Category Archives: salt

The Bad Food Bible: A Well-Written, Sensible and Science-Based Approach To Diet

The skeptical cardiologist has been searching for some time for a book on diet that he can recommend to his patients. While I can find books which have a lot of useful content, usually the books mix in some totally unsubstantiated advice with which I disagree.

I recently discovered a food/diet/nutrition book which with I almost completely agree. The author is Aaron Carroll,  a pediatrician, blogger on health care research (The incidental Economist) and a Professor of Pediatrics and Associate Dean for Research Mentoring at Indiana University School of Medicine.

He writes a regular column for the New York Times and covers various topics in health care. His articles are interesting,  very well written and researched and he often challenges accepted dogma.

Like the skeptical cardiologist, he approaches his topics from an unbiased perspective and utilizes a good understanding of the scientific technique along with a research background to bring fresh perspective to health-related topics.

Last last year he wrote a column, within which I found the following:

Studies of diets show that many of them succeed at first. But results slow, and often reverse over time. No one diet substantially outperforms another. The evidence does not favor any one greatly over any other.

That has not slowed experts from declaring otherwise. Doctors, weight-loss gurus, personal trainers and bloggers all push radically different opinions about what we should be eating, and why. We should eat the way cave men did. We should avoid gluten completely. We should eat only organic. No dairy. No fats. No meat. These different waves of advice push us in one direction, then another. More often than not, we end up right where we started, but with thinner wallets and thicker waistlines.

I couldn’t agree more with this assessment and as I surveyed the top diet books on Amazon recently, I saw one gimmicky, pseudoscientific  diet after another. From the Whole30 approach (which illogically  completely eliminates any beans and legumes, dairy products,  alcohol, all grains, and starchy vegetables like potatoes (see how absurd this diet is here)) to Dr. Gundry’s Plant Paradox (aka lectin is the new gluten (see here for James Hambling’s wonderful Atlantic article on the huckster’s latest attempt to scare you into buying his useless supplements).

It turns out Carroll published a useful book recently, The Bad Food Bible which critically examines diet and I agree with the vast majority of what is in it.

The first three chapters are on butter, meat, eggs and salt. His conclusions on how we should approach these 4 are similar to ones I have reached and written about on this site (see here for dairy, here for meat, here for eggs and here for salt).  Essentially, the message is that the dangers of these four foods have been exaggerated or nonexistent, and that consuming them in moderation is fine.

The remaining chapters cover topics I have pondered extensively,  but have not written about: including gluten, GMOs, alcohol, coffee, diet-soda and non-organic foods.

I agree with his assessments on these topics. Below, I’ll present his viewpoint along with some of my own thoughts in these areas.

Gluten

Carroll does a good job of providing a scientific, but lay-person friendly background to understanding the infrequent (1 of 141 Americans), but quite serious gluten-related disorder, celiac disease.

However, surveys show that up to one-third of Americans, the vast majority of whom don’t have celiac disease, are seeking “gluten-free” foods, convinced that this is a healthier way of eating. Carroll points out that there is little scientific support for this; there are some individuals who are sensitive to wheat/gluten, but these are rare.

He concludes:

“If you have celiac disease, you need to be on a gluten-free diet. If you have a proven wheat allergy, you need to avoid wheat. But if you think you have gluten sensitivity? You’d probably be better off putting your energy and your dollars toward a different diet. Simply put, most people who think they have gluten sensitivity just don’t.

I do agree with him that the “gluten-free” explosion of foods (gluten-free sales have doubled from 2010 to 2014) is not justified.

However, I must point out that my 92 year old father has recently discovered that he has something that resembles gluten sensitivity. About a year ago, he noted that about one hour after eating a sandwich he would feel very weak and develop abdominal discomfort/bloating. He began suspecting these symptoms were due to the bread and experimented with different bread types without any symptom relief.

Finally, he tried gluten-free bread and the symptoms resolved.

If you have engaged in this type of observation and experimentation on your self, and noted improved symptoms when not consuming gluten, then I think you’re justified in diagnosing gluten sensitivity, and by all means consider minimizing/avoiding wheat.

