The gritty truth about salt cravings

The gritty truth about salt cravings

September 5th, 2012 by Susan Pierce in Life Entertainment

KNOW THE LINGO

• Sodium-free or salt-free: Each serving in the product contains less than 5 milligrams of sodium.

• Very low sodium: Each serving contains 35 milligrams or less of sodium.

• Low sodium: Each serving contains 140 milligrams or less of sodium.

• Reduced or less sodium: The product contains at least 25 percent less sodium than the regular version. Check the label to learn how much sodium per serving.

• Lite/light in sodium: Sodium content has been reduced by at least 50 percent from the regular version. Check the label to learn per-serving amount.

• Unsalted or no salt added: No salt is added during processing of a food that normally contains salt. However, some of the ingredients may be high in sodium.

Source: Mayo Clinic

Remember Lot, the biblical hero who led his family out of Sodom and Gomorrah? Lately, I've felt a kinship with Lot's wife: We both are consumed by salt. (Her, literally; me, figuratively.)

I have been craving salt for days! Not greasy-chips salt but table salt on my food. I salt cantaloupe. I salt sliced tomatoes. I salt my Lean Cuisine rice and beans at lunch. I even salted a turkey sandwich that was already maxed out on salt since it contained processed meats.

I know that's a horrible habit. I know it can cause high blood pressure, stroke and other problems. So, please, save your emails.

I asked Indi Maharaj, dietitian at Erlanger's Lifestyle Center, what it means when your body craves salt like this -- other than to expect puffy ankles and fingers.

She responded it can either signal the body has gotten accustomed to a high level of salt intake or it could be a sign of hormonal imbalance.

She said athletes or people who work outside in the heat, sweating profusely, can become electrolyte depleted and their bodies will crave sodium. (I'm pretty sure a 30-minute stroll around the neighborhood doesn't qualify me for this excuse.)

Worst-case scenario: Craving salt can be a symptom of illness, for example, Addison's disease (chronic renal insufficiency).

So how much salt is too much, I asked.

"In our country, 97 percent of the populace eats too much sodium. The American Heart Association recommends no more than 1,500 milligrams a day, which is less than a teaspoon of salt, which has 2,300 milligrams. If you eat any processed food, you already get that," she said.

The dietitian said high-sodium foods include cold cuts, bacon, pizza, hamburgers, rice mixes such as yellow rice mix or jambalaya, pancakes, grains such as cold cereal, and canned soup. I was surprised to learn from her that the main source of sodium in our diet comes from breads.

"We are lucky in Chattanooga that we have all these bakeries where we can get a variety of choices. Breads on the store shelf are high-sodium," she said.

"We aren't born with a taste for salt; it's an acquired taste," she reminded me. "Your tolerance for salt will go up if you keep salting foods. People can break that salt habit. But, like any habit, it will take six to eight weeks. But after that, you will taste the real taste of food."

So how do you break the salt habit? Cold turkey, she said.

"Take the salt shaker out of the house."

Isn't there a way to wean yourself off salt -- like the patch does for smokers, I wheedled. What about salt substitutes?

"If the salt substitute is natural, like Mrs. Dash, which is a blend of spices," it could help while in salt detox, she said.

"But if it's 'lite salt' or 'fake salt,' you have potassium replacing sodium. Anybody with any kind of cardiac disease should check with their doctors before switching to a salt substitute that has potassium replacing sodium."

I asked her about sea salt. I explained I have gotten emails from readers who smugly inform me they are eating healthier because they've switched to sea salt.

"Sea salt doesn't make that big a difference," she replied. "Sodium is sodium. The benefit of sea salt is that it has a lot of other minerals. Sometimes, if you use a coarse, ground sea salt, you can use less than regular fine salt. But you're fooling yourself if you think you are getting less sodium by using sea salt."

She also warned about folks who think they are "cooking natural" because they eat fresh vegetables but are adding bouillon cubes to season their pots.

"Bouillon cubes are a huge source of sodium," she said.

Her suggestion to keep sodium in check is eat foods as close as possible to their natural state.

"Instead of opening a can of beans, soak your beans and throw them in a slow cooker. Instead of ham, eat pork loin. If you eat 3 ounces of lean pork, you get 59 milligrams of sodium. If you eat 3 ounces of ham, you get 1,114 milligrams of sodium.

"We as a society have gotten accustomed to quick fixes," Maharaj said. We want to drive up, drive through, open a can or nuke our food. As long as food is processed and packaged, it has a substantial amount of sodium."

Contact Susan Pierce at spierce@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6284.