Salt has a reputation for being bad for your health. The main cause for alarm is sodium, which at very high levels can throw the body’s fluid balance out of whack, causing high blood pressure, heart disease and even death. Government organizations say that we consume too much salt and recommend cutbacks. But in fact, sodium is a nutrient that’s essential for myriad physiological processes in our bodies, and getting too little salt is also harmful to our health. The truth is, most of us are fairly conservative with the salt shaker.

Although it’s true that cutting back on sodium can lower blood pressure in people who have hypertension, no studies have shown that doing so will help reduce heart attacks or death. What’s more, cutting back too much also is likely to have some unexpected side effects—higher cholesterol, triglyceride and blood sugar levels.

Recent research summarizing six decades of studies that included more than one million people worldwide suggests an optimal range for sodium intake that’s associated with the lowest risk for disease and death from all causes. That sodium “sweet spot” is roughly 3,500 mg to 4,500 mg a day. (Most people consume 3,600 mg to 3,700 mg daily.) That’s a lot higher than the 1,500 mg to 2,300 mg a day recommended by the American Heart Association (AHA), the World Health Organization and numerous other health bodies.

Instead of trying to lower your sodium, it may make more sense to increase your intake of potassium, which helps control blood pressure by upping your ability to process sodium out of your body and by relaxing blood vessel walls. (Fruits and vegetables such as ­bananas, oranges, spinach and cucumbers are good sources.) Research has shown that higher levels of potassium are linked to fewer cardiovascular events and deaths across the globe.