GMOS

Carroll begins his chapter on genetically modified organisms (GMOs) with a description of the droughts that plagued India in the 1960s and the efforts of Norman Borlaug to breed strains of wheat that were resistant to fungus and yielded more grain. By crossbreeding various strains of wheat he was able to develop a “semi-dwarf” strain that increased what was produced in Mexico by six-fold.

Despite the fact that numerous scientific and health organizations around the world have examined the evidence regarding the safety of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and found them to be completely safe, there remains a public controversy on this topic. In fact a Pew Poll found that while 88% of AAAS scientists believe that GMOs are safe for human consumption, only 37% of the public do – a 51% gap, the largest in the survey.

This gap is largely due to an aggressive anti-GMO propaganda campaign by certain environmental groups and the organic food industry, a competitor which stands to profit from anti-GMO sentiments. There is also a certain amount of generic discomfort with a new and complex technology involving our food.

The National Academy of Sciences analyzed in detail the health effects of GMOs in 2016. Their report concludes:

While recognizing the inherent difficulty of detecting subtle or long-term effects in health or the environment, the study committee found no substantiated evidence of a difference in risks to human health between currently commercialized genetically engi-neered (GE) crops and conventionally bred crops, nor did it find conclusive cause-and-effect evidence of environmental problems from the GE crops. GE crops have generally had favorable economic outcomes for producers in early years of adoption, but enduring and widespread gains will depend on institutional support and access to profitable local and global markets, especially for resource-poor farmers

Carroll does a good job of looking at the GMO issue from all sides. He touches on environmental downsides related to herbicide-resistant GMO crops and the problems created by patenting GMO seeds, but asserts that “these are the result of imperfect farming and the laws that regular agribusiness, not of GMOS themselves.”

Ultimately, despite these concerns, I agree with Carroll’s conclusion that:

“Foods that contain GMOs aren’t inherently unhealthy, any more are  than foods that don’t contain them. The companies that are trying to see you foods by declaring them ‘GMO-free” are using the absence of GMOs to their advantage–not yours.”

Alcohol, Coffee, and Diet-Soda

Carroll does a good job of summarizing and analyzing the research for these three topics and reaches the same conclusions I have reached in regard to coffee, alcohol and diet-soda:

-alcohol in moderation lowers your risk of  dying, primarily by reducing cardiovascular death

-coffee, although widely perceived as unhealthy, is actually good for the vast majority of people

For those seeking more details a few quotes


on alcohol:

“Taken together, all of this evidence points to a few conclusions. First, the majority of the research suggests that moderate alcohol consumption is associated with decreased rates of cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and death. Second, it also seems to be associated with increased rates of some cancers (especially breast cancer), cirrhosis, chronic pancreatitis, and accidents, although this negative impact from alcohol seems to be smaller than its positive impact on cardiovascular health. Indeed, the gains in cardiovascular disease seem to outweigh the losses in all the other diseases combined. The most recent report of the USDA Scientific Advisory Panel agrees that “moderate alcohol consumption can be incorporated into the calorie limits of most healthy eating patterns.”

Keep in mind that moderate consumption is up to one drink per day for women, and two drinks for men (my apologies to women in general and the Eternal Fiancee’ of the Skeptical Cardiologist in particular) and be aware of what constitutes “one drink.”

Also keep in mind that any alcohol consumption raises the risk of atrial fibrillation (see here) and that if you have a cardiomyopathy caused by alcohol you should avoid it altogether.


on coffee:

“It’s time people stopped viewing coffee as something to be limited or avoided. It’s a completely reasonable part of a healthy diet, and it appears to have more potential benefits than almost any other beverage we consume.
Coffee is more than my favorite breakfast drink; it’s usually my breakfast, period. And I feel better about that now than ever before. It’s time we started treating coffee as the wonderful elixir it is, not the witch’s brew that C. W. Post made it out to be.”

Strangely enough, coffee is usually my breakfast as well (although I recommend against adding titanium oxide to your morning java).  Why am I not compelled to consume food in the morning?  Because breakfast is not the most important meal of the day and I don’t eat until I’m hungry.


on diet-soda:

Carroll notes that many Americans are convinced that artificial sweeteners are highly toxic:

“no article I’ve written has been met with as much anger and vitriol as the first piece I wrote on this subject for the New York Times, in July 2015, in which I admitted, “My wife and I limit our children’s consumption of soda to around four to five times a week. When we let them have soda, it’s . . . almost always sugar-free.”

