Potato chips. Pickles. If you have a salt lick, even better. Are you forever trying (and failing) to give up salty snacks? Take heart, says dietitian Beth Czerwony, RD. It’s possible to minimize those salt cravings. The key is understanding why you have them and planning ahead.
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“The reasons behind salt cravings are multilayered. It’s not just one thing,” she says. “Look back on what was going on when you were craving salty foods. That can help you figure out what you can do to get control back.”
Is salt bad for you?
Much like Goldilocks’ experience with the Three Bears, our bodies need the “just right” amount of salt for proper functioning and fluid retention. And while too little salt causes problems, most Americans have too much in their diets.
“Eating too much sodium over time — even if it’s only a little more than recommended amounts — can affect our overall health. These bad effects happen with or without high blood pressure,” explains Czerwony. “It’s a cumulative effect — and not just on blood pressure. It’s systemic, affecting the whole body.”
Too much salt can damage the:
- Blood vessels: Over time, the endothelial cells that line the blood vessels stiffen, so blood doesn’t pump as effectively and efficiently.
- Heart: The heart must work harder to circulate blood throughout the body. “That also increases the risk for an enlarged heart, a sign of heart disease.”
- Kidneys: The kidneys don’t function as well because they’re working harder, too.
- Brain: Blood doesn’t get to the brain as it should, which can lead to thinking and memory (cognitive) problems.
6 reasons you’re craving salt
A salty hankering often comes from a combination of factors, says Czerwony. “You have to weigh out everything. If it’s a short-term craving, it could be based on how you were feeling and the situation at the time. But if you always need salt, then talk to your doctor. You may have an underlying condition that you need to take care of.”
Czerwony lists six possible reasons why you may have salt on the brain:
“We want those comfort foods. We’re having a bad day, so we really want to reward ourselves,” adds Czerwony. “Especially during the coronavirus pandemic, we’re seeing more people choosing these foods as a way to cope.”
2. Lack of sleep
Much like stress, lack of sleep affects your hormones — and salt cravings:
- Cortisol: When you don’t sleep well, cortisol levels increase.
- Leptin: Leptin tells the brain to stop eating when you’re full. Less sleep leads to less leptin — and less self-control around the foods you crave.
- Ghrelin: Ghrelin drives appetite. Lack of sleep triggers an increase in ghrelin levels — and hunger cues.
- Serotonin: Known as the “feel-good” hormone, brain serotonin levels drop without adequate rest. As a result, you may look for outside sources — like that bag of potato chips — to make you feel good.
“When people are tired and crave salt, they have less willpower. Their hunger cues are stronger. They lack the energy to meal prep or go out and buy healthy food choices. All these factors make it harder to fight food cravings.”
3. Premenstrual syndrome
Research shows that women with PMS experience hormone changes. “As a result, they crave more sweet or salty foods, especially around their periods,” notes Czerwony.
The more you exercise, the more you sweat. Too much sweating reduces sodium levels in your body. “Your body responds by upping your desire for salt.”
5. Addison’s disease
Addison’s disease, or adrenal insufficiency, is a rare condition where the body does not produce enough of certain hormones, including cortisol. These hormones control the balance of salt and fluids in the body. “The body may end up craving salt because it can’t retain it as well.”
“A lot of times, eating is just something to do to pass the time,” says Czerwony. “On top of that, salty foods are convenient. They’re usually pre-made, so you don’t have to cook. It’s almost too easy to satisfy those cravings.”
10 ways to combat salt cravings
Czerwony says the best defense is a good offense. So before those salt cravings hit, try these strategies:
- Eat whole, identifiable foods. “Processed foods make up 75% of the sodium Americans consume. It’s not from the saltshaker,” says Czerwony. “Eating whole foods is just good for overall health — whether you’re counting fat and salt intake or not.” Try to avoid or limit prepackaged snack foods and meals.
- Know your limits. “The average American consumes between 3,400 and 6,000 milligrams of sodium a day, but the American Heart Association recommends that we get 2,300 mg a day. That’s only a teaspoon of salt. Salt intake adds up if you’re not paying attention.”
- Plan meals ahead of time. “It’s so easy to order a sodium-filled meal on your cellphone that’s at your door in half an hour. Meal planning not only gives you control of how much salt you’re eating, it conveniently puts healthy meals or snacks right in your grasp,” she says.
- Get spicy. Salt stimulates receptors in your brain that basically say, “Mmm, this food is tasty.” For the same effect, get your flavor with herbs and spices instead of added salt.
- Choose restaurants that serve whole foods. When you eat out, pick places that cook food from scratch versus restaurants with huge menus full of pre-made items. “To preserve those foods, they have to add salt to them.”
- Know ALL your options. Potato chips aren’t the only way to satisfy a salty tooth. Try lower sodium options, such as sunflower or pumpkin seeds and low-sodium nuts and pretzels. “The little hummus cups with vegetables or pretzel thins are also a better option.”
- Recognize hunger cues versus cravings. “A lot of times, hunger makes us grab the salty option when we would have been satisfied with lean protein, such as a hard-boiled egg, yogurt, protein bar or protein shake.”
- Stay hydrated. It’s easy to mix up thirst and hunger cues as well. Having a drink with your salty snack can prevent overindulging.
- Read food labels. Food labels now show nutrition information for the whole package and for individual servings, making it easier to track what you’re eating.
- Take it slow and steady. “Often, it’s easier to decrease salt intake over time because your tastebuds change. They slough off and regenerate over weeks. As you consume less salt, they become less tolerant of its flavor.”
“In the grand scheme of things, it’s about paying attention to the quality of food you eat. The less processed it is, the less you have to worry about excess sodium — without sacrificing flavor,” says Czerwony. “And moderation is key. A salty snack in the right portion can hit the spot without breaking your health bank.”