Some opt for cupcakes, while the rest reach for the Pringles. The desire to pass the salt may be thanks to mom and dad, since sodium preference is influenced by genetic makeup (in rats, at least)Forty mouse strain survey of water and sodium intake. Tordoff, M.G., Bachmanov, A.A., Reed, D.R. Monell Chemical Senses Center, Philadelphia, PA. Physiology & Behavior, 2007 Aug 15;91(5):620-31.. Some scientists even believe excessive salt cravings may be due to evolution, since salt has been coveted for its ability to preserve food throughout historySalt craving: the psychobiology of pathogenic sodium intake. Morris, M.J., Na, E.S., Johnson, A.K. Department of Psychology, The University of Iowa, Iowa City, IA. Physiology & Behavior, 2008 Aug 6;94(5):709-21.. But the big question is whether or not salt is actually dangerous. So why do these cravings occur, and how can we shake the salt habit for good? (Or do we even need to?)

Salty Situation — The Need-to-Know

It’s no secret that salt can boost food’s flavor factor. And in small pinches, salt isn’t only tasty — it’s important for the body. Table salt (or what we like to shake all over the kitchen) is made of 40 percent sodium, an electrolyte that helps balance fluids in the body. Water tends to move to higher concentrations of sodium, so the more sodium, the more water the body retains. But too much sodium can put more than a bad taste in our mouthsTaste and Flavor Roles of Sodium in Foods: A Unique Challenge to Reducing Sodium Intake. Henney, J.E., Taylor, C.L., Boon, C.S., editors. Institute of Medicine (US) Committee on Strategies to Reduce Sodium Intake, Washington (DC), National Academies Press (US). Strategies to Reduce Sodium Intake in the United States, 2010.. The CDC recommends Americans consume no more than 2,300 mg of sodium per day (or roughly one teaspoon of salt), and those with certain medical conditions (like high blood pressure) should really keep consumption to under 1,500 mg per day. But the average American consumes about 3,400 mg daily, which can contribute to major heart problems. (Yikes!) Reaching for those salty snacks makes it harder for the kidney to eliminate the excess sodium, which may lead to an increase in blood volume. This forces the body to work harder to pump blood, raising blood pressure to a dangerous degree. Talkabout a salty situation. (Also Check Out: 45 Healthy Foods to Make and Never Buy Again) But when the Doritos bag is laying a few inches away, it’s hard to resist grabbing a handful. Craving that salty sweetness may be due to a few factors, one being calcium deficiency. Sodium temporarily increases calcium levels in the blood, tricking the body into thinking it’s been given calcium. (Got Milk, anyone?) But the more sodium that’s consumed, the more calcium will eventually be excreted, resulting in extra salt and not enough calciumThe relationship of sodium intake to calcium and sodium excretion and bone mineral density of the hip in postmenopausal African-American and Caucasian women. Carbone, L.D., Bush, A.J., Barrow, K.D., et al. Department of Medicine, University of Tennessee Health Science Center, Memphis, TN. The Journal of Bone and Mineral Metabolism, 2003;21(6):415-20.. A lack of potassium may also cause people to crave salt, though the connection between the two nutrients is still unclear. A lack of sodium may also trigger dopamine reward systems in the brain once we start replenishingSalt craving: the psychobiology of pathogenic sodium intake. Morris, M.J., Na, E.S., Johnson, A.K. Department of Psychology, The University of Iowa, Iowa City, IA. Physiology & Behavior, 2008 Aug 6;94(5):709-21.. (Read: Once the chips start going down the hatch, it’s hard to stop.)

(Don’t) Pass the Salt — Your Action Plan

Many foods have more salt than we may realize. (We’re lookin at you,Cheerios.) And since salt helps preserve food — not to mention making what’s on the dinner plate taste even betterit can be hard to cut back. In certain cases, salt may even be addictiveRelation of addiction genes to hypothalamic gene changes subserving genesis and gratification of a classic instinct, sodium appetite. Liedtke, W.B., McKinley, M.J., Walker, L.L., et al. Department of Medicine, Duke University, Durham, NC. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 2011 Jul 26;108(30):12509-14.. (And we thought sugar was the only culpritSweet preference, sugar addiction and the familiar history of alcohol dependence: shared neural pathways and genes. Fortuna, J.L. Department of Health Science, California State University, Fullerton, CA. Journal of Psychoactive Drugs, 2010 Jun;42(2):147-51.!) So here are some tips to keep that salt intake under control and help stop cravings for good:

  • Watch for sneaky sources. Read the ingredient list carefully. Substances like monosodium glutamate (MSG), baking soda, disodium phosphate, and sodium benzoate contain high amounts of sodium. And this salty culprit can be found where we least expect it too, like condiments, cheese, and baked goodsSalt intakes around the world: implications for public health. Brown, I.J., Tzoulaki, I, Candeias, V., et al. Department of Epidemiology and Public Health, Faculty of Medicine, Imperial College London, UK. The International Journal of Epidemiology, 2009 Jun;38(3):791-813.. So pay attention to what’s really on the plate before it’s licked cleaned.
  • Know the packaging. Beware of “reduced sodium” products, which only means the sodium has been reduced about 25 percent from the “full sodium” versions. Reduced sodium soups can still pack nearly 500 mg of sodium per serving!
  • Eat fresh. Sodium is often added to processed foods. Fresh fruits and veggies, on the other hand, are naturally low in sodium, so try to make them a main part of the diet. Choose fresh meat versus lunch meat, or opt for low-sodium options.
  • Don’t be fooled. Sea salt and kosher salt may be all the rage, but they contain the same amount of sodium as table salt. And while table salt (aka “iodized salt”) also offers a daily dose of iodine, an essential mineral that helps control metabolism and thyroid function, most types of sea and kosher salts don’t!
  • Leave it out. Cooking? Skip the salt. Use fresh herbs or other substitutes to spice up a meal instead. Try making soup from scratch rather than going for the canned versions, which can be soaked in sodium.
  • Cut back slowly. The taste for salt is acquired, so we can learn to love it a little less. Gradually decrease the amount of salt from a diet, and the taste buds will adjust — maybe even within the week!
This article has been approved by Greatist Experts Lisa Moskovitz, Jessica Redmond, and Lindsey Joe