Could salt be contributing to the rising rates of obesity?

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

5 Responses to Could salt be contributing to the rising rates of obesity?

  1. Paul Anderson 21 March 2008 at 12:34 pm #

    I have examined foods that I am prone to overeat and, invariably, they include either salt or sugar. Having eliminated most sources of sugar from my diet my main weaknesses are nuts and cheese. I am much less inclined to overeat unsalted nuts – but I really do struggle when I open a packet of salted cashews or peanuts. I can show more restraint with some almonds or walnuts.

    My suspicion is that sugar and salt were once hard to come by, and that we are programmed to consume them when available – like in season for fruits, to maybe help us through the winter. Unfortunately that doesn’t fit well with the modern environment where sugar and salt are to be found everywhere, particularly, but not exclusively, in processed foods.

    There is much less tendancy to overeat unprocessed foods – which generally come in well balanced forms – Meat (fat, protein, b-vitmins), fruit (sugar and vitamin C), vegeatbles, fish (fat, some with fat and vitmain D), nuts, etc.

    I think a tendancy to crave any food is a warning sign that you don’t need it. Its ironic that people often tend to crave the very foods that they are alergic to.

    Paul anderson.

  2. Nancy M. 21 March 2008 at 3:39 pm #

    The logical thing to me is, drink non-caloric drinks like coffee, tea, water, etc. I love salt but I tend to only add it after I’m done cooking and I don’t eat packaged foods that have added sodium. So I suspect the salt I add to my food doesn’t amount to all that much. Salt makes the flavors in food come to life.

  3. A 21 March 2008 at 5:18 pm #

    The sweet/salty combination is especially hard to resist/tasty for many people. That combo is very frequent in snack foods, in both sensations in one food or in food pairs, for example, salty fast food washed down with soda, peanut butter & jelly, salty nut candy bars, honey-baked ham, etc. Even foods we don’t think of as sweet, but actually do have significant sugar content or break down into glucose, are often salted or salty: tomatoes, fried potatoes with catsup, deli cold cuts with mayo, for example.

    I do cook and season food with some unrefined sea salt, as well as prepare fermented veggies such as sauerkraut and brine meat with sea salt, but with very little commercially prepared foods and beverages in our home, our sodium intake is probably not as high as in homes with lots of processed, high sodium foods. I use a fairly course grind, which means less is used to achieve the desired saltiness.

  4. Norma 21 March 2008 at 9:06 pm #

    There’s more to it than that, I think. Salty and spicy food create a craving for sweet things (and the opposite is true,too) – think of the sugary sweets that are eaten in Indian cooking. Macrobiotics – I’m going by memory here – talk about expansive and contractive food and how if you eat one in any great quantity then you crave its opposite.

  5. Dave 28 March 2009 at 10:31 am #

    Certainly if the drink of choice is high calorie, salt will contribute to consumption, but it is unreasonable to then leap to a rising rate of obesity because ultimately the diets of those drinking lots of soft drinks tend to also include plenty of other low nutrient, essentially empty calories.

    We could more fairly say salt has nothing to do with obesity, that uneducated people do, in not recognizing they have to fit the total calories consumed into their diet plan or by preferring to eat and drink whatever they like regardless of the consequences.

    However, there is a quite large mitigating factor when looking at only one study, presumably closing around the cited 2008 date, that this is post-information-age data about children with cable TV, video games, the internet. Their activity level is likely to be far lower than with earlier generations, and let’s face it that processed foods and soft drinks are not new inventions, they should not today account for rising obesity and lest we forget, there once was a time when most meat was cured with salt.

    Essentially, I say no. Salt is not contributing very directly, when one consumes salted food then woudl tend to have a beverage even if it were unsalted food (maybe even moreso tending to, to swallow unsalted ungreasy food can be a chore sometimes without a beverage), it’s potentially only a side effect of a culture, of humans that are becoming less physical and more mental creatures. Fortunately there is a positive outlook, if this continues even children will become more conscious of their caloric intake but the mind cannot be healthy without the body so exercise is still required.

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