How Can I Give Up Salt?

"Food tastes so good now!"

My wife Laura sees thousands of patients per year in her work as an eye doctor. Which means she gets to see, up close, some broad and meaningful anecdotal samples of peoples' behavior.

And lately, for whatever reason, she's had a bunch of patients make offhand comments about how they've cut salt out of their diets. Some did so on orders from their primary care doctor. Others were trying to manage borderline-high blood pressure by adjusting how they eat.

What struck Laura, however, was this universal reaction from each patient: They were all shocked at how good food tasted once they stopped consuming so much salt.

Food tastes so good now.

I'm admittedly speculating here, but I'd bet money that every one of these patients dreaded cutting out salt at first. I bet they assumed food would forevermore be bland, boring and tasteless. In fact, this is a common reason why people resist cutting salt despite the obvious health benefits.

But once they make the change, and once they get through a brief palate-adjustment period, they ended up happier with their food.

Look, salt has an important role in cooking, and sodium has an important role in the chemistry of our bodies. Used appropriately, salt can be a powerful tool to bring out stunning flavors in our food.

The problem is, the vast majority of the prepared foods available to us do not use salt appropriately. Most restaurants overuse salt. And nearly all processed foods overuse salt to the point of madness.

And, sadly, consumers have simply adjusted to it. Just as our palates adapt to cutting out salt, they also adapt to excess amounts of it. We get used to what we eat, so a habit of eating salty junk food desensitizes you towards salty flavors. Which just makes you want still more salt.

(There's more than meets the eye here by the way: salt conveniently makes people want to eat more. And drink more. Hence the existence of bars offering free salty popcorn or peanuts to boost beer and drink sales, and likewise the existence of salty snack foods that you can't stop eating until you mow through an entire bag.)

Thankfully, this salt-desensitization process works both ways. Therefore, the less salt you eat, the more you'll condition your palate to not need salt. The more distance you put between you and your salt shaker, the more aware you'll become of subtle flavors and nuances in your food. Try it--and I mean give it a real honest trial--and you'll see exactly what I mean. Before you know it, a little salt will start to go a very long way, and your food will taste bolder, more delicious and more nuanced than ever.

Which brings us back to where we started. If you want food to taste good, try cutting out salt. Try it for a week or two, let your palate de-program itself, and see what happens.

Pretty soon, you'll be saying it too: Food tastes so good now.

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Tragic Sandwich said...

I had to drastically reduce my salt intake toward the end of my pregnancy. Some parts of it were hard (No Chinese food? But that's my favorite!), but when I started eating salt again, I was really aware of how salty many things are.

Mind you, I love salt. I just love it in much smaller amounts now.

Tom said...

Cutting salt will help with weight loss too. Salt causes water retention and extra water leads to excess weight. Ditch the salt and sweat out your stored salt to see water loss changes in your body.

Federal Way Handyman said...

Many of us are aware that we shouldn’t eat too much salt. To be precise, adults should avoid eating over 6g a day to avoid health problems.

Daniel said...

Good comments so far.

Tragic Sandwich, I had a similar experience--uh, not with pregnancy--but with noticing after a period of no/low-salt eating how incredibly salty most food is in restaurants. It turned out to be a good money-saving strategy, ironically!

Tom, great point on water retention. Thanks for sharing.

FWH: What's interesting to me about recommended daily salt/sodium levels is how EASY it is to exceed them if you eat any processed foods at all. Yet another reason to stick with first-order foods.


Brittany said...

Actually, the science on "salt=oh, so bad" is pretty mixed, but somehow still deep in our culture and conscious. Please note I am not saying salt is good, but that claiming "the obvious health benefits" is just as an outrageously blatantly unexamined and unthought-through, not firmly based in reality and science as the tropes of "Big food is evil!" and "Advertisers don't effect me at all!" and other such blanket claims you often encourage us to examine.

See this article for a good, non-technical starting place for broadening the debate:

Now the claim that real food is better than hyper-palatable, over-salted processed food is one I can whole-heartedly get behind. After leaving the processed land of lower-and-middle-income Midwest for delightfully unassuming foodie culture, I can barely eat when I go back. Hamburger helper? Canned soup? Premixed spice packets? Can barely choke it down for all the salty processedness of it.

That said, I do love me some big crunchy sea salt well-applied, and I am sure I make up for the reduced salt intake by not eating processed food by putting crunchy sea salt flakes on my olive oil dressed salads, caprese, potatoes, caramelized broccoli, anything with garlic, and super chocolatey desserts....

Diane said...

I disagree.

Sure, you don't want to overdo it, and the standard American diet is salt-heavy. I cook from scratch and I cook a lot of Asian food, and I find that especially with dal, salt is needed to make the flavors rise. And Thai food without fish sauce (very, VERY salty) is not feasible if you want it tasting balanced as it is supposed to do. I do salt almost everything as I make it - but since I cook with almost no processed foods, there is no sodium in it to start, so food is not "salty."

I used to cook no-salt, and my food tastes better now. I don't have a heavy hand with it, but my family always comments that my food tastes better than theirs - even when we use the same recipes. The difference is that I use salt and they do not.

Restaurants? Yes, they way over salt. I do salt my home cooking, and even I find a lot of restaurant food too salty for my taste.

Veritable Top Georgetown Towing company said...

The easiest way to cut salt out is never to start. Chips, crackers, cookies, and other snack foods often contain large amounts of sodium. And, we often eat these foods in large quantities anyway. Instead, try buying healthy options at the store instead like fresh vegetables and fruits, low sodium grains, and unsalted nuts. These are great alternatives.