7 Reasons You’re Always Craving Salt – And How To Control Your Cravings

fries turn into veggies

Olivia Barr

Table of contents

  1. on this page

    • How much salt is appropriate?

    • why you crave salt

    • How to Curb Cravings

Age-old question: do you have a salty or sweet tooth? There’s a time and place for both (don’t even get us started sweet-and-Savoury snacks! ) – but the saltiness of pretzels, popcorn, and chips is more satisfying, especially if your food is saltier. Not just french fries, dumplings and bacon. Nutrient-dense foods often satisfy “savory teeth,” too—think: edamame, guacamole, and pistachios. No matter what savory you’re chewing, it feels impossible to stop after one bite. But how much is too much?

We are often warned about the dangers of consuming too much sugar, but rarely seem to hear about how to manage salt cravings and consumption. What’s fueling your salty-eating pain, are they harming your health, and what can you do about it? We interviewed three registered dietitians, Elysia Cartlidge, MAN, RD, Brittany Poulson, MDA, RDN, CD, CDCES and Jamie Lee McIntyre, MS, RDN CD-N, to gain insight into your salt cravings and how to help regulate sodium intake.

related: 7 strategies for developing healthy eating habits, says RDs

How much salt to eat?

Sodium is an essential mineral that does have a place in a balanced diet—but we need far less sodium than most of us consume in a day.

Looking at the Recommended Nutrient Allowances (RDA) can help you determine if you’re overdoing it, or if there’s some wiggle room in your eating habits. The 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend that you consume less than 2,300 mg of sodium per day. The American Heart Association agrees, but says 1,500 mg per day or less is more ideal.

To put that into perspective, a 1-ounce bag of potato chips contains about 150 milligrams of sodium, according to the USDA. By comparison, a tablespoon of peanut butter has about 69 milligrams of sodium, according to the USDA.

So how does reality compare to these official nutrition recommendations? The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that the average American consumes 3,400 milligrams of sodium per day, which is 1,000 milligrams more than the recommended amount. If you eat salty snacks regularly, you may find yourself craving more salty flavors than your body really needs.

why you crave salt

Most salt craving explanations have to do with your environment or lifestyle, so if you feel like you can’t control your salty foods, just know that you were able do something.

Stress puts salt cravings into high gear.

When you’re overwhelmed, stress can significantly affect your appetite. It makes you crave comfort food because it affects your hormone levels. For some, stress suppresses hunger signals, while for others it amplifies them. If you’re someone who needs a tasty snack or meal when you’re overwhelmed, you’re probably in the latter category, whose appetite increases with stress.

“Next time you find yourself craving salt, assess your overall stress level,” says Elysia Cartlidge, MAN, RD, a registered dietitian in Ontario, Canada. “Stress may affect your adrenal glands and their ability to regulate sodium. This often leads to increased salt cravings.”

Your adrenal glands are responsible for producing and releasing cortisol, a hormone commonly referred to as the “stress hormone.” During times of heightened stress, cortisol may fuel your salt cravings. Getting rid of stress doesn’t happen overnight, but you can take steps to manage it and increase your awareness of when you’re stressed, so it doesn’t seriously affect your eating habits.

Increased sweating during exercise can cause you to lose sodium.

Regular exercise is good for you, and it can also lead to cravings for salty foods. Sodium is an electrolyte that is excreted when you sweat (hence the popularity of sports drinks containing electrolytes). “If you’ve been exercising hard and you’ve been sweating a lot, the increased amount of sweat can lead to a loss of sodium in your body,” Cartlidge says. “This causes your body to crave more salt to replace the lost sodium.”

Unless you’re really pushing too hard, that definitely doesn’t mean you should exercise less. But you can choose your source of sodium more carefully, and remember to stay hydrated, not just after a workout, but throughout the day. Drinking an electrolyte drink after a sweaty workout can help replenish electrolytes and hydrate. But keep in mind that drinking a sports drink all the time is not the healthiest way to balance electrolytes. The best source of electrolytes is a balanced diet that includes whole foods, fruits, and vegetables.

Being tired will make you hungrier.

When you don’t get enough sleep, your appetite becomes insatiable and your ability to ignore tempting cravings diminishes. That means it’s much easier to say yes to that plate of nachos or a bowl of ramen. Like stress, it’s your hormones at work. The hormones cortisol, leptin, ghrelin, and serotonin trigger hunger pangs and motivate you to seek out foods that make you feel good.

“Lack of sleep can affect your hunger, stress and ‘feel good’ hormones, which may increase your salt cravings,” Cartlidge says. “If you don’t get enough rest, you may experience increased appetite, decreased self-control over the foods you crave, and feel bad overall due to the drop in serotonin, which may lead you to eat chips or Salty foods like French fries are meant to make you feel good.”

Easier said than done, but do everything you can to get enough sleep each night. According to the CDC, adults need between seven and nine hours of sleep each night.

You are dehydrated but mistake it for hunger.

