Many parents come in to my pediatric nutrition practice asking about salt cravings in kids – often with some hesitancy, wondering if salt cravings in kids are unusual. Salt cravings in kids can happen for a number of reasons. Kids who lick salt, shake salt heavily onto everything including into water or other drinks, drink pickle juice, love olives and pickles, snack only on salty chips or pretzels, prefer starchy salty food to real food, or will eat meat only if it’s cured (bacon, pepperoni, salami…) are showing that their cells may need something. What does this mean?
Salt cravings in kids are a signal that the body may need more than just plain old salt. To the body, salt isn’t just sodium and chloride. “Salt” can mean other minerals too, like potassium, calcium, magnesium, iron, manganese, copper, and many others. In fact, using just sodium chloride (which is ordinary table salt, like Morton’s), may deplete other minerals, and cause kids to crave more salt – when the body actually may need other minerals instead. If we truly lack sodium (an essential mineral that we need every day) then we will crave it, to the point where our taste buds will be altered to “like” a lot more salt than usual.
Salt in the US is mostly eaten from processed foods – pasta, bread, baked goods, yogurt, cheese, soft drinks, fast food, microwaveable frozen meals, condiments, sauces, mac and cheese from a box, soup from a can – you name it, it has salt in it. Even without salting food, unless you are scratch cooking everything and controlling your seasonings, your kids are probably eating a lot of salt. Salt in processed foods is typically sodium chloride, and not the healthier blend of minerals found in natural sources like sea salt or Himalayan salt – either of which I recommend for your kitchen.
From a nutrition standpoint, here are the most common reasons for salt cravings in kids that I encounter in my pediatric nutrition practice:
1 – Your child may be depleting minerals too quickly or too often – Salt cravings are a tip that your child’s body might need more minerals, or that some minerals, including sodium, are depleted too quickly. Common causes of wasting minerals are anxiety, stress (physical exertion, like a soccer game; or emotional stress, like nightmares, homework, school problems, family tensions), illnesses or infections, night sweats, chronic loose stools, or fever.
Don’t underestimate the power of chronic stress from school, friends, or sports activities. Give kids ample mineral replenishment, especially during strenuous activities. If you’re not a fan of supermarket electrolyte drinks, there are options in products like Trace Minerals Electrolyte Gummies, or Designs For Health Electrolyte Synergy powder. These cover calcium, sodium, magnesium, potassium, and add other functional ingredients like D-ribose or tapioca sourced malto-dextrin. These quickly replenish fatigued cells and skirt the GMO corn syrup dilemma. Both are available in my FullScript dispensary, my go-to resource for products I use in my pediatric nutrition practice. Sign up here to get access to these products, if you can’t find them where you usually shop.
What about those adrenal glands? Salt cravings may mean these glands are drained and depleted, for any of the reasons mentioned here. These are tiny thumb-sized glands that sit atop the kidneys – but they are your body’s main “shock absorbers” – and they work hard. They regulate just about everything in the body, directly or indirectly. They need an array of minerals to manage fluid balance and blood pressure. They also directly control stress responses, by manufacturing hormones like cortisol, epinephrine, norepinephrine, and aldosterone. Your adrenal glands rely on a steady flow of varied minerals, fats, and protein to build this stuff and make it all work.
2 – Chronic inflammatory conditions consume minerals quickly – If your child has a chronic inflammatory condition like asthma or food allergies, this too may induce a desire for salty foods – because when there is inflammation, the body releases more coritsol and other hormones from the adrenal glands. These hormones rely on and regulate minerals, and influence everything from blood volume to urine output and stress response. Salt cravings in kids can mean minerals are lacking or imbalanced, and that the adrenal glands are struggling to keep up. Cortisol is vital to our well being – but too much of it is draining, depleting, and immunosuppressive. Too little of it leaves us extremely fatigued, dizzy, or confused. Besides craving salty stuff, you might see these signs too:
- – muscle cramping easily on exertion
- give calcium lactate. See Progressive Labs Calcium Lactate capsules in my FullScript platform. This is a fast absorbed form of calcium that helps muscle spasms. Give 200-500 mg at a time.
- rub magnesium lotion on cramped muscles, or soak in an Epsom salts bath.
- – fatigue
- replenish fluids quickly, and calories too. Per pound, kids’ calorie demands are far higher than adults. Allow carbs to refuel with food: Bananas, oranges, potatoes, sweet potato, or any favorite hefty clean carb that your kids’ crave.
- – insomnia
- calcium and magnesium are winners for sleeping more soundly
- – dizzy when changing position (sitting to standing)
- support blood pressure with sodium.
- – low mood
- all electrolyte minerals can support mood
Making sure your kids get mineral-rich foods every day can help. Relying day to day on sugary processed food displaces mineral rich foods. It also takes a lot of mineral co-factors to digest and process sugar. Eat more mineral rich foods, and add a good mineral supplement if your child isn’t eating enough of those. Foods like homemade soup or bone broths, stews, vegetables, sea weeds, nuts and seeds (or their butters), sprouted pumpkin seeds, greens, pork, eggs, scallops (if you can find them and are comfortable with eating them), and fresh herbs are great ways to add minerals every day. Think arugula, basil, thyme, mint, cilantro, red butter lettuce, chard, beet greens, cilantro, or kale. All of these work fresh and raw in smoothies, seared or roasted with vegetables, or simmered in stews and broths. Even dried thyme will add notable amounts of iron, calcium, and manganese to food. Fruits are less of a go-to for minerals than vegetables, so if you’re doing fruit smoothies often, great – now add some greens!
For a supplement, you may need to add a multi-mineral for your child. Kids’ multivitamins often have either no minerals or only very low doses of just one or two minerals. Here’s an example: Kids need anywhere from 10 to 30 mg or more zinc daily, depending on what they already eat and what their health conditions are. If your child uses a chewable multi and it has only 2 mg of zinc, get them eating nuts, seeds, pork, and other zinc-rich foods or add a multi-mineral option. Products with or without copper or iron are available too, if your child needs to minimize those two minerals. Have a look at Klaire LDA Trace Mineral Complex or Vital Nutrients Multi-Mineral Citrate (without copper or iron) in my FullScript platform for starters. For a well rounded multivitamin that also has minerals, one of my top choices is Kirkman Thera Response. I use these for children and like that the capsules are small enough for even young kids to swallow in many cases.
3 – Beige Diets Deplete Minerals – Picky eaters who stick to a diet of “beige” food – processed wheat and dairy snacks, pasta, pizza, chicken fingers, cookies, crackers, chips, bread, bagels, toaster waffles, granola bars – are missing out on minerals. Though these processed foods usually have a lot of sodium, they don’t often have much for the other key electrolytes or minerals that we need. So, picky eaters can become chronically marginal for these necessary, nourishing nutrients. When stresses come their way, they are quickly depleted for mineral balance. A good multivitamin and mineral option is advisable for these kids, in my opinion!
Have a look at Chris Kresser’s great piece on why salt restriction is not a good thing. Don’t skimp on healthy Himalayan salt in your kids’ diets (sea salt may now have micro plastic in it, and sodium chloride table salt products may have added sugar). Add culinary sea salt or Himalayan salt to your meals and let your kids salt their food. Don’t restrict salt if you see salt cravings in kids at your house – dig deeper to see if they fit the patterns above, and repair/replenish from there with food and varied minerals. Supplement if need be. If your kids continue to have big salt cravings, let’s talk – there may be underlying issues that need attention, so their adrenal glands can function better. Balanced minerals can help them feel better, sleep better, focus more, and regulate moods better. Expect your kids to be healthy!