Salt Addiction and Obesity

Patient Expert

Are we addicted to salt? Does that salt addiction cause obesity?

An interesting article in the journal Medical Hypotheses suggests that both are true.

Medical Hypotheses is a journal designed "to provide a forum for the presentation and criticism of ideas in medicine and the related biomedical sciences." In other words, it offers authors a chance to suggests hypotheses before they've been proved, to give readers an impression of "the process of discovery." The papers they choose to publish "may contain radical ideas, but may be judged acceptable so long as they are coherent and clearly expressed. . . . Even probably untrue papers may be judged worth publishing if they contain aspects (ideas, perspectives, data) that are potentially stimulating to the development of future science."

This means that the papers in the journal often offer creative ideas that may or may not turn out to be supported by facts. But sometimes creative ideas open one's mind and may lead to important discoveries in the future.

A previous study had argued that salt is addictive, with withdrawal symptoms when salt in the diet was removed. The more recent article suggests that salt addiction may cause food cravings and obesity. The authors say that salt acts in the brain in a way similar to that of opiates, producing a pleasurable feeling that is not just because of the taste of the salty food. Once you're addicted, they say, you'll keep eating more and more salty food, resulting in overeating and obesity.

Salt intakes vary enormously among different societies; the first paper says the variation can be a thousandfold. We need some salt, and both animals and humans will go to great efforts to obtain it when it's not readily available. Animals congregate at salt licks. Humans will travel for days through the desert to bring salt to cities for trading.

The expression "worth his salt," shows that it was once considered a precious resource.

The odd thing about salt is that one can become accustomed to different levels of salt. I once read of an anthropologist working with a South American tribe that had no significant source of salt (sodium chloride) in its area. They flavored food with some kind of calcium compound that they obtained by burning special types of grass.

The man offered the Indians some of his salted food, and they all gagged and indicated, "Yuch" But by the second or third day, they were requesting the salted food, which they quickly came to prefer to their calcium-flavored foods.

I've had a similar experience. I've always loved salt. As a child I licked bouillon cubes in the summer. And I usually salted my food before I ate it. One time, on a trip, I started to eat and a sibling said, "You didn't salt your food." I said, "Oh. Guess I forgot," and added some salt. Guess what. The food was already salty. How did I know? Do we have some kind of subconscious sense that detects salt? Or does salt give food a different appearance that I wasn't consciously aware of? I don't know.

Today I don't cook with salt, and I eat almost no processed foods (I do eat commercial mayonnaise, salted butter, and the occasional low-carb wrap). But I like do the taste of salt on the outside of food with the sweeter taste on the inside.

Because of my salt addiction, I've occasionally given it up, just to see if I could. For several days my food seems totally tasteless. But then the taste reappears. The taste is different than with salt, much sweeter than before.

Before diabetes, when I ate a salty dinner, I wanted a sweet dessert to get the taste of salt out of my mouth. Then I wanted black coffee to get the sweet taste of the dessert out of my mouth (never understood why people put sugar in coffee!). When I don't use salt, I'm happy without the dessert and coffee. Just plain vegetables taste sweet enough.

After giving up salt, if I experiment with just a little salt on my dinner, my first impression, like that of the South American Indians, is, "Yuch." But then I find that at the next meal, I want a little more salt. And more. And more. Until within about 24 hours, I'm back to the full salt load I had before.

Why do I want more salt when my first impression is "Yuch"? Doesn't that imply a real subconscious addiction? Have other people had similar experiences? I think we've all experienced the impossibility of eating just one salted potato chip.

The authors of the Medical Hypotheses paper propose that salt addiction drives not just eating salt but increased calorie consumption and hence obesity.

I wonder if, for some people, simply eliminating salt from the diet would be enough to result in weight loss without great effort. Here is a commentary by someone who thinks not. On the basis of my own experience with salt, I suspect it might.

As this article points out, salty food makes you thirsty. And for people who quench their thirst with soft drinks, salty food would result in a definite increase in calories. I've never liked cola drinks. The only time I enjoyed them was on the rare occasions when I ate a hamburger at a fast-food restaurant. After the supersalty burger, the sweet, cold drink was pleasurable.

I suppose the smart thing to do would be to experiment on myself. Give up salt to see if I became tall and willowy with no effort. The former is unlikely. The latter? Hmmm.