The last time I had a checkup, my blood pressure was 111/65. It’s pretty much always in that range, but the nurse who checked it seemed pleasantly surprised and commented, “You must watch your salt.”
Well, of course I watch my salt. I don’t like cleaning up spills. So I watch carefully as I shake little blizzards of salt onto my eggs, steaks, pork chops, vegetables, salads, soups and stews. Yesterday, when we stopped at a McDonald’s during the trip home from Illinois, I salted my mushroom-Swiss burger. Truth is, I put salt on just about everything except cheese and fruit. I guess that explains why my blood pressure is about 20 points below average for a man my age.
And I’m not the only who reaches for the salt shaker at mealtime: according to news reports, New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg puts so much salt on his bagels, they end up tasting like pretzels. He puts extra salt on salty popcorn. He even salts his pizza. Clearly, Hizzoner loves salt.
So naturally, he recently announced a plan to “encourage” (ahem, ahem) restaurants and food manufacturers to reduce the salt in their products — to help prevent heart disease and strokes, doncha know. Amazing, but typical for a politician. Sure, I love my salt … but the rest of you folks out there should cut back on the stuff, and by gosh, I’m going to help you do it.
I’m not sure which annoys me more: the bad government or the bad science. This is certainly a bit an overreach for the mayor of New York City. As a New York Times article explains, Hizzoner hopes his plan will reduce salt intake across the country.
Excuse me?! I wouldn’t live in New York City if you paid me, and I certainly wouldn’t vote for Bloomberg if I did. How did he end in my charge of my salt consumption? We all know he has presidential ambitions, but he should probably wait to win a national election before assuming office.
Perhaps hoping to avoid looking like the nanny-state busybody he is, Bloomberg announced that the salt reductions are “voluntary.” Suuuuuure, they are. If any two words in the English language don’t belong in the same sentence, they are 1) government and 2) voluntary. As George Washington wrote, the essence of government is force — that’s why he considered government a necessary evil at best. Anyone who thinks reducing salt will be strictly voluntary should read this passage from the New York Times article:
The city’s campaign against salt resembles its push to cut trans fat from restaurant foods, which began with a call for voluntary compliance. When that did not work, the city passed a law to force restaurants to eliminate trans fat.
In other words, you better volunteer to follow our guidelines, or we’ll force you.
The science is just as bad, for all kinds of reasons. Take a look at the rationale behind this “voluntary” reduction:
The plan, for which the city claims support from health agencies in other cities and states, sets a goal of reducing the amount of salt in packaged and restaurant food by 25 percent over the next five years. Public health experts say that would reduce the incidence of high blood pressure and should help prevent some of the strokes and heart attacks associated with that condition.
Public health experts are such wild optimists. The only result we can reliably predict from reducing the salt in packaged foods is that there will be less salt in packaged foods. I seriously doubt people will eat less of the stuff. In fact, I predict the public reaction over those five years will be something like this:
Year One: Hmmm, this is kind of bland. Hand me the salt shaker, will you? (shake)
Year Three: Wow, this is tasteless. Pass the salt, will you? (shake-shake-shake)
Year Five: What the @#$% is this, cardboard? Give me the salt! (shake-shake-shake-shake-shake)
And even if the public is fooled into consuming less salt, there’s no evidence the result will be fewer strokes and heart attacks. Back in 1998, Gary Taubes wrote an excellent article on the subject titled The (Political) Science of Salt. It’s a long article, but here’s my synopsis:
Some scientists claimed they found a teensy bit of a correlation between salt intake and cardiovascular disease decades ago, so they announced the “salt kills!” hypothesis and have been doggedly defending it ever since … even though many other scientists have found no correlation whatsoever, as well as mathematical problems with the correlations reported in the first place.
Sound familiar? It’s just like the “science” behind the “saturated fat kills!” theory. And once again, shortly after the theory was announced, the geniuses in government decided they’d better alert the public right now instead of waiting for actual scientific evidence to confirm it. That confirmation never came in, but uh … well, you know … we already told ’em to cut back on salt, so we’d better keep promoting the idea.
All we know from the evidence is that cutting back on salt will result in slightly lower blood pressure for some people with hypertension. We don’t know that it will save their lives. For the rest of us, it’s probably worthless and might even be a bad idea. Here are some quotes from Gary’s article:
University of Copenhagen researchers analyzed 114 randomized trials of sodium reduction, concluding that the benefit for hypertensives was significantly smaller than could be achieved by antihypertensive drugs, and that a “measurable” benefit in individuals with normal blood pressure (normotensives) of even a single millimeter of mercury could only be achieved with an “extreme” reduction in salt intake. “You can say without any shadow of a doubt,” says Drummond Rennie, a JAMA editor and a physiologist at the University of California (UC), San Francisco, “that the [NHLBI] has made a commitment to salt education that goes way beyond the scientific facts.”
After decades of intensive research, the apparent benefits of avoiding salt have only diminished. This suggests either that the true benefit has now been revealed and is indeed small, or that it is nonexistent, and researchers believing they have detected such benefits have been deluded by the confounding influences of other variables.
There is a correlation between hypertension and cardiovascular disease, by the way. But that doesn’t necessarily mean hypertension causes cardiovascular disease. The correlation could be explained by any number of other variables, such as:
- Refined carbohydrates produce high blood sugar and high levels of insulin, which in turn are both bad news for your arteries. Refined carbohydrates also cause water retention, which raises your blood pressure. (So if you really want to reduce your blood pressure, give up the sugar and starch.)
- Blood pressure tends to go up as we get older. (Mine hasn’t, but bear with me here.) We’re also more likely to suffer heart attacks and strokes as we get older.
- Stress causes your body to produce more cortisol, which can damage your arteries. Stress also raises your blood pressure.
- Eating lots of vegetables may be good for your heart. Vegetables are also high in potassium, which lowers blood pressure.
Even if hypertension causes cardiovascular damage all by itself, the clinical evidence says it takes an extreme reduction in salt intake to budge the blood-pressure meter. Mayor Bloomberg’s “voluntary” 25 percent reduction isn’t exactly extreme. It’s just a recipe for bland food. It won’t do diddly for the city’s health. (Excuse me, I meant the nation’s health. The mayor also wants to help those of us unfortunate enough to live outside his jurisdiction, you know.)
Even the usually pro-government New York Times seems a little dubious about Bloomberg’s latest attempt to regulate us into eating the way he thinks we should:
While most food companies say they agree at least with the goal of reducing salt, some medical researchers have questioned the scientific basis for the initiative, saying insufficient research had been done on possible effects. While agreeing that reducing salt is likely to lower average blood pressure, they say it can lead to other physiological changes, some of which may be associated with heart problems. An elaborate clinical trial could weigh the pluses and minuses of cutting salt in a large group of people. But that would cost millions, and it has not been done.
Dr. Michael H. Alderman, a professor at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine, said the city’s initiative, if successful in reducing salt, would amount to an uncontrolled experiment with the public’s health. “I’m always worried about unintended consequences,” he said.
Yup … like that uncontrolled experiment that told everyone to cut back on fat, and had the unintended consequence of sparking an epidemic of type 2 diabetes. But my favorite sentence in the article is this one:
The city’s salt campaign is in some ways more ambitious and less certain of success than the ones it waged against smoking and obesity.
Less certain of success? How exactly are we defining success here? Were Hizzoner’s campaigns against smoking and obesity successful? Have thousands of New Yorkers given up smoking? Did those calorie-count menus Bloomberg demanded inspire them to eat less and lose weight?
I must’ve missed those headlines. I guess I was too busy looking for the salt shaker so I could add some flavor to my eggs.