Are you drinking enough water or eating enough moisturizing foods like fruits and vegetables? If you’re not sure, you may be on the verge of dehydration, which can increase your sodium cravings. Oddly enough, it’s easy to confuse hunger with thirst. “If you’re not staying hydrated enough and mistaking dehydration for starvation, this can lead to salt cravings,” Cartlidge says.

Dehydration can also cause electrolyte imbalances similar to sweating. “This is most likely to occur in athletes or active individuals who lose more water through sweating and are not properly hydrating and replenishing lost electrolytes after vigorous exercise and sweating,” she said. In some cases, salt cravings are the body’s response to the need for fluid replacement, sodium replacement, or both.”

Drink water before or during your salty fix to avoid confusing your hunger and thirst cues. Alternatively, try a salty snack that also hydrates, like celery sticks and hummus.

you are boring.

You might find yourself in a routine that’s hard to break, like eating a french fries every night on your way home from get off work. “If you’re in the habit of eating a salty snack or watching TV at night when you’re down in the afternoon, your cravings may just be related to habit or boredom,” Cartlidge says. “Salty snacks tend to be convenient, and you may find yourself grabbing them because they’re easy.”

Breaking habits can be hard — especially when they’re delicious — but you can stop boring snacking by replacing the unwanted ones with new ones. Let your mind (and hands) focus on other activities, like taking an evening walk or folding clothes. You can also replace high-sodium, processed snacks with healthier options. Nutrient-dense foods can often satisfy “savory teeth,” too—think: edamame, guacamole, savory oatmeal, or nuts.

You limit yourself too much.

If this isn’t the first time you’ve tried eating less sodium, you probably already have some strict rules on yourself. Maybe you’re trying to cut out all added salt in your diet. While this may seem logical in theory, too many dietary rules and restrictions can have the opposite effect.

“From a psychological standpoint, deliberately limiting foods you once enjoyed can lead to an over-focus on them, and suddenly they’re everything you think about,” McIntyre said. “When we try to force ourselves to strictly abstain from salty food, it becomes a major talking point in our eating thinking, ultimately leading you to seek it out, which often leads to behaviors of overconsumption.”

Set realistic goals. If you set an unrealistic goal, you may feel discouraged if you don’t achieve it. Start slowly and gradually reduce your sodium intake rather than taking it out of a cold turkey. And don’t be afraid to indulge every now and then.

Sodium cravings may have health or biological reasons.

Many possible reasons why you often crave salty foods can be explained by factors that you control. But in some cases, you may not be able to control your cravings for salty flavors. Health conditions like Addison’s disease and premenstrual syndrome (PMS) are potential causes, Cartlidge said.

“Addison’s disease is a rare disorder that occurs when the adrenal glands are damaged and don’t produce enough of the hormones cortisol and sometimes aldosterone,” she explained. “These hormones play a role in balancing fluid and sodium levels in the body. If the body also fails to retain salt, it may lead to increased cravings for salty foods and snacks.”

Your menstrual cycle may also be a factor. This is due to hormonal fluctuations, which, as we’ve already mentioned, amplify hunger signals and cravings for stimuli that make us feel good.

Call your doctor if you think your salt cravings may be due to an underlying medical condition. There may be ways to manage your health while eliminating your cravings.

In terms of genetics, the jury is still out. Whether some people prefer salty foods to sweet ones due to genetics remains a mystery, but cannot be ruled out entirely. “We all have our preferences,” Poulsen said. “Through our taste buds and taste sensitivity, genes play an important role in these preferences. People with more sensitive tastes may be more likely to add salt to their food.”

How to Lower Your Salt Intake and Suppress Your Appetite

The obvious reason we crave salty foods so much is because they taste so good. The key to controlling cravings for salty foods is to train your taste buds to enjoy the taste of unsalted foods.

“Salt reduction is a gradual process, and it usually takes time for our taste buds to change,” Cartlidge says. “When you slowly reduce your salt intake, your taste buds become less tolerant of its overall taste, and you may find that your cravings for it diminish over time.”

Try recreating these goodies at home instead of processed, prepared convenience foods that often have salt added for flavor and preservation (frozen burritos, microwave hash browns, precooked sausages). You’ll find that it’s not the salt shaker’s fault, but all the added salt in packaged foods.

When you have to reach for packaged foods under a tight schedule, Cartlidge recommends that you become familiar with reading nutrition labels and choose labels that say “reduced sodium” or “no added salt.” Specifically, look for labels that contain 5% or less sodium per serving.

Remember, salt is not the only way to make food taste good. You can spice up snacks and dishes with an infinite combination of herbs, spices, seasonings and lemon juice. You can even choose an unsalted seasoning mix to help control how much you end up using.

According to the FDA, eating foods high in sodium as a staple can have health consequences, such as high blood pressure, which is a leading cause of heart disease. But as long as you enjoy it in moderation, indulging in your favorite savory food every now and then is fine!

related: Bad news: These 8 foods are the worst for high cholesterol

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