He notes, as I have done, that added sugar is the real public enemy number one in our diets. He reviews the scientific studies that look at toxicity of the various artificial sweeteners and finds that they don’t convincingly prove any significant health effects in humans.

Some believe that artificial sweeteners contribute to obesity, but the only evidence supporting this idea comes from observational studies. For many reasons, we should not highly value observational studies but one factor, “reverse causation,” is highly likely to be present in studies of diet sodas. If diet soda consumption is associated with obesity, is it the cause, or do those who are obese tend to drink diet soda. Observational studies cannot answer this question but randomized studies can.

Carroll points out that:

the randomized controlled trials (which are almost always better and can show causality) showed that diet drinks significantly reduced weight, BMI, fat, and waist circumference.”

Simple Rules For Healthy Eating

Carroll concludes with some overall advice for healthy eating:

-Get as much of your nutrition as possible from a variety of completely unprocessed foods

-Eat lightly processed foods less often

-Eat heavily processed foods even less often

-Eat as much home-cooked food as possible, preparing it according to rules 1, 2, and 3

-Use salt and fats, including butter and oil, as needed in food preparation

-When you do eat out, try to eat at restaurants that follow the same rules

-Drink mostly water, but some alcohol, coffee, and other beverages are fine

-Treat all calorie-containing beverages as you would alcohol

-Eat with other people, especially people you care about, as often as possible

These are solid, albeit not shocking or book-selling, rules that  correspond closely to what I have adopted in my own diet.

In comparison to the bizarre advice from nutrition books which dominate the best-selling diet books, I found The Bad Food Bible to be a consistent, well-written, extensively researched, scientifically-based, unbiased guide to diet and can highly recommend it to my readers and patients.

Semibiblically Yours,

-ACP

Salt Talks Two

The skeptical cardiologist found himself reading a cookbook the other day, something he heretofore had avoided. Cookbooks somehow seem archaic and, I presumed, exclusively the domain of the women in my life.  My mother had loads of them, hiding their food-stained bindings behind a cabinet door in my childhood kitchen. Whereas I can stare longingly at all manner of books on  bookstore shelves, I scrupulously avoid the cooking section, finding nothing that intrigues or attracts me in their heavily illustrated contents.

The eternal fiancee’ of the skeptical cardiologist (EFOSC), I believe, had requested I find the recipes for several dishes we (more accurately, she) could prepare the next week and had headed off to Whole Foods or Nordstrom Rack or Pier 1 (all of which, strangely and conveniently sit side by side).

IMG_6880 copyAfter receiving directions on where these mysterious tomes resided, I grabbed the cookbook that looked the most interesting: Ruhlman’s TWENTY: 20 Techniques, 100 Recipes, A Cook’s Manifesto. Instead of searching for recipes I ended up being distracted by Chapter 2: Salt: Your Most Important Tool.

In Chapter 2, Ruhlman makes the bold statement that “if you don’t have a preexisting problem with high blood pressure and if you eat natural foods-foods that aren’t heavily processed-you can salt your food to whatever level tastes good to you without worrying about health concerns.”

As I’ve written previously, I agree with him, and a recent article published in The Lancet casts further doubt on recommendations for the general population to limit sodium consumption drastically.

In the Lancet article, the authors did a pooled analysis of four large prospective studies involving 133118 patients in 49 countries. They studied the relationship between salt consumption, measured by 24 hour urine excretion of sodium (because what goes in must come out) and the incidence of cardiovascular disease and death over about 4 years.

The findings:

  1. Patients without hypertension who excreted more than 7 grams/day of sodium were no more likely to have cardiovascular disease or death than those excreting  4-5 grams/day.
  2. In fact, in both normotensive and hypertensive groups, sodium excretion of < 3 g/day was associated with a significantly (26% higher in normotensives, 34% in hypertensives) increased risk of cardiovascular disease and death.
  3. The only group that would appear to benefit from lower sodium consumption was the hypertensive group which excreted 7 g/day of sodium and when compared to the hypertensive group that excreted 4-5 g/day of sodium had a 23% higher risk of CV death and disease.

