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The science behind your salt and sugar cravings

We can thank Mother Nature for more than 10,000 taste buds, most of which find the greatest pleasure in the sweetest and saltiest of foods. The trick is to eat your treats by the piece, not the pound.

Woman tasting salt or sugar

and salt cravings

We can thank Mother Nature for more than 10,000 taste buds, most of which find the greatest pleasure in the sweetest and saltiest of foods. The trick is to eat your treats by the piece, not the pound.

A little sugar, sugar


I always go for a little sweet treat after lunch or dinner. Something as simple as a hard candy will do the trick, so I keep a few candies in my bag, along with a couple of small chocolate squares. I don’t feel closure to a meal unless I satisfy my sweet tooth.

Another reason for my post-meal craving could be that I’m looking for the feel-good brain chemical serotonin. Sugars, like other simple carbohydrates, signal the body to release serotonin, which boosts mood.

In any case, I tell myself I have things under control by tweaking my sweet tooth with something small and satisfying. But experts like Adam Drewnowski and Allen S. Levine, writing in the Journal of Nutrition (March 2003), say that regular consumption of foods high in sugar is often a result of habit and association, which lead to “neurochemical changes” in the brain that can hard-wire you to crave these types of foods. Uh oh.

Uneven blood sugar levels can also cause sugar cravings after a meal — often the result of the imbalance in macronutrients that occurs when carbohydrates dominate the plate. So eating a meal of pasta and a piece of bread may increase the craving, while focusing on lean protein and vegetables may lessen it.

Add more fat to your diet

Here’s a real-life example of macronutrients in action. It was common for me to have a salad that included some salmon or chicken for lunch or dinner. A few hours after finishing the meal I would feel ravenous, especially for sweets. That’s when I experimented with the need for more fat in my diet. When I added walnuts or avocado to my usual salad, my sugar cravings disappeared.

Analyze your desire for food and fine-tune each meal to the “macronutrient ratio” of proteins, fats and carbs that is just right for you.

Here are some standard ratio ranges to get you started:

  • Forty to 50 percent of the calories you eat should come from carbohydrates.
  • Twenty-five to 35 percent should come from fat.
  • Twenty to 35 percent should come from protein.

These ratios work well for many people, but experiment to see what suits you best.

Salty lips


Salt enhances the flavor of most savory foods. It complements chocolate pretty well, too! But if you crave more than a pinch, you might have a problem.

A 2009 study published in the journal Medical Hypotheses suggests that opiate addicts experience increased cravings for salt and salty foods. The researchers concluded that neurological mechanisms in the brain could cause addiction to certain foods, like those high in salt. Salt might very well stimulate the pleasure and reward center in the brain, just as opiates do.

Regularly craving salty foods might also mean that your sodium levels are too low from sweating excessively, such as during vigorous exercise. Be sure to replenish sodium stores lost during exercise with an 8-ounce sports drink containing 120 to 170 mg of sodium.

Women who eat low-calcium diets want salty foods more than those who get enough bone-building calcium, which suggests that a mineral deficiency can also cause a craving for salt. Researchers have concluded that a lack of potassium, calcium and iron causes test subjects to want lots of table salt.

How much salt should I consume?

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend that adults consume between 1/2 to 1 teaspoon of table salt daily (1,500 to 2,400 mg). More than this increases your risk for developing hypertension and cardiovascular disease.

Your body needs glucose (sugar) and sodium (salt) to function properly, so when you’re worn out and your cells get sluggish, you may find yourself reaching for the chocolate-covered pretzels. But just remember, eat one pretzel — not the whole bag!

More on sugar

How to break your sugar addiction with coconut oil
9 Foods to help you quit sugar
Your body on sugar cravings: What it’s telling you

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