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The Surprising Link Between Salt and Weight Gain

Moderating our sodium intake may help us maintain healthier gut flora, which is associated with healthier body weight. Who saw that coming?

By
Monica Reinagel, MS, LD/N, CNS
3-minute read
Episode #482
image of someone pinching salt on food

Dominick Müller’s research group at the Max Dellbrück Center for Molecular Medicine in Berlin just released data from a new study showing that high-sodium diets may kill off the beneficial lactobacillus bacteria in our guts—which may set us up for weight gain. Conversely, moderating our sodium intake may help us maintain healthier gut flora, which is associated with healthier body weight. Who saw that coming?

High-sodium diets also tend to increase blood pressure, of course. We’ve always assumed that this has to do with how sodium intake affects water retention and blood volume. But could the change in gut bacteria play a role? Potentially, yes.

Could it be that a probiotic supplement could one day be an effective treatment for high blood pressure in humans? Time will tell.

Müller’s group found that in mice, anyway, administering a probiotic along with a high-sodium diet not only restored the mice’s gut flora, it also decreased their blood pressure. They are currently awaiting approval for a study to test this in humans. But the preliminary findings certainly suggest that the effect of salt on blood pressure and its effect on gut bacteria are not unrelated.

Perhaps blood pressure is yet another in the growing list of bodily functions that are influenced by the bacteria in our intestines, along with brain chemistry, cholesterol levels, immune function, digestion, hormones, blood sugar metabolism, and weight management. And to think that only a few decades ago, we didn’t even suspect that all those little beasties were in there, much less that they were pretty much running the show!

Could it be that a probiotic supplement could one day be an effective treatment for high blood pressure in humans? Time will tell. In the meantime, simply avoiding excessive sodium consumption could help preserve a healthier microbiome. And to the extent that limiting sodium also means limiting our consumption of highly-processed, high-calorie junk food, so much the better!

There’s no need to ban the salt-shaker entirely. If you simply focus on eating more whole and minimally-processed foods, the sodium will probably take care of itself, even if you salt your food to taste. As it happens, that same strategy of eating more whole and minimally-processed foods is also a good way to lower your blood pressure and manage your weight. Your gut bacteria may be the link that ties all of this together.

As new research becomes available, you’ll hear about it here. In the meantime, feel free to send your nutrition questions my way and to connect with me on Facebook!

Image of hand pinching salt © Shutterstock

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About the Author

Monica Reinagel, MS, LD/N, CNS

Monica Reinagel is a board-certified licensed nutritionist, author, and the creator of one of iTunes' most highly ranked health and fitness podcasts. Her advice is regularly featured on the TODAY show, Dr. Oz, NPR, and in the nation's leading newspapers, magazines, and websites. Do you have a nutrition question? Call the Nutrition Diva listener line at 443-961-6206. Your question could be featured on the show.