Constantly cracking open that bag of chips? Love a dill pickle? Do you regularly salt your food, even your bread? While you may just be looking to enjoy salty tastes, a constant urge to snack on salty foods could be due to an underlying condition. If you’re losing the battle with salt cravings, here are six different reasons you may be a salt-seeking machine, and whether you need to curb your salt intake for the sake of your health.

Is salt bad for you and should you avoid it?

Believe it or not, sodium is an essential mineral that is needed in our diet. It is considered an essential electrolyte that your body needs to keep your fluids and hydration in balance. Sodium is vital for muscle contraction and neurological function. Salt and potassium work as levers in the body, allowing cell membranes to open to exchange fluids, which in turn controls the balance of fluid in the blood, the volume of blood, and ultimately, your blood pressure. Too much volume and you retain fluids, which can create other serious health conditions.

You can get sodium from salt (which is also called sodium chloride), but we don’t need much. Too much sodium in your diet and you’re running the risk of conditions like high blood pressure which is linked to conditions like heart disease, kidney problems, fluid retention, stroke, and osteoporosis, according to experts. There is no evidence that Himalayan or Pink or Sea Salt or other types of "designer" salts are better for you than the traditional table salt.

New 2021 research also found that sodium intake could negatively affect our circadian rhythm — our body’s internal clock that essentially controls our daily schedule, including sleep and wakefulness. The study found that mice given a high-salt diet had increased neural activity at night which researchers state can affect the sleep-wake cycle, hormones, and physiological rhythms.

Americans are getting 50 percent more salt than our bodies need

Just this week the FDA recommended that processed food companies reduce the sodium content in their formulas by 12 percent or more, and though it was not a mandate it was a strong suggestion, citing the fact that most Americans are eating 50 percent more sodium than we need, and most of it comes from the foods we buy.

“Research shows that people consume 50 percent more sodium than recommended,” explained Acting FDA Commissioner Janet Woodcock, M.D. “Although many consumers may want to reduce their sodium intake, about 70 percent of the sodium we eat comes from packaged, processed, and restaurant foods, making it challenging to limit sodium. Changes across the overall food supply will make it easier to access lower-sodium options and reduce intake even in the absence of behavior change.” But even before that happens, we have good reason to put down the salt shaker and stop buying the chips.

Where salt in the diet comes from

The majority of the sodium in our diet – some 70 percent – comes from packaged and prepared foods, as well as restaurants (over 70 percent on average), not the salt shaker, according to the FDA. Therefore, if you’re eating a frozen or boxed meal, look at the nutrition label. You should be aiming to consume no more than 2,300 milligrams (mg) of sodium per day. For reference, only 1 teaspoon of table salt will have you meeting that daily amount.

Turn over the bag of potato chips. You'll find that one serving of 15 chips contains 12 percent of your daily recommended salt intake or nearly 300 mg. How many times do you eat more than 15 chips? It all adds up, and quickly.

Why are you craving salt?

If you’ve been working to kick your salty food desires with no success, you may want to consider some of the following culprits.

Dehydration

If you’re dehydrated, the amount of water in your body has become too low. In order to keep a balance, you need to drink as much water as you’re losing. If you're craving salt, try drinking water instead.

Causes of dehydration could be from:

  • Medicine
  • Diarrhea
  • Prolonged Sweating
  • Liver or kidney problems

Dehydration also creates an imbalance in electrolytes, including sodium. Therefore, your salt craving could be your body giving you a heads up that you actually need more water – as well as electrolytes like sodium, calcium, and potassium that are vital to key functions in the body including muscle contraction and nervous system function, according to Cedars Sinai.

Hormone changes

Hormones can change for many reasons, and with those changes can come food cravings. For both men and women, hormone levels can start to drop with age and women experience hormone fluctuations around their menstrual period and during pregnancy, which is why there's that cliche about craving pickles and other strange savory foods.

Harvard Health states that our brain contains estrogen receptors, so the more estrogen we have, the more full and satisfied we feel after eating. When estrogen drops, it can be accompanied by a drop in appetite-suppressing hormones, leaving us feeling hungry and dealing with potential cravings, often for salt.

Certain medical conditions

Sometimes a salt craving can indicate an underlying medical condition such as adrenal insufficiency, also called Addison’s disease. If you're experiencing uncontrollable or intense salt cravings, talk to your doctor.

Addison’s disease occurs when the adrenal glands don’t create enough hormones, according to the National Institute of Health. Common symptoms include:

  • Fatigue
  • Muscle weakness
  • Loss of appetite
  • Weight loss
  • Abdominal pain

A less common condition, Bartter syndrome, is a rare genetic disorder that shows up as kidney defects that impair the kidney’s ability to reabsorb salt and cause imbalances in various electrolytes and fluid concentrations. If you find you are experiencing other symptoms along with the salt craving, it’s important to check in with your doctor.

Extreme Stress

Another way hormones come into play is when we’re under a lot of stress. The Mayo Clinic states that cortisol, our primary stress hormone, can put your hunger hormones such as ghrelin into overdrive as part of the fight or flight response. A 2018 study found that ghrelin can play a major role in food cravings, including our need for salt, as well as driving up our need to eat foods that we perceive as comforting or “rewarding.”

