Take Your Nutrition Guidelines with a Grain of Salt

Decades ago, fat was the enemy. “Excess dietary fat makes you fat,” they’d say. Taken at face value this seems like pretty sound logic. These days, obesity is blamed on carbohydrates. Red meat has always been a scapegoat for heart disease. Throw sodium in the mix for heart problems. The U.S. Departments of Heath & Human Services (HHS) and Agriculture (USDA) as well as the center for disease control have long been in charge of determining what constitutes balanced nutrition. There’s just one problem here.

It’s all false!
To be honest, I’m not sure which is worse: the governing body’s initial “stance” on these nutrients, how quickly this research becomes “fact”, or the alternatives suggested to “correct” the problem. Here’s how it goes:
Federal governing body makes recommendation on substrate, substrate is immediately accepted or vilified by private governing bodies as fact, then solutions are suggested or administered to correct the problem. This is an efficient flow of information if the information is indeed accurate. When the information is inaccurate, big problems arise.
When fat was the enemy, butter and other saturated fats in particular, got singled out. What was the healthy response? Margarine, of course! Those delicious trans fats will give you all the wonderful taste of butter without the risk of heart disease or obesity. All was well… until it wasn’t. Studies showed that trans fats actually increased low-density lipoproteins  (LDLs, a.k.a. bad cholesterol) levels.
When fats of all kinds became the scapegoat for America’s ever-growing obesity epidemic, someone had to fill the nutritional void. Enter: carbohydrates. Now that low-fat diets are all the rage AND recommended, people felt free to consume carbohydrates in epic proportions. Why? Because that’s what’s healthy. All was well… until it wasn’t. These days, America’s obesity is blamed solely on excess carbohydrates. Despite carbs’ negative public image and high fat/high protein diets coming highly recommended for weight-loss in the fitness community, doctors STILL recommend low-fat diets to their patients to this day. “Science” is a slug, apparently.
Red meat? It’s been causing heart attacks for years. Why? Because science and statistics. Just because red meat is correlated with a risk of heart disease, that totally implies causality. If you couldn’t tell, I was making fun of these statistics interpreters–correlation and causality are NOT the same thing. Seriously, you learn that on day one. Somehow, this falsehood is still around (and that’s a story for another day).
To top it all off, sodium still has one of the biggest strangleholds on our cardiovascular systems according to the powers that be.
Here’s the problem with this nutritional science. At best, it’s misleading. At worst, it’s an outright lie. While leaders in the fitness and nutrition industries have long been advocating against such exclusionary dietary practices, the all-knowing thinktanks that guess what percentage of your diet should be comprised of proteins were spreading misinformation, unintentionally or otherwise. Don’t believe me? A September 2016 NYT article brought to light some backdoor dealings between the Sugar Association (then known as the Sugar Research Foundation) and Harvard researchers in the 1960’s. Long story short, money was exchanged in return for downplaying sugar’s relationship to heart disease (as well as a couple pot-shots at fat) in an article published by the New England Journal of Medicine.
Shocked? I’d be surprised if you weren’t. Real statistics can be easily manipulated and spun to achieve any biased outcome you like. Fudging data is even easier.
Well, actual science is finally tired of being manipulated. A 16-year, 2,600 participant study known as the Framingham Offspring Study is just the newest study to debunk the Federal nutrition guidelines. The results, which will be reported at a conference this year, show that individuals who consume under 2500 milligrams of sodium daily have higher blood pressure than those that consumed more than 2500 mg. Lead researcher Lynn Moore stated that, “Our findings add to growing evidence that current recommendations for sodium intake may be misguided.” This isn’t the only study that has come out against current sodium guidelines, nor will it be the last.
Now, this isn’t a license to consume salt in extreme doses. Other similar studies have found a U-shaped relationship between sodium and risk of heart disease. This means that people with extremely low sodium intake and people with extremely high sodium intake have a greater risk of heart disease than those that eat in reasonable quantities.
It’s important to note that reasonable moderate quantities described in this study equate more to the “normal” amount Americans ingest today, which is a good deal higher than the current recommendations.
Aside from published research, there is plenty of evidence based on common sense that should lead to the conclusion that sodium is an important part of balanced nutrition, particularly for athletes. Your entire neuromuscular system cannot function in the absence of sodium. Additionally, it assists in retaining water in the bloodstream and muscle cells. No water means no plasma. no plasma means a high hematocrit (relative red cell count). High hematocrit means high blood viscosity (resistance to flow) so the heart has to pump harder, which leads to high blood pressure.
The first takeaway, like with a lot of things, is that if you’re healthy, consuming larger quantities of sodium won’t lead to you being unhealthy… just like how squatting isn’t bad for you unless you have a broken leg. It will actually make you a little healthier! if you already have a high blood pressure, it would be helpful to monitor your sodium intake but eliminating it from your diet could have disastrous results.
The second takeaway and arguably the most important one, is to take what governing bodies recommend with a grain of salt (pun totally intended). Even within the fitness industry, thinktanks are often comprised of individuals with doctoral degrees that haven’t been afforded the luxury of actually putting any of their own policies into practice. Things happen a little differently outside of the vacuum.
The mismatch between daily recommendations and what folks actually need is nothing new. Ask anyone who has tried to lose/gain substantial weight using government RDAs or anyone that has ever been confused with how much protein they should eat.
Don’t even get me started on that nonsense. Rant over.

Coach Runner is the Owner and Director of Sports Performance at Full-Stride Performance. Prior to founding FSP, Runner was formerly the Strength & Conditioning Coach for the Atlanta Gladiators of the East Coast Hockey League, a minor league affiliate of the NHL's Boston Bruins. Coach Runner was also the Head Strength & Conditioning Coach for the Husson University Eagles, Graduate Assistant Strength Coach at the University of Maine, and a former collegiate hockey player for Plymouth State University. He earned his Master of Science degree in Kinesiology & Exercise Science from the University of Maine and is recognized as a Certified Strength & Conditioning Specialist by the National Strength & Conditioning Association in addition to numerous other certifications.

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