Eating a diet high in salt and cholesterol raises your risk of developing heart disease, but it is unlikely that salt per se raises your cholesterol levels.
Salt is composed of chloride and sodium, with sodium being the element responsible for the most well-known consequences of excessive salt consumption.
A meta-analysis¹ that reviewed approximately 200 studies did not find a link between high sodium intake and cholesterol levels. It was noted that decreasing sodium intake could help reduce blood pressure but also increase cholesterol levels. Therefore, more studies are needed to clarify the connection between salt and cholesterol.
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Cholesterol is an essential fat-like substance in your body. We need cholesterol to make hormones, vitamin D, and digestive fluids.²
Most of the cholesterol in your body is produced by the liver. However, you can also get cholesterol through the food you eat. Cholesterol needs to be packaged up as a lipoprotein to travel around the body due to its chemical structure.
High cholesterol can be caused by lifestyle and genetic factors. Lifestyle factors affecting cholesterol levels include smoking, poor diet, and a lack of exercise.
Cholesterol blood levels above the normal range increase your risk of developing cardiovascular events, such as heart attack and stroke. For this reason, it is fundamental to have your cholesterol levels regularly checked by your doctor through a blood test.
Making lifestyle changes can significantly decrease your cholesterol levels and thus your risk of cardiovascular disease and stroke.
There are two types of cholesterol: high-density lipoprotein (HDL), considered “good” cholesterol, and low-density lipoprotein (LDL), also known as “bad” cholesterol.
LDL cholesterol can build up in your arteries and blood vessels to form waxy and fatty deposits called plaques. Plaque buildup within your arteries causes the blood vessels to become hard and narrow, making it difficult for blood to travel around the body.
Plaques can increase in size and break off, causing blood clots. They can obstruct any artery in the body, such as arteries in the brain, which can cause a stroke.
HDL, or “good” cholesterol, collects the excess LDL cholesterol from arteries around your body and sends it to the liver, where it can be eliminated.
The World Health Organization defines excessive salt consumption as eating over five grams of salt per day.³
Consuming too much salt causes a larger volume of blood to move through your blood vessels, leading to a rise in blood pressure.⁴ However, this does not occur to everyone.
Your sensitivity to dietary salt is defined by factors such as hormone levels, age, and genetics. Other factors, such as obesity, can also amplify the effect of eating a diet high in salt on blood pressure.
Eating a diet high in salt can raise blood pressure, stiffening your arteries and blood vessels. This change in your blood vessels increases the risk of developing heart disease, stroke, and premature death.
However, despite current guidelines on sodium intake, some studies have found no association between high sodium intake and increased heart disease risk.
The variability in the results coming from these studies may be due to differences in experimental design and methods used to monitor the sodium intake of study participants.
More studies are needed to clarify the effect of a high salt diet on the risk of heart disease and, consequently, better support current recommendations.
A high salt intake increases the risk of developing stomach cancer,⁵ according to a meta-analysis that evaluated studies involving 4,956,350 participants.
This study found that a diet high in pickled foods and processed meat increased this likelihood.
Another negative consequence of excessive salt consumption is an increased risk of dehydration. Salt helps maintain blood volume. In some situations, when the body is already slightly dehydrated, adding more salt can aggravate the condition.
In that scenario, the increased blood sodium concentration (from salt) causes water from the body’s cells to be directed into the blood. As a result, the kidneys increase the excretion of excess sodium, which also ends up eliminating water.
Eating too much salt can also make you feel bloated. More research is needed to fully understand how sodium causes bloating, but water retention is one of the mechanisms involved.
To compensate for excessive salt intake, you can drink more water to help your body maintain the water-to-sodium ratio in the normal range.
Eating foods high in potassium, like vegetables, fruits, dairy, nuts, seeds, and legumes, can help maintain an ideal sodium level in your body and keep your blood pressure in check.
You can also decrease the amount of salt in your diet by consuming less processed foods and more unprocessed, fresh food.
A diet high in salt can cause bloating, high blood pressure, and dehydration.
Although salt consumption does not affect cholesterol levels, eating foods containing high salt levels can increase your risk of developing heart disease, stomach cancer, and stroke.
Biochemistry, cholesterol | National Institute of Health: National Library of Medicine
Guideline: Sodium intake for adults and children | World Health Organization
Problems with bloating? Watch your sodium intake | Harvard Health Publishing: Harvard Medical School
Water and electrolytes | National Institute of Health: National Library of Medicine