If we have to worry about anything with salt consumption, this study (and others) suggests that it is consuming too little salt.

The only group that need worry about too much salt consumption is those who have hypertension and who consume a really large amount of salt.  Since the average American Average consumes 3.4 grams per day of salt, very few of us are consuming over 7 g/day.  Despite this, The American Heart Association continues to stick by its totally unjustified recommendation that sodium levels be no higher than 1,500 mg/day, and other organizations recommend sodium levels below 2,300 mg/day.

What Kind of Salt Should We Consume

Ruhlman recommends coarse kosher salt, preferably Diamond Crystal or, if that’s not available, Morton’s.

Why? Because “salt is best measured with your fingers and eyes, not with measuring spoons.”

“Coarse salt is easier to hold and easier to control than fine salt.”

He feels that salting is an inexact skill and one should always salt to taste.

“When  recipe includes a precise measure of salt, a teaspoon, say, this is only a general reference, or an order of magnitude–a teaspoon, not a tablespoon. You may need to add more. How do you know? Taste the food.”

IMG_6874
The skeptical cardiologist’s frittata.

These words were music to my ears as I am an advocate of serendipity, chaos and creativeness in the kitchen.  When I make a frittata, as I did this morning, I measure nothing precisely; not the butter and olive oil used to sauté, the bell peppers, onions and garlic; not the milk mixed with the eggs; not the cheese sprinkled on top; not the time spent in the oven or even the heat; and most assuredly, not the salt and pepper.

IMG_6876At the end of the frittata creation process I took a bite. It was delicious but it needed something: a touch more salt. I sprinkled some David’s kosher salt on top and tried again, Perfection!

Although I have hypertension, I know (see discussion here) that my salt consumption is way below 7 grams/day and, if anything, based on the most recent studies, I should be worrying about too little sodium in my diet.

saltatorily yours,

-ACP

PS>

As I outlined in one of my previous posts on salt, here is what I tell my patients:

  • Spend a day or two accurately tracking your consumption of salt to educate yourself. I found this app to be really helpful. I’ll expand on this in a future post.
  • Recognize that not everybody needs to follow a low salt diet. If your blood pressure is not elevated and you have no heart failure you don’t need to change your salt consumption.
  • If your blood pressure is on the low side and especially if you get periodic dizzy spells, often associated with standing quickly liberalize your salt intake, you will feel better.
  • If you have high blood pressure, you are the best judge of how salt effects your blood pressure. In the example I gave in a previous post, my patient realized that all the salt he was sprinkling on his tomatoes was the major factor causing his blood pressure to spike.
  • The kidneys do a great job of balancing sodium intake and sodium excretion if they are working normally. If you have kidney dysfunction you will  be more sensitive to the effects of salt consumption on your blood pressure and fluid retention.
  • If you are following a Mediterranean diet with plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables you are going to be in the ideal range for both potassium and sodium consumption.

Salt Loss, Tennis, and The Optimal Sodium Intake

The first day I tried to measure my salt consumption was one of the hottest we have had this summer in St. Louis with the thermometer reaching the high 90s and the heat index well over 100. In the midst of this heat I rode my bike to my local gym, worked out on the elliptical for about 35 minutes then rode home. Although the distance i rode was not far (maybe 3 miles) I was sweating profusely.

This profuse sweating was not the norm for me but it clearly was changing my salt “balance” for the day. The optimal amount of salt to consume may be controversial  but clearly the more you sweat the more salt you should consume to replace the lost sodium.

Even the AHA , which continues to stand by its ultra low 1.5 gram per day salt limit for everyone recognizes this factor and states

“The recommendation for less than 1500 mg/day does not apply to people who lose large amounts of sodium in sweat, such as competitive athletes and workers exposed to extreme heat stress (for example, foundry workers and fire fighters)”

FEDERER ACTION
Roger Federer hits his magnificent one-handed top spin backhand and loses sodium

I was back on my elliptical today (after a bike ride that resulted in no sweating)  and watched the men playing the round of 16 in The US Open Tennis Tournament on the large TV screens conveniently placed to entertain me. Temperatures have been unusually high In NYC this week and the players have been suffering as a result. The men play best of 5 sets and matches routinely last longer than 3 hours played in the heat of the day with full sun exposure.

