We all get food cravings from time to time, whether it's for sweets, salt, carbs or fat. The reasons for this sudden desire for certain foods are varied, complex and depend on what else is happening in our lives.
Aside from the obvious sugar cravings (i.e. energy or mood boost) when we're feeling tired, low or PMS-ing, we can similarly experience salt cravings in times of stress, sickness, pregnancy and when we drink alcohol. Hello, salty chips, pretzels, popcorn, pizza and crackers.
But why exactly do we crave salt? And what purpose does sodium have in the body, anyway?
Why does the body need sodium?
Sodium is a mineral that your body requires to function properly, but too much can be harmful.
"Salt or sodium is important for nerve and water balance within the human body," nutritionist Fiona Tuck told HuffPost Australia.
We also need sodium to control blood pressure and blood volume, Jessica Spendlove, accredited practising dietitian, accredited sports dietitian and nutrition consultant, explained.
"Your body also needs sodium for muscles and nerves to contract and work properly," Spendlove said.
"The body is highly advanced and regulates the level of sodium in the body through numerous processes and pathways because the concentration must remain in a narrow range. If sodium levels become too high or too low, it causes problems."
What happens when we eat too much sodium, or not enough?
According to Tuck, it's rare to not consume enough sodium as it is so prevalent in the foods we eat, particularly packaged and processed foods.
"The kidneys carefully monitor sodium balance -- however, excess sweating, vomiting and dysentery-type symptoms may cause low sodium, which upsets electrolyte balance and can lead to dehydration, low blood pressure, poor nerve transmission and may affect muscle and heart function," Tuck said.
"Too much sodium has the opposite effect and is associated with high blood pressure, which can increase risks of stroke and kidney damage. As sodium levels rise in the body, we retain excess fluids to try to dilute the sodium, and this can lead to fluid retention and puffiness."
Insufficient sodium intake may lead to:
- Insufficient sodium in your blood is also known as hyponatremia. It occurs when water and sodium are out of balance. In other words, there's either too much water or not enough sodium in your blood;
- There have been cases of hyponatremia reported in endurance and ultra-endurance events when participants have only consumed water during the event and not replaced any electrolytes;
- In extreme cases hyponatremia can result in death.
Too much sodium in the diet may lead to:
- Too much sodium can have adverse effects, particularly for people who are sensitive to sodium;
- Excessive sodium can cause hypertension (prolonged high blood pressure), which in turn can lead to other health problems.
Why do you crave salt?
There's an array of possible reasons why you're craving salt -- but the most common reason?
"One of the most common reasons we can crave salt is dehydration. This can be related to when we have a cold, drink alcohol or are pregnant," Spendlove told HuffPost Australia.
When you are dehydrated or lose sodium from your body via exercise, vomiting or diarrhoea, our bodies naturally seek out fluids and salty foods to replenish electrolyte balance.
Here are other possible reasons for salt cravings.
Why do you crave salt when sick?
When we're feeling under the weather with a blocked or runny nose, headache or upset stomach, we often crave salty foods like crackers, pretzels and pizza. One possible reason for this is our reduced taste abilities (thanks, snotty nose).
"When our nose becomes blocked our ability to taste food becomes diminished. Craving highly flavoured foods and salty foods may therefore be simply because we cannot taste food well," Tuck said.
Why do you crave salt when you drink alcohol?
Rather than alcohol having a direct effect on our appetite for salt, Tuck suggests the correlation between drinking alcohol and salty snacks has more to do with our lowered inhibitions and what's on the menu -- that is, chips, peanuts, fries, burgers and pretzels.
"When we drink alcohol we are often served salty snacks which can make us want to drink more," Tuck said.
"Drinking alcohol lowers our inhibitions and increases our hunger hormone which in turn can lead us to eat more. As alcohol is full of sugar we can often crave the salty foods to offset the sweetness of the alcohol."
Why do you crave salt when stressed?
"When we are stressed our nervous system and adrenal glands (the glands that sit on top of our kidneys) have to work harder," Tuck explained.
"This means that the body uses up more sodium and this is why we often crave salty, crunchy foods when we are under stress."
Why do you crave salt when pregnant?
Nutrient requirements in general go up during pregnancy and so it makes sense that our sodium needs also go up slightly.
"Pregnancy cravings can often be a sign that the body needs more of a particularly nutrient, which can sometimes also include sodium," Tuck said.
"Whilst sodium requirements may slightly increase during pregnancy to help maintain fluid balance, blood pressure and nerve transmission, care should be taken not to overeat the salty foods, especially if high blood pressure is an existing problem."
In any case, if your salt cravings are persistent and intense, check in with your GP.
"Salt craving can sometimes be caused by underlying medical conditions, such as adrenal insufficiency or Bartter's syndrome. If symptoms persist you should consult a medical professional," Spendlove said.
How to beat salt cravings
With any cravings, it is important to look at your overall intake of food.
"Often cravings develop from inconsistencies with meals or when attempting to overly strict," Spendlove said.
"The best way to manage salty junk food cravings is to consume food sources which might be a little bit higher in salt naturally, or use some good quality salt in your diet such as Himalyan rock salt on vegetables (in addition to some extra virgin olive oil, cracked pepper and maybe some lemon juice).
"If you already consume a high intake of salt through processed foods, or adding salt to your meals, you should slowly look to reduce your intake of salt over time. You should of course reduce the amount of processed foods you are eating, as well."
If stress is the source of your salt cravings, focus on managing stress through exercise, diet and rest.
"Look at stress-busting techniques to calm the nervous system and adrenal glands such as yoga, meditation and taking time out," Tuck said.
"When we are stressed our body needs more nutrients such as vitamin B, magnesium and vitamin C. Increase whole grains, fruits and vegetables and citrus fruits."
The next time you have salt cravings, instead of reaching for chips, pizza and pretzels, try these healthier swaps.
"Look at swapping to healthy snacks that provide valuable nutrients, as well as satisfy the salt cravings, such as seaweed snacks (tasty freeze-dried seaweed squares available from health stores and some supermarkets), miso soup, air popped popcorn, or hummus with carrot or celery sticks," Tuck said.
Healthier salty snacks include:
- Avocado on a good quality sourdough or gluten-free toast with salt
- Edamame beans with rock salt on top
- Higher salt cheese such as hard-yellow cheese or cottage cheese with some grainy crackers