How to kick your salt cravings to the curb
Salt — you can't live with it, but you really can't live without it.
"Salt is made of sodium and chloride. We need both," explains Dr. Lynn Anderson, natural health expert, author of Sex Mattersand breast cancer survivor. "Sodium aides in the transmission of our muscles and nerves. Chloride is a very important electrolyte in the blood. It keeps the fluid inside and outside the cells in balance. A deficiency creates muscles twitches, breathing problems and weakness."
But, Anderson also tells us the bad news: "Too much salt can be a causative factor when it comes to hypertension. However, low potassium is also a contributor, as well as lack of exercise, weight and poor eating habits."
How much is too much salt?
Dr. Robert Huizenga — more commonly known as "Dr. H" on 16 seasons of The Biggest Loser and owner of The Clinic by Dr. H — gives us more facts. "For unfit, over-fat Americans (that's 80 percent of us!), we should be getting 2,300 mg or less of sodium. For those with high blood pressure, especially blacks with high blood pressure, the daily goal is less than 1500 mg of sodium. Remember, more than 3/4 of the sodium we get comes from processed food or restaurant meals, less than 1/4 from added salt at home."
"To see what that looks like," Anderson adds, "go get a teaspoon and fill it 2/3 full of salt and then dump it out on the counter. Do try this. You'll be amazed at what 2/3 teaspoon of salt looks like."
Karen Owoc, an exercise physiologist, lists our worst culprits:
- Cold cuts and cured meats
- Pizza and spaghetti sauce
- Canned soups
- Sandwiches and burgers from fast-food restaurants
She also gives us a quick trick on determining if a food is high in sodium by using the 1:1 ratio method. "If the product has 100 calories, then a healthy level of sodium would be around 100 mg sodium. For example, if your cup of canned soup has 100 calories and 700 mg sodium (a 1-to-7 ratio), watch out. Its calorie-to-sodium content is way out of proportion."
How to curb salt intake
OK, so how do we resist that shake from the saltshaker, that "pinch of salt for taste" or those steaming hot French fries that come with your meal? Our experts chimed in and gave us lots of tips!
Owoc offers these simple low-salt strategies:
- Scrutinize food labels for lower sodium versions.
- Fill half your plate with fruits and veggies, which are naturally low in sodium.
- Use an app like My Fitness Pal to monitor your daily sodium intake.
- Watch out for hidden sodium (cold cereals, bread, muffins, energy drinks).
- Skip fat-free products and opt for healthy fats, as they usually add more salt and sugar for taste.
Anderson suggests trying these tactics:
- Spice your food with basil, chili pepper, tarragon, oregano or any others you like.
- Switch from packaged snacks to fresh fruits and unsalted nuts.
- Train your taste buds to stop craving salt by cutting salt for two weeks.
- Use aromatherapy to trick your taste buds into wanting something else.
- Try dark chocolate. (Anderson explains, "Brain scans show that sodium boosts dopamine, our feel good or pleasurable neurotransmitter. Dark chocolate has also been shown to boost dopamine.")
Lastly, Dr. H recommends doing the following:
- Exercise six days per week (to rid the body of excess salt).
- Eat no processed foods.
- Avoid salty restaurant dishes.
- Salt food only if you are exercising.
- Use LoSalt or Kosher salt — "coarse flakes and crystal shave more air between than regular salt, resulting in the use of up to 25 percent less sodium use."
PMS and salt cravings
Dr. H explains that we naturally retain between 1 to 4 pounds of salt and water during our periods (and more during pregnancy). But, we also know our salt cravings skyrocket during this time.
Anderson suggests, "Scientists are not sure why women crave salt at this time, but believe it is because sodium has been shown to boost serotonin and dopamine, the feel good neurotransmitters. Women tend to feel low and somewhat depressed around their periods so this may be why they crave salt — to simply get a boost."
But this doesn't mean that we're actually allowed to intake more salt than usual. "For premenstrual symptom and salt cravings, use aromatherapy," Anderson continues. "Lavender is a calming antidepressant essential oil. Our sense of smell is directly tied to our sense of taste, so to change our cravings, give the taste buds something different to smell. Not only will it lift your mood, but you will forget about your craving for salt."