Scientists have studied professional tennis players and measured their sweat loss to be as high as 2.5 L/ hour while playing singles in hot circumstances. A liter of sweat contains around 920 mg of sodium.

That means these guys are losing 2.3 grams of sodium per hour of tennis played! This happens to be one teaspoon of salt and  equal to the more moderate limit on sodium consumption (compared to the AHA) of the USDA. Clearly, consumption of salt on the order of 8 grams/ day would be needed in these circumstances to maintain salt balance and acceptable sodium levels in the blood.

How much are more normal individuals losing daily and how much does that vary depending on activity, ambient temperature and humidity?

The simple answer has to be that no authority  knows the amount of salt  each individual loses daily. Sweating and salt loss vary widely between individuals and over time in the same individuals.

It is common for my patients to note that during the summer months their blood pressure drops when they spend time gardening or if they have a job that requires heavy exertion in hot conditions. Often a downward adjustment in blood pressure medications is needed to account for this (especially if a diuretic is one of their BP drugs).

These variations in salt loss in the context of large variations in cardiovascular physiology and blood pressure regulation between individuals is further support for abandoning the ultra-low salt limits suggested by the AHA and the USDA.

Moderation may not be best for all things in diet (processed foods and added sugar come to mind) but for salt consumption moderation appears best.

 

 

 

Salt Consumption: Less Is Not Always Better

After a week of trying to track my salt consumption I have learned two things

1. Tracking salt consumption (unless you make  all your meals at home from scratch or buy from fast food restaurants) is very tedious.

2. My salt consumption is low: less than the 1.5 grams per day recommended by the American Heart Association (AHA) every day (unless I attend a Cardinals game)

After reviewing the latest scientific publications on salt, however, I have to think that for most people, it is not worth the effort to  track daily salt consumption.

Yes , this is nutritional heresy and goes against what my patients have been reading from authoritative nutritional sources for decades.

The AHA 1.5 gram/day limit for all Americans comes from a small, short term (4 weeks) study (Sacks FM, Svetkey LP, Vollmer WM, et al. Effects on blood pressure of reduced dietary sodium and the Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension (DASH) diet. N Engl J Med2001;344:3-10.)

The findings are not applicable to all Americans because more than 50% of participants in the DASH study had hypertension or prehypertension, more than 50% of participants were of African ancestry, potassium intake was markedly lower than in the general U.S. population, the trial involved only 412 persons, and a limited range of sodium intake was studied (1.5 to 3.3 g per day).

I asked most  of my patients this week about their salt consumption. None of them could tell me what their average daily salt consumption was. However, almost to a man (or woman) they told me they had been consciously limiting their consumption of salt because they knew that this was healthy.

Thus, the 35 year old white woman with a blood pressure of 110/50 , palpitations and periodic dizzy spells is following the same recommendations to limit salt consumption as the 70 year old African-American with poorly controlled hypertension.

In the last few years this focus on lower salt consumption has been questioned after close analysis by the Institute of Medicine and the Cochrane Analysis.

Two articles in the prestigious New England journal of Medicine published a few weeks ago have convinced me that most individuals who are following a Mediterranean diet do not need to be concerned about their salt consumption.

Salt and Blood Pressure

In the first PURE study paper,(a prospective cohort study that included 101,945 people from five continents)

very few participants had an estimated sodium intake of less than 2.3 g per day, and almost none had an intake of less than 1.5 g per day. This suggests that, at present, human consumption of extremely low amounts of sodium for prolonged periods is rare.

The PURE Study looked at sodium excretion versus blood pressure and

 found a steep slope for this association among study participants with sodium excretion of more than 5 g per day, a modest association among those with sodium excretion of 3 to 5 g per day, and no significant association among those with sodium excretion of less than 3 g per day.

