7 Reasons Why You Always Crave Salt—and How to Keep Salty Food Cravings in Check

If you've got a "salty tooth," you'll want to keep reading.

The age-old question: Are you a salty food or a sweet food person? There's a time and place for both (and don't even get us started on sweet-and-salty snacks!)—but there's something extra satisfying about the salty goodness of pretzels, popcorn, and potato chips, especially if your food preferences lean savory. It's not just french fries, dumplings, and bacon, either. Nutrient-dense foods can often satisfy that "salty tooth," too—think: edamame, guacamole, and pistachios. Whatever salty bite you're munching on, it can feel impossible to stop after just one. But how much is too much?

We're warned pretty often about the perils of consuming too much sugar, but seem to hear less about how to keep salt cravings and consumption in check. What's fueling your salty food pangs, are they hurting your health, and what can you do about it? We spoke to three registered dietitians, Elysia Cartlidge, MAN, RD, Brittany Poulson, MDA, RDN, CD, CDCES, and Jamie Lee McIntyre, MS, RDN CD-N, to get to the bottom of your hankering for salt and how to help moderate your sodium intake.

Olivia Barr

How much salt is OK to eat?

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

Taking a look at the recommended dietary allowance (RDA) for nutrients can help you figure out whether you're going overboard, 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 milligrams of sodium per day. The American Heart Association agrees, but says that 1,500 milligrams or less per day is even more ideal.

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

So, how does reality compare to these official nutritional recommendations? The CDC estimates that Americans consume an average of 3,400 milligrams of sodium daily, which is more than 1,000 milligrams over the recommended amount. If you're reaching for salty snacks on the regular, you may find yourself giving in to your salty desires more than your body really needs.

Why You Crave Salt

Most of the explanations for salt cravings are related to your environment or lifestyle, so if you feel like you can't control yourself around salty goodies, just know that you can do something about it.

01 of 07

Stress kicks salt cravings into high gear.

When you're overwhelmed, stress can noticeably impact your appetite. It makes you crave comfort foods because of how it affects your hormone levels. For some people, stress silences hunger signals, while for others it amplifies them. If you're someone who needs a savory snack or meal when you're swamped, you're probably part of the latter group 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 impact your adrenal glands and their ability to regulate sodium. This can often lead to increased cravings for salt."

Your adrenal glands are responsible for producing and releasing cortisol, a hormone often dubbed the "stress hormone." During periods of heightened stress, cortisol may be driving your salt cravings. Stopping stress in its tracks isn't something you can do overnight, but you can take steps to manage your stress, and heighten your awareness of when you're feeling stressed, so it doesn't affect your eating patterns quite as drastically.

02 of 07

Increased sweating from exercise makes you lose sodium.

Regular exercise is great for you, and it may also contribute to cravings for salty foods. Sodium is an electrolyte, which exits the body when you sweat (hence why sports drinks containing electrolytes are so popular). "If you've been hitting it hard with the exercise and sweating excessively, the increased amount of sweat could be resulting in a loss of sodium from the body," Cartlidge says. "This results in your body craving more salt to replace the lost sodium."

Unless you're really overexerting yourself, this definitely doesn't mean you should exercise less. But you can choose your sources of sodium more carefully, and remember to stay hydrated, not just post-workout but throughout the entire day. Drinking an electrolyte drink after a sweaty workout can help accomplish both electrolyte replenishment and hydration. Remember, though, that drinking sports drinks all the time isn't the healthiest way to balance electrolytes. The best source of electrolytes is eating a balanced diet full of whole foods, fruits, and veggies.

03 of 07

Being tired makes you hungrier.

When you're sleep deprived, your appetite can feel insatiable and your ability to ignore a tempting craving gets weaker. This means it's much easier to say yes to that plate of nachos or bowl of ramen. Like stress, this is your hormones at play. The hormones cortisol, leptin, ghrelin, and serotonin trigger hunger and sparks your search for foods that make you feel good.

"Lack of sleep can impact your hunger, stress, and 'feel good' hormones, which may heighten your cravings for salt," says Cartlidge. "If you aren't getting adequate rest, you may experience increased appetite, less self control around the foods you crave, and an overall lousy feeling due to the dip in serotonin, which may cause you to reach for salty foods like chips or french fries in order to feel good."

It's easier said than done, but do everything in your power to get enough sleep every night. Adults need seven to nine hours of sleep per night, according to the CDC.

04 of 07

You're dehydrated, but mistake it for hunger.

Do you drink enough water or eat enough hydrating foods, like fruits and vegetables? If you're unsure, you may be on the brink of dehydration, which can heighten your desire for sodium. And oddly enough, it's easy to confuse hunger for thirst. "If you're not staying sufficiently hydrated and mistaking dehydration for hunger, this may lead to salt cravings," Cartlidge says.

Dehydration can also cause electrolyte imbalance similar to sweating. "This is most likely to happen in athletes or active individuals experiencing greater fluid loss through sweat and not properly rehydrating and replacing lost electrolytes after intense activity and sweat loss," she says. "In this case, the craving for salt is the body's response to the need for fluid replacement, sodium replacement, or both."

