Our cravings for salt run deep. It’s our main source of sodium, a mineral and electrolyte that helps maintain the right amount of fluid in our cells, keeps muscles working efficiently and helps nerves send messages throughout the body. That, and it is pretty tasty. Salt tends to be the first thing we reach for when we want to bring out the flavors in our food. But it has also been firmly established that overindulging in your salt craving can raise your blood pressure and increase your risk of developing heart disease, stroke or kidney failure. While most of us know the risks of a high-sodium diet, many of us continue to reach for the shaker—and for canned and other processed foods that are packed with more salt than we probably realize. Then, we do it again.
Why Do We Crave Salt?
Our salt cravings are, in part, controlled by a small area of the brain called the hypothalamus, which produces hormones that dictate our instinctive needs, from sleep to sex to hunger. While it’s true that the body requires some sodium, scientists say that intense salt cravings go back to prehistoric times: Salt was scarce, so the brain developed a “rewards system” that encouraged a person to seek it out whenever possible, because it was necessary for survival. When salt was consumed, the brain sent the message to repeat the behavior. Today, that hard-coded drive remains.
How Much Salt Do We Need?
You should limit your sodium intake to no more than 2,300 milligrams per day, unless you are age 51 or older, have high blood pressure or are black, in which case you should aim for a maximum of 1,500 mg. Less is better, of course, and every bit that you cut back counts. Most Americans consume too much salt, mostly through processed foods and restaurant meals. Just one teaspoon of salt contains 2,325 mg of sodium, so it’s easy to see how.
Here, some common foods and the amount of sodium they contain:
|Food||Serving Size||Sodium (mg)|
|Soy sauce||1 Tbsp||1,000|
|Tomato soup||8 oz||700-1,260|
|Frozen cheese pizza||4 oz||450-1,200|
|Potato chips||1 oz||120-180|
|Salad dressing||2 Tbsp||110-505|
Reduce Your Salt Cravings by Lowering Your Sodium Intake
Cutting back on your salt intake, over time, will help reduce your craving for salt. Though your brain may still send out the signal that it wants salt, it can be satisfied—and your body can function efficiently—with far less than we tend to consume today. You’ll also start to retrain your taste buds, making foods that once tasted good to you seem too salty.
Try these tips to start on your lowering your sodium:
- Read food labels. Don’t just look for salt on an ingredient list. Packaged foods often contain other sources of sodium that are less obvious, such as monosodium glutamate (MSG), baking soda, baking powder, disodium phosphate, sodium alginate and sodium nitrate or nitrite.
- Consider all your options. As you can see from the chart above, there can be quite a range of sodium content in the same foods. Compare products while you shop, and pick the one that’s lower in sodium.
- Switch to kosher or sea salt…. Switching to kosher salt can save you up to 360 mg of sodium per teaspoon, compared to regular table salt, and making the move to sea salt could cut as much as 760 mg per teaspoon. But sodium content can vary from brand to brand, so check the label and be careful to not use too much.
- …or, just spice it up. When you’re cooking at home, use herbs and spices instead of salt to add flavor to your food without adding extra sodium. Chili peppers, for example, can add a little kick to your meal without adding any salt.
Be wary of salt substitutes. Some salt substitutes actually contain some salt, and if you shake one too many times in an attempt to get that salty flavor, you may end up with more sodium than if you had just used a little salt to begin with.
- Skip the condiments. Mustard, ketchup, relish and sauces all contain sodium. Opt for a fresh tomato slice or diced cucumbers instead.