where they are more diluted and easly assimliated without disrution to our balance.

    Concentrated salts and spices became popular when humans started eating cooked foods. Cooking removes much of a foods flavor and so people started adding these concentrated minerals as a way of giving some of the flavor back to the foods. But just because we have a long history of both cooking and using concentrated salts does not mean that either is optimal for humans. Also because of this long term use of salt it is very difficult to get a good baseline study on its effects. My personal experience, having been mainly salt free for close to a decade, is that it does elevate my heart rate when used. I have personally experienced its effects on several different occasions.

    I understand why some individuals like Dr McDougall advocate some use of salt as it aligns with there agenda regarding the consumprtion of cooked starches which are tasteless without the added salts and flavors. Might I suggest that maybe we were not really meant to eat these foods if they require adding something that is potentially harmful to us long term. I once read a great rule of thumb regarding food additives ” If you can’t make an entire meal out of the additve then you should not be placing it on your food” Salt fits into this catagory.

    All of that being said, I am talking about perfection which none of us is likely to achieve. But we should always try and get as close as possible.

    Bill K.

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