It’s a tale as old as time and we’re not referring to the Disney magic of Beauty and the Beast. We’re talking about salt and the long-standing idea that you should slash your sodium intake to keep your blood pressure in check and reduce water weight, a.k.a. bloat.
But in his new book, The Salt Fix, James DiNicolantonio, Pharm.D., claims that cutting back on salt can actually prevent you from losing weight. DiNicolantonio suggests that when your body is depleted of salt, it amps up your brain's reward system (the thing that makes you feel ahhhhmazing after polishing off a doughnut or bag of chips). And when this area of your brain is going HAM, you're more likely to crave and eat a dessert or treat that you normally wouldn't. That can be an issue if you're trying to shed pounds.
The theory is based on a 2004 study of mice published in Pharmacology Biochemistry and Behavior. For that study, the researchers found that when mice were low in sodium—a key mineral for many bodily functions—their brains appear to “sensitize” their reward system or create a hyperactive reward system.
So should we all give low-sodium diets the boot?
Well, like other animal-only studies, this one should be taken with a grain of salt, says Keri Gans, R.D.N., C.D.N., author of The Small Diet Change. While it's true that depriving yourself of any ingredient (even salt) can cause increased cravings, those urges to eat junk are likely spurred by feeling restricted—not necessarily a change in brain chemistry, she says.
But does following a low-salt diet actually work against your weight loss goals? It depends, says Gans.
First off, you shouldn’t cut out just a single ingredient or nutrient in an effort to drop pounds, Gans says. Focusing on just removing salt from your diet isn’t going to be the golden ticket to losing weight because in doing so, you’re disregarding other nutritional factors that are essential for weight loss. Instead of picking items based on their sodium content, you should consider how much fiber and protein (key nutrients to staying fuller longer) versus calories and saturated fats a product has, she says.
Similarly, when you make a low-salt routine your main focus, you might end up eating products advertised as “reduced sodium” or “sodium-free.” These seem like a good option, but they can be loaded with added sugars and calories, Gans says.
Eliminating any single ingredient from your diet, especially when it's something you love, is just going to backfire, says Gans. So, if you’re total salt junkie (a.k.a. one of those people who’d choose a bag of chips over a cupcake any day of the week) banning sodium from your diet will likely lead you to make unhealthy choices and sabotage your goals.
There's also the fact that you need a certain amount of sodium to function and maintain hydration and electrolyte balance. So when you cut way back on salt, you could deprive your body of what it needs, says Lisa DeFazio, R.D. Instead of eliminating salt as a weight loss or debloating tactic, DeFazio recommends capping your intake at 400 to 500 mg per meal.
DeFazio and Gans recommend choosing snacks such as air-popped or microwaveable popcorn because you can add a little bit of salt for taste (and fill that salt fix). Plus, popcorn is low in cals and high in fiber, which are the actual keys to weight loss. Other good low-salt snack options for weight loss: kosher dill pickles, roasted edamame, roasted chickpeas, and lightly-salted nuts.
Bottom line: Cutting back on salt is still a great way to reduce water weight, but going below 400 to 500 mg a meal might leave you with cravings.