Eating too much salt can lead to serious health implications, and even bring on heart attacks and strokes. Yet most of us eat far too much of it every day. We take a closer look at salt addiction.
Have you ever wondered why it is so difficult to resist a side of fries with your meal, or why bacon always smells so good? The answer is simple: salt. While we may take this unassuming, everyday condiment for granted, it can have dramatic effects on our diets, lifestyles and physical health.
Scientists have known for years that salt can be addictive. Some evidence suggests that it can even be as addictive as cigarettes and certain drugs, with cravings triggering similar reactions in the brain. Now, scientists in Australia have taken research on how salt addiction affects our brains a step further.
The team from the Florey Institute has identified the part of the brain that causes salt addiction, raising hopes that more effective treatments can be developed for this and other addictions.
“It wasn’t known until now that our natural opioids working in this emotional hotspot drove salt cravings,” said Melbourne Institute neuroscientist Craig Smith.
“Switching off salt cravings would promote a healthier diet and food choices. Because at the moment you know the salad is healthy but you crave the junk food for the salt. It’s tasty and it’s in a lot of food. But we eat too much of it.”
Health Risks of Excessive Sodium Intake
Excessive sodium consumption has been recognized as a major public health issue for decades. While the American Heart Association recommends no more than 1,500 milligrams of sodium per day, in truth most of us consume two, or even three times that amount.
Consuming more than 2,300 milligrams (about one teaspoon of salt) is considered unhealthy. In the United States, the average daily consumption is 3,400mg, most of it from eating processed foods.
Excessive salt consumption is not just a Western issue. A recent World Health Organization study found excessive salt intake across Southeast Asia. While a lot of salt in Asian countries is added to food at the cooking stage, often through salt-heavy sauces (soy, oyster, etc), an increase in junk and fast-food food consumption in the region is exacerbating the problem.
The Benefits of Cutting Down Your Salt Intake
Unlike giving up, say, sugar or alcohol, completely removing salt from your diet isn’t an option. Sodium is essential for a number of key bodily functions, such as helping our muscles contract, maintaining normal blood pressure and regulating fluid balance, so we literally can’t live without it.
Moderation, then, is the key. Cutting back to the recommended daily 1,500 milligrams sodium intake will not only help reduce salt cravings, it will also bring a number of key health and lifestyle benefits:
- Weight loss – Eating too much salt contributes to weight gain in a number of ways. Its addictive nature makes you eat more and it is often found in processed, high-fat foods which are bound to pile on the pounds. Your weight will also go down as you retain less water.
- Lower blood pressure – Excessive salt intake causes the body to retain water, raising blood pressure. The more salt you eat, the higher your blood pressure will be, placing increased pressure on your heart, arteries, kidneys and brain.
- Reduced risk of disease – High salt foods have been linked to a number of serious diseases and illnesses including stomach cancer, intestinal problems, kidney diseases and diabetes.
Salt’s Role in Food Addiction
As mentioned above, salt addiction differs from other addictions in that it is impossible to cut it from your diet entirely. Instead, you will need to manage and control your intake. In fact, because salt is found in so many foods, excessive consumption is closely linked to food addiction, so by addressing either of these issues, you will also be helping with the other.
As you are simply cutting down on salt and not giving it up entirely, you can continue to enjoy many of your favorite foods. Here are three simple and effective tips to help you shake your salt habit:
Cut out processed junk foods – Fast food and processed pre-packaged foods are the main culprits when it comes to excessive salt consumption. By cutting these completely from your diet you will immediately bring your sodium intake to much healthier levels. You may miss your favorite salty snacks at first, but any cravings should be gone in just two weeks.
Learn to read the packaging – Salt is listed as ‘sodium’ on food nutrition labels. Try to opt for foods that have less than 120 milligrams of sodium per 100 grams. As you examine labels you may be surprised by some of the foods, such as breakfast cereal, that have high salt levels.
Flavor with food, not salt – As you cut down on processed foods you will likely discover the wonderful natural flavors provided by fresh, natural products. Try to add less salt to your cooking and at the dinner table, opting instead for garlic, herbs and spices to provide the flavor.
As salt addiction is linked to the natural opioids in the brain, it is only normal that some may struggle to bring their intake to healthier levels. If you struggle to overcome your salt addiction with the methods above, it is advised to seek treatment at a rehab centers that specializes in treating process addictions where abstinence is not possible. A little help can make all the difference.