You may have been mightily struggling to restrict yourself on your salt intake, not knowing that your salt cravings are totally, biologically normal, akin to our thirst for water. Your body has been talking to you, and it’s time to listen. The good news is, you probably don’t need to cut down. In fact, you may need even more salt. Instead of ignoring your salt cravings, maybe you should give in to them—they might be guiding you to better health. Here Cardiovascular Research Scientist Dr James DiNicolantonio upends the low-salt myth with advice from his book The Salt Fix.
Consider Scandinavian novelist Isak Dinesen’s famous line, “The cure for anything is salt water: sweat, tears or the sea.” There’s poetic truth in this, but it also speaks to our biological reality as humans. Our physical inner world was born of the sea, and we carry the saltiness of the ocean inside us. Salt is an essential nutrient that our body depends on to live. Its proper balance is an equilibrium that our bodies strive to return us to, again and again. Scientists have found that across all populations, when people are left to unrestricted sodium consumption, they tend to settle in at 3,000 to 4,000 milligrams of sodium per day. This amount holds true for people in all hemispheres, all climates, all range of cultures and social backgrounds—when permitted free access to salt, all humans gravitate to the same threshold of salt consumption, a threshold we now know is the sodium-intake range for optimal health.
But over the past century, our culture has defied this biological drive, has smeared the urge for salt as a self-destructive “addiction.” We’ve all heard the guidelines. We know that we’re supposed to eat low-saturated-fat diets, say no to cigarettes, go for a jog, learn to relax—and dramatically cut down on salt. This list of admonishments certainly gets a lot of things right. But there’s one big problem with it: most of us don’t need to eat low-salt diets. In fact, for most of us, more salt would be better for our health rather than less. Meanwhile, the white crystal we’ve demonized all these years has been taking the fall for another, one so sweet that we refused to believe it wasn’t benign. A white crystal that, consumed in excess, can lead to high blood pressure, cardiovascular disease, and chronic kidney disease: not salt, but sugar.
The truth is, our most hallowed health institutions cling to outdated, disproven theories about salt—and their resistance to the truth is putting our public health at risk. Until the low-salt dogma is successfully challenged, we’ll be stuck in this same perpetual loop that keeps our bodies salt-deprived, sugar-addicted, and ultimately deficient in many critical nutrients. Many of us will continue struggling with insatiable hunger and hold on to weight around the middle despite following recommended lifestyle changes.
If you’re diligent about your health, you may have been struggling to achieve the low-salt guidelines that limit you to 2,300 milligrams of sodium (basically 1 teaspoon of salt) per day—or even 1,500 milligrams (2/3 teaspoon of salt) in some cases including if you have high blood pressure. But you may not need to cut down on SALT.
As important as it is to increase salt to prevent internal starvation, it’s even more important to avoid sugar. We all know that calories from sugar are especially detrimental when it comes to our ability to manage our weight and overall health. This is partly because a greater intake of sugar calories stimulates more insulin resistance and more fat storage than other types of calories do, even when the total calorie intake remains the same. Excessive consumption of fructose can cause too much fat to accumulate in the liver, which causes this vital organ to become resistant to insulin, thereby setting you up for overall insulin resistance throughout your body. A high fructose intake can also decrease the adipose tissue’s fat-storing capacity, slamming that fat into and around organs like your heart, pancreas, and liver. (Indeed, by over-consuming fructose you hit the liver with fat storage from two different directions.) This is harmful to your health on so many levels because it causes chronic inflammation and oxidative stress, among other detrimental effects. What’s more, letting your sweet tooth get the upper hand on your diet can also damage mitochondria, the power source in your cells, which leads to a decrease in ATP that in turn increases your hunger and leaves you with no energy for exercise. Those high glucose levels in the blood even pull water out of the cells, causing cellular dehydration. The water that was essentially stolen from your cells and pushed out into your blood—a phenomenon that has traditionally been blamed on salt, by the way—leads to a lower salt level in your blood.
In essence, a high-sugar diet increases your need for salt by diluting its level in your blood. And yet this is one more way to illustrate how more salt can help us: eating enough salt to satisfy our salt cravings may just be the key to kicking our sugar cravings for good.