Drink water before or during your salty fix to avoid getting your hunger and thirst cues mixed up. Or, try a salty snack that's also hydrating, such as celery sticks and hummus.

05 of 07

You're bored.

You may find yourself in a routine that can be hard to break, such as treating yourself to a side of fries on your way home from work every night. "If you're used to reaching for a salty snack during that mid-afternoon slump or watching TV at night, your cravings could simply be related to habit or boredom," Cartlidge says. "Salty snacks tend to be convenient, and you may find yourself grabbing them since they're easy."

Breaking habits can be hard—especially when they're so tasty—but you can put a stop to the boredom snacking by replacing those unwanted habits with new ones. Keep your mind (and hands) occupied with other activities, such as going for an evening walk or folding the laundry. You can also replace high-sodium, processed snacks with healthier choices. Nutrient-dense foods can often satisfy that "salty tooth," too—think: edamame, guacamole, savory oatmeal, or nuts.

06 of 07

You're restricting yourself too much.

If this isn't your first go around trying to eat less sodium, you may have placed some strict rules on yourself. Maybe you tried to cut out all added salt in your diet. While this seems logical in theory, too many dietary rules and restrictions can have the opposite effect.

"From a psychological point of view, an intentional restriction of foods you once enjoyed leads to over-fixation on them, and suddenly they become all you think about," McIntyre says. "When we try to force ourselves into a rigid rule of no salty foods, it becomes the main topic of our food thoughts, leading you to seek it out eventually, and this often leads to the act of overconsumption."

Set realistic goals. If you set an unrealistic goal, you may feel discouraged if you don't meet it. Start slow and gradually reduce your sodium intake instead of cutting it out cold turkey. And don't be afraid of indulging from time to time.

07 of 07

Sodium cravings may have health or biological explanations.

Many of the possible reasons why you crave salty foods often can be explained by factors in your control. But there are some instances where salty cravings may be less within your control. Cartlidge says that health conditions like Addison's disease and premenstrual syndrome (PMS) are potential causes.

"Addison's disease is a rare condition that occurs when the adrenal glands are damaged and can't make enough of the hormone cortisol and sometimes aldosterone," she explains. "These hormones play a role in balancing fluid and sodium levels in the body. If the body isn't retaining salt as well, it may result in increased cravings for salty foods and snacks."

Your menstrual cycle could also be a factor. This is due to hormonal fluctuations that, as we've already mentioned, amplify hunger cues and desire for stimuli that makes us feel good.

If you think your insatiable salt cravings could be due to an underlying health condition, give your doctor a call. There may be ways to manage your health that simultaneously quiet your cravings.

As far as genetics go, the jury is still out. It remains a mystery whether some people crave salty foods over sweet ones due to genetics, but it can't be ruled out completely. "We all have our preferences," Poulson says. "Genes play a big role in those preferences by way of our taste buds and taste sensitivity. People who are more sensitive tasters may be more likely to add salt to their food."

How to Lower Your Salt Intake and Curb Cravings

The obvious reason why we crave salty foods so much is because they taste so darn good . The key to keeping salty food cravings in check is training your taste buds to enjoy the taste of foods without as much added salt.

"Reducing salt is a gradual process, and it often takes time for our taste buds to change," Cartlidge says. "As you slowly decrease your salt intake, your taste buds won't be as tolerant to the overall taste of it, and you may find that your cravings for it lessen over time."

Instead of processed, prepared convenience foods, which are typically loaded with added salt for flavor and preservation (frozen burritos, microwave hash browns, precooked sausages), try to recreate these goodies at home. You'll find that it's not the salt shaker that's to blame—it's all the added salt in packaged foods.

When you're in a time crunch and have to reach for packaged foods, Cartlidge recommends getting familiar with reading nutrition labels and going for ones that read "reduced sodium" or "no salt added." Specifically, look for labels that have 5 percent or less daily value of sodium per serving.

Remember that salt isn't the only way to make your food taste good. You can flavor snacks and dishes with an infinite combination of herbs, spices, seasonings, and lemon juice. You can even opt for salt-free seasoning blends to help control how much you end up using.

Making high-sodium foods a staple in your diet can have health consequences like high blood pressure, which is a leading cause of heart disease, according to the FDA. But as long as you enjoy it in moderation, indulging in your favorite salty bites every now and then is perfectly fine!

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  1. USDA. 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans.

  2. USDA FoodData Central. Snacks, potato chips, plain, salted.

  3. USDA FoodData Central. Peanut butter.

  4. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. About sodium.

  5. Chao AM, Jastreboff AM, White MA, Grilo CM, Sinha R. Stress, cortisol, and other appetite-related hormones: Prospective prediction of 6-month changes in food cravings and weight. Obesity. 2017;25(4):713-720. doi:10.1002/oby.21790

  6. CDC. How Much Sleep Do I Need?

  7. FDA. Eating Too Much Salt? Ways to Cut Back...Gradually.

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