Could salt be contributing to the rising rates of obesity?

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I think the salt is somewhat over-emphasised as an unhealthy food constituent, though the likelihood is that most of us eat more of it than is strictly good for us. Personally, I don’t consume much salt because I don’t eat much processed food (where most of our salt comes from) and I add little, if any, salt during cooking or at the table. I became acutely aware of the relatively small quantities of salt I consume on a recent trip to Portugal, where they really do seem to like their food well salted.

One of the reasons I prefer not to eat salty food is because, like a lot of people, I find it makes me thirsty. As a result, I can find myself glugging down water on top of a meal, which generally does nothing to enhance digestion (fluid will dilute the acid and digestive enzymes that participate to the digestive process), and this might lead to a spot of indigestion and heartburn too.

The other thing is that it’s not just water that I want to drink when eating salty food, but beer. I’m not a great drinker, but during a brackish evening meal I can find myself putting back 2 or 3 beers where ordinarily I would have none or one. I realise 2 or 3 beers is not going to kill me. But if I were to eat salty food quite commonly, my reasoning is that this habit could pose problems for me in the long term.

I became more mindful of the relationship between salt consumption and my beer drinking on the publication of a study recently which assessed the relationship between salt intake and fluid consumption in children and adolescents aged 4-18 [1].

The results of this study found, perhaps unsurprisingly, that as salt intake increased, so did fluid intake. In fact, for each addition gram of salt consumed each day, fluid intake increased by about 100 g per day. I suppose this wouldn’t be so bad if the only fluid being consumed here was water. In reality, about half of their total fluid intake was in the form of soft drinks, and about half of this was sugar-sweetened.

The authors of this study estimated that if childhood salt consumption was to be halved (from about 6 g /day to 3 g/day), then this would lead to an average reduction of about 2 ½ sugary soft drinks per week per child. Part of the relevance of this relates to the fact that there is quite a lot of evidence out there now that sugar-sweetened drinks are a potential driver of childhood weight gain and obesity.

So, the link between salt consumption and sugary soft drinks may be of considerable public health importance.

That’s not to say, by the way, that swapping to artificially sweetened drinks is the answer. There’s plenty of evidence that artificial sweeteners may be toxic to the body and even some evidence that artificially-sweetened foods are no better than sugar-sweetened ones for those wishing to lose weight.

At its core, what this study suggests is that salt might be contributing to the rising rates of weight gain and obesity in children and adolescents. One tactic here is to reduce salt use during cooking or at the table. Though because the salt we add to food only accounts for about 10 per cent of the salt we consume, I suggest it’s processed foods (particularly salty snacks such as crisps and corn chips) that are targeted first.

Of course another way of ensuring children drink less soft drinks is simply not to buy them and have them in the house. This does not necessarily mean an all-out ban. You could, for instance, allow the consumption of soft drinks as ‘treats’ when out, while vetoing them in your own home. This will almost certainly mean considerably less of this stuff is consumed without resorting to overly-draconian measures.


1. He FJ, et al. Salt intake is related to soft drink consumption in children and adolescents: a link to obesity? Hypertension 2008;51(3):629-34

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