Health & Food

Salt: Do We Crave it When We Actually Need It? And an Insight on “That Time of the Month”

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Today I want to tempt you to purchase and read the book Taste What You’re Missing; The Passionate Eater’s Guide to Why Food Tastes Good, by Barb Stuckey.  No, no I’m not getting paid to write this post, I’m really just that obsessed with the book!  I’ll admit I’ve been reading it for about three months now (I have major ADD, what can I say? It’s not one of those books that I can read really fast, I actually bring a highlighter with me when I read it so I can mark important parts that I want to remember forever) but each time I pick it up and start reading I learn something new, and fascinating.  The other day I read about salt.

Salty. It’s one of the five basic tastes.  You’ve heard of it, right?  You know, it’s that taste that you tend to crave certain times more than others.  Do you ever notice that? You may feel bad when you crave salt because your doctor and dietitian have been preaching to you that you should reduce your salt intake (and therefore, your sodium intake. Salt is, after all, sodium chloride) in order to keep your blood pressure in check (although this dietitian tends to lean towards the advice; lose weight to reduce your blood pressure, more so than reduce your sodium.  But, of course, if you reduce the sodium in your diet you tend to eat healthier by default, and therefore you’re likely to lose weight….so…maybe that’s why “reducing your sodium” actually helps you lower your blood pressure. Think about it.).

Anyway, I digress.  Back to the topic at hand….So you’ve probably noticed that there are certain times when you really crave salt.  But ironically, as the book points out, we don’t crave salt when we actually really need it. Have you ever noticed that when you are outside, sweating a bunch, working hard, you never really crave salt?  Think about it.  It’s the water you crave, not salt, right? You aren’t outside sweating and thinking “boy, I really want a salty pretzel right now!  And for most of us, let’s be honest, water is all we really need.  But for some athletes or people who work in, let’s say, construction in a hot and humid city, an electrolyte replacement may be warranted to not only replace your lost fluids but also your lost sodium; an electrolyte (and mineral) that is vital to life.  If you’ve ever run a marathon or taken part in a duathlon or triathlon, or any long-distance sweat-inducing sport or event, you’ve used electrolyte replacements.  Think about it though, was it because you craved salt? No, it was because you did some research, or possibly learned from previous experience, that you lose vital electrolytes (like potassium, calcium, magnesium, and especially sodium) in your sweat. It was the water you craved when you initially went to grab your drink, but that salt in the water (or the fruity beverage) is what kept you drinking because it tasted amazing once you started drinking it.

“Human survival depends more on getting water than it does on getting salt. So, we crave water first and salt second. Sometimes this is the very problem that gets us in trouble” —- Barb Stuckey

Imagine, you’re sweating perfusely, you are slightly dehydrated, so you drink water, and lots and lots of it.  Ut oh, you forgot (and maybe at one point in your life didn’t know) you were also losing salt during that long hike in the desert or 60-mile bike ride.  No good, hyponatremia ensues (ie: you drink too much water, and basically drown yourself by diluting your blood with water and not replacing your sodium). But don’t let that be your excuse to drink Gatorade all day.  Notice I said “athletes” and “people who are working outside sweating a lot”.  And even for them, typically replacing sodium losses with a handful of pretzels or some crackers is sufficient (typically). You can read more about athlete fluid recommendations here, if you’re interested, but then I also highly encourage you to read this recent article about how athlete fluid recommendations may need to be reevaluated (it basically proves the point I’m trying to make in this post.  I think our society is obsessed with “re-hydrating”).

And then there is that time of the month.  You know….women, that dreaded 5-7 days of your cycle. Do you ever find yourself adding more salt to your food during this time, or raiding the cabinets for a  big ol’ handful of salted peanuts (for me it’s crispy Trader Joe’s potato chips)?  Well, apparently there is a hormonal explanation (and no, it doesn’t mean your body is depleted of sodium.  Remember, we don’t really ever crave salt/sodium for the right reasons).  Apparently we can detect smells, and therefore we can taste better, at the peak of our cycle (ie: ovulation) and therefore our ability to smell and taste goes down during menstruation, the end of our cycle (our ability to smell and taste basically plummets). So, if you find yourself feeling “hungrier” or craving more salt (or chocolate!) maybe it’s because your last bite just wasn’t satisfying enough because your taste and small abilities just aren’t up to par. You ate that chip but it didn’t taste quite the same as normal, so you want another one because you still aren’t quite satisfied. Or perhaps you ordered your favorite pasta dish but it tasted bland and you just want more because you didn’t get the same thrill from eating it as usual.  Want to understand your sensitivity to smells during pregnancy? Read the book, it’s fascinating.

And because this is a food blog, here is a little info about just why salt is such an important component of our food;

When you add salt to a food something curious happens.  Salt acts as something of a taste superhero thwarting the bad guys while assisting the good guys.  When you add salt to food, it suppresses the “bad” tastes, such as bitter and sour.  But salt isn’t as punitive to the “good” tastes, such as sweet and savory.  Salt releases desirable flavors from suppression by the bitter and sour tastes. —Barb Stuckey

You know that salt-rimmed margarita you drank? Or that grapefruit topped with salt? Yeah, I know, they were delicious. Now you know why.  And lastly, remember my blog post a while back about how you can change your taste buds to desire healthier foods?  Well this book touches a bit on that same concept, with regards to sodium.  There was a short story about a women who found out she had major kidney problems and had to go on a salt-free diet (or at least, just about salt-free).  At first it was rough (can you imagine?!) but after a while she really started to enjoy food for what it actually was; such as a red bell pepper, no dip, no salt, just the pepper, yum!  Also steak, without salt, it tasted so different, yet so pure and unadulterated, and delicious.  I encourage you to try it sometime.  Take a bite of your burger without drowning it in ketchup first, or eat a bowl of vanilla ice cream without smothering it in chocolate sauce.  Eat a salad with just a little dressing, and start to appreciate the flavors of the veggies.  Try it. Now.

Another thing to keep in mind is that you get salt in many foods that you add to your recipes; such as olives and cheese.  Why add more salt to say, the salad above, when salt it already an inherent part of it? Train those taste buds to be ok with less!

Ok, that’s enough information about salt for today.  Now I want to go eat a cheddar rice cake with peanut butter and nooch (such a great combination of salty, sweet, and umami!).

Thanks for reading!

The Candid Rd

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