It’s Friday night and as usual the fridge is empty. The question is – pizza or burgers? Both options are high in salt. Salt consumption amongst Canadians is up and it is too high for everyone according to the World Health Organization (WHO). The World Cancer Research Fund has researched links between salt consumption and cancer and in the Americas it was found that “additional effort is required to increase consumers’ knowledge about the existence of a maximum limit for intake and to improve their capacity to accurately monitor and reduce their personal salt consumption.”

But is the narrative flawed?

Hypertension or high blood pressure is called the silent killer because there are few if any signs of it. It is estimated to cause more than 7.5 million deaths and the loss of 57 million disability adjusted life years. Stroke and cardiovascular diseases (CVDs), which have been shown to be positively and continuously linked to blood pressure, cause 17.7 million deaths per year globally.

Salt intake, along with tobacco use, unhealthy diet, physical inactivity and the harmful use of alcohol show up in people as raised blood pressure, elevated blood glucose and excess weight and obesity.

But if the people who live unhealthy lifestyles were to blame completely, why would people who exercise, live healthy lifestyles and eat well still have hypertension?

The narrative, followed by the WHO, the World Stroke Organization and the American Heart Association, amongst others, says that a low sodium diet will reduce hypertension.

However, in 2016 Richard Sloan, a professor of behavioral medicine at Columbia University said to a journalist at Bloomberg News “that when it comes to hypertension and other health problems, Americans put too much faith in the power of personal agency. We tend to believe that if we try hard enough, we can accomplish anything. But in reality, he said, some patients can lower their blood pressure to a healthy range by cutting back on salt, and others can make the same lifestyle change with little improvement.”

Personal responsibility

Though the levels of salt in the healthy diet mean that you are not eating processed or packaged food, which tends to be unrealistic, it isn’t just the food industry that is at fault. Consumers tend not to pay too much attention to food labels unless they are on a diet. We often don’t understand how our purchases change the way the food industry works. Knowing what we eat, how it affects us, and our level of sodium sensitivity is important. Genetics also play a role in the likelihood of someone getting hypertension.

Salt cures a zombie too

Our cultures have always used salt. In Judaism salt sealed a bargain with God as it did in Islam. The salt tax helped justify the French Revolution in people’s minds and Mahatma Gandhi protested a similar tax on salt that sparked the march towards Indian independence. To conserve food or make it taste good, salt is an embedded part of the culture. In Japan, salt is sacred and cleanses. Twenty-nine percent of people in Japan have CVDs. In Haiti salt cures a zombie – in case the zombie apocalypse is on its way, this might be useful to know. But the real question still remains… what’s for dinner? Maybe a quinoa salad with fresh summer veg and feta would be the better option.