Don't Listen to the New York Times—Cut Your Sodium!

Public health group blast the Grey Lady for omissions, noting sodium intakes effect on cardiovascular health.

A few pinches more than the recommended sodium intake. (Photo: John S. Lander/Getty Images)

May 22, 2013· 2 MIN READ
Steve Holt is a regular contributor to TakePart. He writes about food for Edible Boston, Boston Magazine, The Boston Globe, and other publications.

Last week we learned, counter to years of medical advice, that diets low in sodium may be harmful to our bodies. This week, we’re reminded to not believe the hype.

It all started with a study by the Institute of Medicine—“Sodium Intake in Populations: Assessment of Evidence”—exploring the possibility that, despite advice from almost every public health organization to limit sodium intake to 1,500 mg per day, a low-sodium diet might actually have an adverse effect on the body. What it found was that a large amount of research supports health efforts to reduce sodium intake, and evidence of harm from low-sodium diets is “insufficient and inconsistent,” except in a small number of Americans being treated for advanced heart disease.

But critics say the coverage of the IOM study in New York Timesthe story was titled "No Benefit Seen in Sharp Limits on Salt in Diet"—sloppily omitted important details of the research and may have led readers astray.

In a column for The Huffington Post, Michael F. Jacobson, Executive Director for the Center for Science in the Public Interest, blasted what he called “bungled” coverage by the Times. Most other major media, he wrote—including Reuters, the Associated Press, USA Today, and National Public Radio—got the main points right.

“The [New York Times’] editorial cites ‘emerging evidence’ and the article cites ‘troubling’ findings that diets low in sodium (mostly from salt) are harmful,” Jacobson writes. “However, the Times failed to tell readers that, according to the IOM, the evidence of harm from low-sodium diets is ‘insufficient and inconsistent.’

He went on to say the Times failed to inform readers that few Americans consume very-low-sodium diets. He points out that “more than 97 percent of adults up to age 50—and more than 95 percent of adults over 50—consume more than 1,500 milligrams of sodium a day,” and that the “Times may lead many to assume (erroneously) that they have cut their sodium intake enough to ‘suffer adverse health effects.’”

Finally, Jacobson fears the Times piece implies that Americans should throw out all advice they’ve heard regarding sodium intake. This simply isn’t true. Recommended sodium levels are based on good science, and nutritionists remind us that excessive sodium consumption—which comes, surprisingly to some, in slices of bread and other processed foods—certainly does take its toll on the human body.

“Eating too much salt raises blood pressure, and high blood pressure is a cause of heart attacks, strokes, and other diseases,” nutritionist Lisa R. Young, author of The Portion Teller Plan, tells TakePart. “Many Americans already have high blood pressure (hypertension) or pre-hypertension—and so many of us are also overweight, putting us at risk.”

The Institute of Medicine report did find that for a miniscule percentage of Americans—mainly those being treated for serious heart failure—extremely low levels of sodium in one’s diet can present a problem. But for the rest of us, the American Heart Association said it stands by its recommendation that everyone eat no more than 1,500 mg of sodium a day. In our fast-paced, industrialized food culture, this is not always easy, nutritionists say—but it’s not impossible either.

“Salt is also found in processed foods, mostly manufactured by the food industry, not in healthy whole foods such as fruits and veggies,” says Young. “We are, therefore, at the mercy of what we buy. While there have been efforts to reduce salt in foods by the food industry, there is still much more that can be done.”