When I was still in college, I would have opted for a bowl of creamy ice cream over a mound of mac and cheese any day, but in the last year or so, I haven't been on the sugar bandwagon quite as much. It doesn't really worry me that my sweet tooth seems to have disappeared, except for the moments when I want a salty snack so badly that I can barely even think about anything else until the craving is satisfied. So what do salt cravings mean, exactly? Is it a sign that your body's missing out on something essential? Or does it just mean you have a "salt tooth" as opposed to a "sweet tooth"? Luckily, one expert has some insight.
Here's the thing, though: According to Shauna McQueen, a registered dietitian and graduate of the Institute for Integrative Nutrition, a sudden craving for a huge bowl of popcorn doesn't immediately point to one cause. Instead, McQueen tells Elite Daily over email, a number of different things could be behind your salt cravings (more on all of that in a bit).
Now, when I was a kid, I would often ask my mom for multiple snacks throughout the afternoon, and she'd usually ask me to make sure that I'd had enough to drink that morning first, as it can sometimes be easy to misinterpret thirst as hunger. Apparently, my mom was on to something, according to McQueen: If you find yourself craving salt, the dietitian says you should make sure you've been sipping plenty of water throughout the day, because hydration can definitely affect what you're craving, especially if you've been sweating a lot or working out.
"[A salt craving] could mean you’re dehydrated," McQueen says. "We lose sodium when we sweat, so seeking out something salty following an intense workout could help replace electrolytes." And if you have trouble downing enough of the regular stuff, try switching it up with something more flavorful, like a plant-based water.
"Salt can be an acquired taste, so the more salt we’re exposed to, the more we tend to want it," McQueen explains. With that in mind, if intense salt cravings have become a regular struggle for you, take a look at whether you're adding a bunch of salt to your meals, too. See, according to McQueen, salt-heavy meals might actually be the true culprits behind your cravings, for a reason you might not expect. "Many times we crave foods that are salty — like pasta, potato chips, pizza — not so much for the salt, but more so for the carbs," the dietitian tells Elite Daily. In other words, a salt craving might actually be masquerading as a carb craving.
If that's not the case, though, McQueen says that craving salty treats could also be a sign that your mind isn't quite as relaxed as it could be. "Any time we’re stressed or running low on sleep," she explains, "we’re more likely to seek these foods out to give us a quick boost of energy and offer us a bit of comfort." So, really, the solution to your salt craving might have nothing to do with your diet, and everything to do with your self-care or sleep schedule.
Luckily, according to McQueen, your salt cravings probably aren't a sign of any kind of nutritional deficiency. While she says it could potentially be a sign that your body's salt levels are lower than they should be, the dietitian says that's pretty rare, and she adds it's much more likely for people to consume more than the recommended amounts of sodium than less. Having said that, though, a recent study published in the medical journal The Lancet showed that it's pretty hard to eat what would be considered a "dangerous" amount of salt, so I wouldn't worry too much about your love affair with string cheese, unless it's keeping you from feeling your best.
McQueen explains that when it comes to cravings in general, her philosophy is to notice the craving, explore what might be causing it, and then be intentional about how you address it. "If you choose to enjoy a treat mindfully, great!" she says. "The more restrictive we are with our diets, or the more we try to ignore cravings, the more preoccupied we become with food to the point where food is in control of us." So, while it could be useful to investigate what might be causing your cravings, it's totally OK to give your body what it wants, too.
In other words, there's no need to wave goodbye to your standing 4 p.m. date with a gooey grilled cheese. Just make sure you're also drinking plenty of water and making time for self-care as needed.