How Consuming Too Much Salt Can Help You Gain Weight
Conventional wisdom has long held that salty foods boost our thirst and lead us to drink more water. But can salt also lead us to eat more, as well?
Researchers have begun to explore salt’s previously unknown role in hunger and weight gain. Several recent studies shed light on why salt may encourage us to overeat.
“Until now, we have always focused on the effect of salt on blood pressure,” says Jens Titze, MD, associate professor of medicine and of molecular physiology and biophysics at Vanderbilt University in Nashville. “We have to expand our conceptions of salt and diet.”
Salt and Space
Titze was the lead researcher on a new study challenging the notion that salty foods make us thirsty. Instead, he found that people who eat high amounts of salt actually drink less water than those who have smaller amounts of salt in their diet. They also become hungrier. Over the long term, that boost in appetite could lead us to overeat and gain weight.
For the study, published last month, Titze and his colleagues gained access to a unique group of subjects: Ten Russian astronauts — or cosmonauts — preparing for the rigors of space travel to Mars. The space flight simulation, which lasted for months, provided a stable environment for the researchers to study how salt affected them.
Throughout the study, the cosmonauts’ diet did not vary except in one key way: The researchers changed the amount of salt in their food. The study subjects began on a diet that included 12 grams of salt per day. That’s about twice the amount recommended by U.S. dietary guidelines. After several weeks, researchers reduced their salt to 9 grams per day. The cosmonauts ate 6 grams of salt daily during the final third of the study period.
What happened over the course of the study upended the researchers’ expectations: The cosmonauts drank more water as their salt intake dropped.
“We simply could not understand it,” says Titze.
Titze describes another surprise. The cosmonauts complained of hunger while on the high-salt diet.
“We said you can’t be hungry, you’re getting the same amount of food,” says Titze. “The only thing that’s changed is the amount of salt.”
Salt and Our Health
Sodium, the main ingredient in salt, is an essential part of our diet, and not just for flavor. It keeps our muscles and nerves working properly, and it helps our bodies maintain the proper balance of fluids.
But when sodium levels rise too high, blood pressure often goes up as well. Over time, high blood pressure can have serious, life-threatening consequences. It can lead to stroke, heart attack, kidney disease, and other health problems.
To protect against high blood pressure, U.S. dietary guidelines recommend that we get less than 2,300 milligrams of sodium per day. That’s about a teaspoon of salt. According to the American Heart Association, the ideal target for most adults is no more than 1,500 milligrams daily. Most adults, however, get far too much. The CDC estimates that the average American adult eats 3,400 grams every day.
In the last several years, scientists have begun to investigate whether salt affects obesity. Here’s what they have found: