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Salt: Friend Or Foe?

When it comes to healthy eating, salt is persona non grata—right after sugar, of course. Nutritionists always warn us about the detrimental effects of consuming too much salt (cough, bloating, cough). But actually, some salt is necessary for our bodies to function. In fact, new research suggests that what we previously thought about salt—namely that eating a lot of it makes you super thirsty and that you can flush out excess sodium by drinking tons of water—is totally and completely wrong. Um, what?

The research, published in The Journal of Clinical Investigation, suggests that consuming lots of sodium doesn’t cause thirst and can actually help you burn more calories. The New York Times reports that Dr. Jens Titze, a kidney specialist, began researching the effect of salt on the body back in 1991 during a 28-day simulated space mission. Though the study was intended to monitor how the crew members would get along, Dr. Titze noticed something odd: Their urine volumes fluctuated (a weird thing to notice under usual circumstances—but not when science is involved!). Over the next couple of decades, Dr. Titze continued to study this variance.

The work provides evidence that increased salt in a person’s diet increases levels of glucocorticoid hormones, which help the body to break down fat and muscle. This “free[s] up water for the body to use,” much like how a camel’s body works. (While not the sexiest metaphor, it’s the most accurate.) Because it causes the body to essentially break down tissue, you burn more calories. Sadly, though, salt isn’t exactly your new metabolism-boosting BFF.

Dr. Titze doesn’t recommend going on a high-salt diet to try to lose weight. Because of the extra calorie burn, extra salt in your diet can make you hungry—so you end up eating more. Oh, and high glucocorticoid levels may be good for your metabolism, but they’re also linked to metabolic issues like diabetes. So, maybe don’t pour salt over your entire life just yet.

All we can think is this: If we’re still discovering new things about something as well-known as salt, WTF else have we been getting wrong our whole lives?