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Sodium and Health Outcomes: Ascertaining Valid Estimates in Research Studies.

  • Author(s): Anderson, Cheryl AM;
  • Delker, Erin;
  • Ix, Joachim H
  • et al.

Purpose of review

The dietary reference intake (DRI) for sodium has been highly debated with persuasive and elegant arguments made for both population sodium reduction and for maintenance of the status quo. After the 2015 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee (DGAC) report was published, controversy ensued, and by Congressional mandate, the sodium DRIs were updated in 2019. The 2019 DRIs defined adequate intake (AI) levels by age-sex groups that are largely consistent with the DRIs for sodium that were published in 2005. Given the overall similarities between the 2005 and 2019 DRIs, one may wonder how the recently published research on sodium and health outcomes was considered in determining the DRIs, particularly, the recent studies from very large observational cohort studies. We aim to address this concern and outline the major threats to ascertaining valid estimates of the relationship between dietary sodium and health outcomes in observational cohort studies. We use tools from modern epidemiology to demonstrate how unexpected and inconsistent findings in these relationships may emerge. We use directed acyclic graphs to illustrate specific examples in which biases may occur.

Recent findings

We identified the following key threats to internal validity: poorly defined target intervention, poorly measured sodium exposure, unmeasured or residual confounding, reverse causality, and selection bias. Researchers should consider these threats to internal validity while developing research questions and throughout the research process. For the DRIs to inform real-world interventions relating to sodium reduction, it is recommended that more specific research questions be asked that can clearly define potential interventions of interest.

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