Lack of sleep

Not only can lack of sleep send your willpower packing, but it can also mess with your body's hunger hormones, including ghrelin, according to studies.

The Cleveland Clinic tells us that when we don't get a good night’s sleep, it causes cortisol to get released and that in turn boosts ghrelin. Plus being sleep deprived causes the feel-good hormone serotonin to drop. That means in order to self-comfort you could find yourself reaching for a bag of chips or another salty snack.

Prolonged exercise

If you’re an avid exerciser, that salt craving may be coming from salt loss through your sweat. The amount of salt that is lost is individual and can vary widely, with some people losing more salt than others. You can determine if you’re a "salty sweater" by the formation of salt residue on your skin and clothes after a run or bike ride. The more intense the exercise is, especially if it’s in high heat, the more salt loss you’ll experience.

The American Council on Exercise recommends that to replace your electrolytes, you drink one bottle of an electrolyte sports drink every hour of exertion. If you find that's hard to do, try to add a salty snack to your pre-exercise routine. If the exercise lasts more than 90 minutes, have a sports drink nearby to sip on so that you don't experience what's known as "bonking" when the brain, lacking electrolytes, starts to lose focus and can even cause you to faint.

Foods to eat when you’re craving salt

To limit your salt intake, eat mostly fresh food instead of processed food, often high in added salt, and know that a taste for salt is learned, not born, so you can wean yourself off.

While no specific food will take your salt craving away, you can opt for those commonly salty foods that are instead low in sodium. Some examples include:

  • Air-popped popcorn
  • Tortilla or pita chips
  • Nuts or seeds
  • Hummus with veggies
  • Salad with a vinaigrette dressing (the tartness of the vinegar will satisfy your craving)
  • Low sodium pickles or olives

Making snacks at home is a great way to monitor how much salt you're actually eating,  and to cut down, instead of salting your popcorn or snack, sprinkle on other herbs and spices.

Salt Substitutes

For any recipe you look at, chances are it contains salt since that enhances the flavor of foods (even sweet ones like chocolate chip cookies). If you’re used to adding salt to foods, you’ll likely find most food to be bland or less appetizing without it.

Fortunately, there are ways to ween yourself off your salt habit and enjoy the flavors of your meals while limiting the amount of salt you use. Try adding these common herbs and spices:

  • Pepper
  • Garlic
  • Onion powder
  • Cumin
  • Cayenne
  • Paprika
  • Oregano
  • Dill
  • Basil
  • Thyme
  • Rosemary

There are also salt substitutes that swap out the sodium chloride in salt for potassium chloride, which is healthier. You get the same salty flavor without the sodium intake., and recent studies have found that making the swap to potassium chloride could help lower blood pressure in people with hypertension.

The Cleveland Clinic does warn that even potassium chloride has side effects, however, that are similar to the dangers of sodium chloride. Therefore, they suggest getting approval from your physician before making the swap.

Foods to help lower your blood pressure

If you have high blood pressure and are a salt-a-holic, your doctor will likely advise you to cut back on salt. She or he may also advise you to add potassium to your diet, since research shows that when you eat less salt and more potassium, found in vegetables, fruit, greens and roots, you can lower your blood pressure.

The USDA recommends getting 4,700 mg of potassium a day, from whole foods like beet greens, lima beans, swim chard and other rich sources of potassium. Everyone focuses on bananas as a great source of potassium but in fact, one medium banana has 451 mg of potassium. Here are foods with more:

FOODSTANDARD PORTIONCALORIES POTASSIUM
Beet greens, cooked1 cup391309 mg
Lima beans, cooked1 cup209969 mg
Swiss chard, cooked1 cup35961 mg
Potato, baked, with skin1 medium161926 mg
Yam, cooked1 cup158911 mg
Acorn squash, cooked1 cup115896 mg
Amaranth leaves, cooked1 cup28846 mg
Spinach, cooked1 cup41839 mg
Breadfruit, cooked1 cup170808 mg
Bamboo shoots, raw1 cup41805 mg
Water chestnuts1 cup120724 mg
Carrot juice, 100%1 cup94689 mg
Taro leaves, cooked1 cup35667 mg
Plantains, cooked1 cup215663 mg
Taro root, cooked1 cup187639 mg
Adzuki beans, cooked1/2 cup147612 mg
Cress, raw2 cups32606 mg
Butternut squash, cooked1 cup82582 mg
Parsnips, cooked1 cup110572 mg
Sweet potato, cooked1 cup190572 mg
Broccoli raab, cooked1 cup40550 mg
Mushrooms, portabella, cooked1 cup35529 mg
Stewed tomatoes, canned1 cup66528 mg
Vegetable juice, 100%1 cup48518 mg
Mustard spinach, cooked1 cup29513 mg
Pumpkin, canned1 cup83505 mg
White beans, cooked1/2 cup125502 mg

Bottom Line: Salt cravings can be a sign of something else going on in the body

Salt cravings could just be a hankering for salty goodies, but it could indicate your body is in need of rehydration or other electrolytes. If you find that your salt cravings are consistent and intense, and you’ve tried various strategies to overcome them, check with your doctor to make sure nothing more serious is going on.