Can’t eat just one? Are those potato chip cravings just one of many salty desires your body asks for every day? Join the club!
The origins of our salt cravings.
Until pretty recently in human history, it wasn’t that easy for us to find salt. There were some natural salt flats, and people who lived near oceans could scoop up seawater, evaporate the liquid, and scrape up the crystallized salt. But that all took time and energy.
To make sure that we ate enough of it, our bodies and brains were designed to really enjoy the taste, and therefore the craving was built into us, to ensure we wouldn’t be deficient in this vital nutrient and to pursue the pleasure that salt gives us. When you eat salt, your brain lights up with little hits of pleasure-chemicals, ensuring that we will keep eating it.
Salt is necessary for a bunch of processes in your personal biochemistry set, known as your body. But, as with many things, when we eat too much sodium, our bodies become unbalanced. Now salt is everywhere, and it’s cheap. And we’re eating too much of it.
How much salt should we be eating?
According to the American Heart Association (AHA), we should be eating no more than 2,300 milligrams (mg) a day, but they’re actually moving toward an ideal limit of no more than 1,500 mg a day for most adults.
But, according to the AHA, the reality is, most of us consume more than 3,400 milligrams of sodium a day—way more than the “safe” amount. And most of that comes from processed, pre-packaged food, not what we add at the table.
It’s no secret we crave salt. But why do we crave it so much, even if it’s bad for us in high doses? And how can we address those cravings in a healthy way that supports our goals and us?
Here are four ways you can look at your salt cravings, and perhaps learn something that will inspire a change in your diet to help you stay healthy and balanced:
It’s a habit.
You may have grown up with parents who put salt on the table and salted their food before even tasting it. Or, it might have become a habit to add a pinch or dash of salt to most meals. Now you’re used to salty foods and low-salt foods may taste boring or bland.
The solution here is to become aware of your salt habits. Are you salting food before you even taste it? How much salt do you add when cooking?
- Try cooking your meals with no salt, or a fraction of what the recipe calls for, and then taste at the table.
- Serve meals with a fresh quarter of lemon and spritz over your food for added zing.
- Get creative: Use freshly chopped or dried herbs (like parsley, mint, scallions or thyme) or spices (like curry, cumin, or onion/garlic powder) for added flavor and aroma instead of salt.
- Add a tiny pinch of salt to your food right before eating if you still find you need more flavor.
- Cook more from scratch: Processed foods are culprits of many Americans high salt intake. So instead of buying a frozen breakfast burring that may have heaps of sodium, try this homemade version with just a pinch of salt (or just nix the pinch all together!).
Your electrolytes are out of balance.
Our bodies need potassium, calcium, sodium, magnesium, zinc and other trace minerals to stay healthy and run the chemistry of neurochemical reactions and building blood and hormones. While there is little scientific literature on the topic, many medical professionals have anecdotally found electrolyte imbalances to occur from excessive exercise (think sweating and not fueling properly). The hormone aldosterone may also affect electrolyte imbalances and salt cravings.
The solution? Stay hydrated and fueled during exercise and boost your mineral intake by eating more mineral-dense sea vegetables like nori, kelp, and dulse, and eat more super seeds like hemp and chia. In short, get those minerals in!
Sodium works for us by keeping water in our bodies for long enough to hydrate our cells. When you become dehydrated, you might need a little more salt to steady electrolytes and get your body’s water balance centered again. Exercise, alcohol consumption, and even a high salt diet are all factors that can lead to dehydration.
That said, make sure to drink plenty of water every day and even extra when you exercise. When you drink alcohol, stay hydrated by drinking one glass of water for every alcoholic drink. Bonus: You might feel better in the morning as well!
You have sluggish adrenal glands.
Salt cravings may also be a sign of low-functioning adrenal glands, Adrenaline overproduction and stress are proposed contributors to adrenal fatigue (a concept that is not medically diagnosed, but is routinely used anecdotally by some doctors and healthcare providers).
However, adrenal insufficiency, which includes Addison’s Disease, means that the body doesn’t make enough adrenal hormones (cortisol and aldosterone) and can cause low sodium levels in the blood and salt cravings. Adrenal insufficiency is rare, but if you’re experiencing salt cravings along with low energy and bags under your eyes, you may want to get your adrenal and cortisol levels checked by your doctor.
Still got salt cravings? What now?
Food cravings are complex and can be either physical (like an under-active adrenal system,) emotional (like family habits), or nutritional (like low mineral levels). That said, you may want to start looking into your salt cravings and begin to make small changes to your diet!