Too much cholesterol can raise your risk for cardiovascular disease. High blood pressure can also raise that risk, and eating a lot of salt can raise your blood pressure. But does too much salt affect your cholesterol levels as well?
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Read more: What You Need to Know About Cholesterol
Key Points on Cholesterol
Cholesterol itself isn't bad for you. It's your levels of cholesterol that matter most. In fact, humans need cholesterol — a waxy substance found in all the cells in your body — for such essential functions as synthesizing hormones and vitamin D and as a building block for human tissue, notes the U.S. National Library of Medicine.
Cholesterol is produced naturally by your liver, and you can also get cholesterol from certain foods, especially meat and dairy products. However, your liver makes all the cholesterol you need, according to the American Heart Association (AHA), and having too much cholesterol in your blood can lead to heart problems.
This is blamed primarily on one type of cholesterol, low-density lipoprotein (LDL), which is considered the "bad" kind because it joins with other substances to form thick deposits on the inside of your arteries, restricting blood flow and making the arteries less flexible, a condition called atherosclerosis, says AHA. A blood clot in these narrowed arteries can cause a heart attack or stroke.
The other type of cholesterol — high-density lipoprotein (HDL) — is sometimes called "good" cholesterol, adds AHA, because it carries cholesterol back to your liver, which then removes the cholesterol from your body.
What to Know About Salt
Your body also needs salt to function, explains the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. Technically called sodium chloride, salt is essential to conduct nerve impulses, contract and relax muscles and maintain a proper balance of water and minerals, says Harvard. You need about 500 milligrams of sodium each day for these vital functions, it says.
Consuming too much salt can lead to high blood pressure, known as hypertension, by making it harder for the kidneys to remove unwanted fluid from your body. That can strain your heart, weaken the heart muscle and damage the arterial walls, notes the Cleveland Clinic.
Most Americans consume way too much salt: at least 1 1/2 teaspoons, or 3,400 milligrams, a day — more than twice what the National Institutes of Health (NIH) says people 14 years and older should consume.
The Salt-Cholesterol Connection
So both too much salt and too much cholesterol can raise your risk for heart disease. But does too much salt raise cholesterol levels? That's unlikely, experts say.
"There's not much of a link between salt and cholesterol unless you're eating a lot of processed meats and cheeses, which are sources of both sodium and cholesterol," says Penny Kris-Etherton, PhD, RDN, distinguished professor of nutrition at Penn State University and a fellow of the American Heart Association.
A Cochrane Database of Systematic Review meta-analysis of nearly 200 studies that examined the effects of lower sodium intake on factors that included blood pressure and levels of HDL and LDL cholesterol found that lowering salt in the diet aids people with high blood pressure. However, the analysis, published in April 2017, also found that a low-sodium diet may increase cholesterol levels.
Also, a Brazilian study of 165 women with hypertension, published in April 2018 in the journal Medicine, found no significant association between sodium intake and cholesterol for women who were not overweight. It did, however, find that lower sodium intake actually increased blood cholesterol levels for women who were both hypertensive and overweight, a result that the authors thought may have been due more to obesity than salt consumption.
Bottom Line for Your Heart
So what's the best advice for healthy hearts? The NIH, AHA, and others recommend the following:
- Control your cholesterol by sticking to a diet that limits both total fat and saturated fat. The NIH recommends that no more than 25 to 35 percent of your daily calories should come from dietary fat and less than 7 percent from saturated fat. (For a 2,000-calorie-a-day diet, that means 56 to 78 grams of total fat and no more than 13 grams of saturated fat.)
- Eat plenty of foods high in soluble fiber, like fruits, vegetables, whole-grain cereal and legumes.
- Eat fish like salmon, tuna and mackerel that are high in omega-3 fatty acids.
- Limit salt. Avoid foods that are high in added salt (like salty snacks and processed foods that are high in sodium). It won't lower your cholesterol, but it can help reduce your risk for heart disease by lowering your blood pressure.
- U.S. National Library of Medicine: “Cholesterol”
- American Heart Association: “Control Your Cholesterol”
- Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health: “Salt and Sodium”
- Cleveland Clinic: “How Salt Can Impact Your Blood Pressure, Heart and Kidneys”
- Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews: “Effects of Low Sodium Diet Versus High Sodium Diet on Blood Pressure, Renin, Aldosterone, Catecholamines, Cholesterol, and Triglyceride”
- Medicine: "Association Between Blood Cholesterol and Sodium Intake in Hypertensive Women With Excess Weight"
- Penny M. Kris-Etherton, PhD, RDN, distinguished professor of nutrition, Penn State College of Health and Human Development, University Park, Pennsylvania
- National Institutes of Health: Office of Dietary Supplements “Nutrient Recommendations: Dietary Reference Intakes”