Salt and Death

The second PURE study paper examined the relationship between sodium excretion (a measure of sodium consumption) and death and cardiovascular events

 

saltvsdeath
As Eric Topol has opined at the heart.org ” In other words, consumption of too little sodium is as harmful as consumption of too much sodium. In fact, the AHA guideline would lead — at least according to this latest research — to about a twofold risk for major adverse events.”

This graph of data from the PURE study  shows that lower levels of sodium excretion , below about 3 grams per day were associated with a higher risk of death.

Starting above about 5 grams per day  the risk of death increased with increasing amounts of sodium excretion.

 

This is quite a shocker for those of us who have assumed for the last 20  years that the less salt we consumed the longer we would live.

 

Potassium Consumption

Drawing less controversy were the findings from these two studies on potassium consumption. Higher levels of potassium consumption were associated with lower blood pressures and lower risk of death. The authors point out that high potassium intake may simply be a marker of healthy dietary patterns that are rich in potassium (e.g., high consumption of fruit and vegetables).

You can read more about these papers, including critical and positive comments at the heart.org here.

My Recommendations on Salt Consumption

Here is what I will be telling my patients about salt after a week of tracking my consumption and reading the relevant scientific literature.

  • Spend a day or two accurately tracking your consumption of salt to educate yourself. I found this app to be really helpful. I’ll expand on this in a future post.
  • Recognize that not everybody needs to follow a low salt diet. If your blood pressure is not elevated and you have no heart failure you don’t need to change your salt consumption.
  • If your blood pressure is on the low side and especially if you get periodic dizzy spells, often associated with standing quickly liberalize your salt intake, you will feel better.
  • If you have high blood pressure, you are the best judge of how salt effects your blood pressure. In the example I gave in a previous post, my patient realized that all the salt he was sprinkling on his tomatoes was the major factor causing his blood pressure to spike.
  • The kidneys do a great job of balancing sodium intake and sodium excretion if they are working normally. If you have kidney dysfunction you will  be more sensitive to the effects of salt consumption on your blood pressure and fluid retention.
  • If you are following a Mediterranean diet with plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables you are going to be in the ideal range for both potassium and sodium consumption.

Public health experts are always seeking a “one size fits all” message to give the public. In the case of salt consumption, however, the message of less is better does not apply to all.

 

 

Are You Consuming Too Much or Too Little Salt?

He is embarrassed to admit this, but the skeptical cardiologist has no idea how much salt he consumes.

I have never stressed to my patients that they engage in obsessive assessment of their salt consumption. The data that everyone needs to limit salt consumption to , say 1.5 grams/ day, as the AHA recommends are not compelling. If asked, my typical response is to recommend not adding additional table salt from the salt shaker and to avoid processed and fast foods (which apparently accounts for 75% of salt consumed in the US).

I definitely have some patients with hypertension and some with heart failure in whom watching for excessive salt consumption is important. One of my patients with fairly well controlled hypertension called me last week because he was recording blood pressures of 210/120. Before I could add another blood pressure agent he had decided to stop adding the salt to the tomatoes he was eating and over a period of a week the blood pressure came back to normal values. Manyl of my severe  heart failure patients will report weight gain due to ankle swelling after a particularly salty meal.

On the other hand, I have many patients who are symptomatic from low blood pressure. These patients have frequent episodes of dizziness and have been following the recommended low salt diet thinking that this was enhancing their health. When I get them to liberalize salt intake, blood pressures and their symptoms go away.

Recent papers on salt consumption suggest that either too much or too little salt is bad for you and consequently the public must be totally confused on what they should be doing.

Since I have high blood pressure which seems to randomly fluctuate I’ve decided to try to measure exactly how much salt I consume daily. Maybe I am consuming more than 5 grams daily (I think that is too much).

This is not going to be an easy task. If i eat out during this time I’m not sure how I will have any clue what amount of salt is in the meal. If I decided to fry a couple of eggs this morning , I will shake some salt on them from the salt cellar. Is it possible to measure this amount? If I put some cheese on the eggs, will I need to precisely measure the amount of cheese? Looks like there are some free iPhone apps I can utilize to assist me in the process.

To my readers and patients, please join me in this exciting and informative adventure. Over the next week, try to track your daily salt consumption and report the numbers to me. Or do it for one day.  The Great Salt Measurement Challenge is On!