If you suddenly find yourself grabbing for potato chips and other salty foods, there could be something going on in your body besides simply wanting something savory to snack on. Salt cravings can arise for many different reasons, from dehydration to stress and PMS.
“In general, salt is an addictive flavor, and we are engineered as humans to crave it as it is necessary for survival,” says Amy Shapiro, a registered dietitian who works in her own New York City-based private practice and is also the nutritionist for Daily Harvest, a nutritious frozen-meal delivery service. “So when we don’t have enough, our body will push out real symptoms in order for us to seek it out.”
Here are the details on some of the most common culprits behind salt cravings:
Dehydration is a fairly common reason for many kinds of food cravings, including salt. Stephanie Greunke, a registered dietitian, explains that dehydration-related salt cravings can pop up for various reasons: There’s the obvious—like maybe you’re not drinking enough fluids, but there are also less obvious reasons, such as if you’re dealing with a stomach bug or some other illness that’s causing you to vomit. Morning sickness can be another culprit among pregnant moms, she adds.
“Often times thirst is masked by hunger,” explains Amanda A. Kostro Miller, a Chicago-based registered dietitian. “Also, salt and salty foods stimulate thirst, so if you’re craving something salty, your body may actually be begging for some water.”
You’ve been working out intensely.
As you sweat, the amount of salt in your body gradually depletes. So a hard spin class or run that has you dripping with sweat can decrease the level of salt in your body to a point where it needs to be replenished. The body’s natural response to this sodium loss may lead you to crave salt, especially if you’re working out in a humid environment or for a period that lasts an hour or longer, Shapiro explains.
But you’ll want to keep in mind that there is a difference between sodium loss through working out and dehydration, which we discussed above. “This is different than dehydration because you have enough water, you just need to up your sodium intake,” Shapiro says.
You’re under a lot of stress.
When you’re under a lot of pressure, your body doesn’t just react mentally and emotionally, but physically too, and this can include cravings for salty foods.
“Next time you are craving salty foods, stop and assess your stress levels,” Kostro Miller recommends.
You’re dealing with an underlying health condition.
Salt cravings are common in life and often don’t signal anything too serious going on in your body, but certain medical conditions can leave you with more salt cravings than usual. In a group of kidney disorders called Bartter Syndrome, the kidneys don’t function properly, leading to an imbalance of sodium, chloride, and potassium in the body. Kostro Miller says this can result in abnormally low sodium levels, which can contribute to those salt cravings as the body works to restore proper sodium levels in the body.
Another health condition that could leave you craving salty foods is Addison’s disease, which is a form of adrenal insufficiency. In this illness, the body fails to make enough cortisol, which is an essential hormone that helps the body with crucial functions like stress response and blood pressure regulation.
“This can cause you to crave salt, as eating and increasing salt levels will increase blood pressure to normal levels,” Shapiro says. The National Institute of Health reports that some individuals with adrenal insufficiency need to consume a high sodium diet.
You’re experiencing premenstrual syndrome (PMS).
If you notice salt cravings creeping in during the week or so before your period, you’re not alone—many women experience food cravings during this time.
“Craving salt during PMS is a real thing due to hormonal shifts and fluctuations,” Shapiro explains.
Cleveland Clinic recommends cutting down on salt and increasing water intake during this time if you’re experiencing bloating, swollen hands, or tenderness in the breasts.
Your diet is already heavy in salt.
“Sometimes our cravings are just a product of our dietary behaviors,” Kostro Miller says. “If you’re craving salty food, look at your current diet to see if it consists of a lot of processed and fast food.”
Greunke adds that salt cravings can be habitual. “If your palate is used to saltier foods, you'll crave higher amounts of salt than someone who usually eats a lower-sodium diet,” she says. “You may also find yourself picking up the salt shaker to season your food before you even take a bite to try it."
Sound familiar? Try laying off the salt for a bit and see if the cravings are still present.
Your body is wired that way.
Our bodies need salt to function correctly. Sodium is a component of salt that helps us maintain fluid levels, proper cardiac function, and a whole lot more. Registered dietitian Michele Sidorenkov explains that back in the days when foraging was a primary method of obtaining food, it was hard to find sources of sodium in the wild (and still is). She explains: “When we find salt, our body is wired to light up and signal us to eat more because it is so vital for our survival.”
These days, most of us are no longer foraging for food and can quickly head to a supermarket where endless sources of sodium await at our fingertips, “but our bodies are still wired to crave it,” Sidorenkov explains.
Cleveland Clinic. Why do you crave salt? Updated December 15, 2020.
Leshem M. Salt need needs investigation. Br J Nutr. 2020;123(11):1312-1320. doi:10.1017/S0007114520000173
National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases. Adrenal insufficiency & Addison's Disease.
Cleveland Clinic. 11 diet changes that help you fight PMS. Updated December 31, 2020.