Could You Be Overeating Because of Salt?

Some people get derailed by sweet cravings. But others say it’s the salty junk foods that they crave: pretzels, crunchy corn chips, big slices of pizza with pepperoni and cheese…

If so, you might actually be physically craving salt without realizing it: lots of foods are very high in salt even though they don’t taste “salty” – if you’re hankering for corn flakes or cookies, it might actually be about the salt, not the sugar!

Our bodies rarely do things for no reason at all. So what makes salt cravings so powerful? What is your body trying to tell you when you’re craving pretzels (hint: it’s not a pretzel deficiency)?

As it turns out, there is such a thing as too little salt: it’s not common in the general population, but there’s reason to suspect that it might be much more widespread among people who eat Paleo. And salt deficiency actually has much more dangerous consequences than just craving tortilla chips.

Here’s an explanation of the dangers of sodium deficiency, and how it can manifest as cravings, not just for salty snack foods, but even for foods that don’t taste salty, like bread and cookies.

Salt Deficiency?

There’s a lot of evidence that salt isn’t actually dangerous, including this IOM report that made headlines last year. In healthy people, blood pressure varies very little with salt intake, and eating too little salt is also associated with health problems. Salt is not a demon waiting in the wings to send you straight to the ER for daring to sprinkle it on your food! Sodium is actually very important for human health.

Salt is necessary to control the balance of body fluids – the amount of water in your blood. Athletes are very aware of this fact: that’s why they take so much care to drink salt with their water if they’ve been sweating. Just drinking lots of water can cause a potentially dangerous and even deadly fluid imbalance called hyponatremia – to really rehydrate, you need salt as well.

Salt is also crucial for growth and reproduction. As this study has it: “Without dietary salt, growth slows, reproduction fails, and animals die prematurely. In humans sustained on sodium-free nutrient infusions, bone mineralization ceases and growth stops in all tissues except fat.”

Even more interesting is the connection between salt and mood. These authors found that:

“Clinical and experimental observations in humans, along with recent animal studies suggest that a persistent and unresolved sodium appetite can induce behavioral characteristics that are qualitatively similar to psychological depression”

Salt Deficiency and Salt (Or Sugar!) Cravings

Salty foods and drinks taste good to you in proportion to how much you need salt. The more you need it, the more you crave it, to the point where the craving can actually alter your taste buds. In lab studies, animals deprived of salt will happily drink salt solutions that taste disgusting (think seawater levels of salty), which they’d never drink if they didn’t need the salt.

More recent studies in humans have found the same thing. In this one, 10 people went on a very low-sodium diet. “Preference judgments” for salty foods tended to be higher during the depletion period: in other words, salt-depleted people craved salty foods more. But here’s the kicker: only one of the six in that study came out and said he was craving “salty foods.”

When asked about individual foods, the subjects overwhelmingly wanted foods with a lot of salt, but they weren’t necessarily aware that the salt was what they were craving. Or as this study puts it, “changes in gustatory [how things taste] processing alone cannot explain the motivated salt-seeking behavior exhibited during sodium deficiency.”

Salt deficiency increases salt appetite, but not necessarily salt preference. This fits with other studies: salt-depleted humans are very inconsistent about actually saying that they’re craving salty tastes. It’s backed up by studies like this one, where patients with adrenal insufficiency (which increases physiological need for salt) had increased salt appetite, but no change in sensitivity to the taste of salty foods.

Think about these foods that contain a lot of salt – do they taste “salty?”

  • Corn flakes: 532mg of sodium per 2-cup (roughly 200 calories) serving.
  • Butter croissant: 424mg of sodium per medium croissant.
  • Frozen waffles: 482mg of sodium per 2 waffles (roughly 200 calories).

It’s easy to see how a physiological drive for salt might lead you to overeat foods that technically “taste sweet.” If you can’t stop eating butter croissants, you’re likely to think you have a sugar craving, but actually may be about the salt.

The Bottom Line: Look out for is the total salt content of the food, not how salty it tastes. When craving food – try a small amount of very salty food to see if the craving goes away.

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