Are you one of those people who reaches for the salt shaker even before you've tasted your food? Do you crave chips over cookies? And if you do indulge in something sweet do you still find that you're looking for a salty treat after all? The desire for salt is nothing new, and in fact most Americans take in two to three times more salt than is recommended in a healthy diet.
For starters, there are studies that indicate hereditary factors may come into play, making you crave certain tastes over others. Evidence shows that these people, who have been coined “super-tasters,” taste certain flavors, which include saltiness, bitterness and sweetness more intensely than others who are eating the same food. As they begin to recognize and enjoy this “salty” taste, they tend to crave it in excess. At the same time they often begin to rely on salt to counteract their sensitivity to bitterness and sweetness.
Not sure you are in fact a “super-taster” & wondering what else is to responsible for the french fries you just ordered? The strong desire for salt may be due to a mineral deficiency instead. Researchers have found that people who are deficient in calcium in particular, wind up with strong cravings for salty foods. The thinking behind this is that when sodium levels are increased, calcium levels in the blood are temporarily improved as well. The body then assumes that mineral needs are met, however, this is a short-term reaction, and as this level drops the body looks for salt to resolve this issue again.
And for those who have just taken a plain old preference for salty foods, the effects are simple to understand. The more salt you eat, the more salt you want. Salt tends to block other taste buds, so that in order to enjoy a food, you tend to find that more and more salt makes food taste better. This is one of the reasons that picky eaters tend to like only starchy foods, where the salt content tends to be higher, dominating the flavors that please the palate.
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With your genetics and your diet aside, there is still a stronger force to be reckoned with. The bottom line is that salt is one of the most widely used additives within the food industry. Not only is it cost effective for manufacturers to use, but its properties make its use very diverse. Salt can be used as a preservative, as an antimicrobial agent, a flavor enhancer, and as an agent to maintain color and texture. With all of its uses, it is clear to understand why salt has found its way into the American diet in excess.
So now that you understand the cravings, what can be done about it?
Meet your need for taste with herbs & spices - Rather than reaching for the salt shaker, experiment by cooking with other herbs and spices instead. This will allow you to introduce other flavors you may not have tasted before.
Give it time - By gradually decreasing your intake of salt, you can retrain your taste buds and body and the cravings will slowly diminish. It usually takes about two weeks to adjust and then you wont even miss the salt. In fact salty food will eventually taste too intense, and you may find yourself turned off after all.
Work it out - The more we sweat, the more salt our body loses. This often has people feeling as though their cravings for salt decreases. To be sure not to lose too much, it is best to add in some electrolyte enhanced beverages for long duration extensive workouts. Need some workout inspiration? Search over free 500 workout videos
Eat fresh - Try to opt for more fresh ingredients when choosing what to eat. It is the processed foods that are typically loaded with salt, while raw fruits and vegetables are naturally lower in salt. Dry grains, legumes, and nuts (instead of commercially prepared) are also a great way to lower sodium content.
Take a look at your diet - Sometimes a deficiency in another mineral makes us crave more salt. Take a closer look at your diet to be sure that you are not deficient in one of these minerals, that can include calcium, magnesium and zinc.
Read labels - Take a closer look at the labels on the foods you are choosing (or better yet, eat fresh and/or prep your own meals from scratch). Try to steer away from those items that are loaded with salt, and where possible start to choose low-sodium, reduced-sodium or sodium-free varieties of your favorite foods. This will allow you to still enjoy your favorites while starting to lower your salt intake.
Emotional eating - Next time you go to reach for the bag of chips over an apple, stop and think about what is going on emotionally. Quite often we forget to pay attention to what we are eating, and instead focus on feeding our emotions. For many people foods that are stronger in taste, salty or sweet, feed our emotions at first glance. Taking the time to stop and think about the choice, may lead you to make a healthier choice after all.
M Mittler, MS RD
FB Note: It can take time for taste buds to adjust when you're making the move from a more processed diet to a more fresh, whole foods diet. Processed food is often loaded with sodium - one of the best ways to make it past the flavors/salt/taste bud barrier is to use fresh (or dried) spices generously to add flavor without adding sodium. Give it time, be patient. It may take a little discipline but your body will start to adjust, probably within the first few weeks. Don't be afraid to make small changes, always aiming to do better the next day. It may take some time but it is a worthwhile effort.