Salt Cravings In Kids: What They Mean, Why They Matter

Posted by on May 7, 2015

Salt shaker and Question MarkMany parents come in asking me about salt cravings in their kids. Seen any of these moves? 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?

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 you to crave more salt – when your body may need other minerals as well. And if you truly lack sodium (an essential mineral that we need every day) then you will crave it, to the point where your 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.

Salt cravings are a tip that your child’s body might need more minerals, or that some minerals, including sodium, are being 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, or fever.

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 both rely on and regulate minerals, and influence everything from blood volume to urine output and stress response. Salt cravings can mean minerals are lacking or imbalanced, or 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

– fatigue

– insomnia

– dizzy when changing position (sitting to standing)

– low mood

Making sure your kids get mineral-rich foods every day can help. Filling up on sugary or starchy 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), 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, 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!

Use a variety of culinary salts in your kitchen for more minerals in your food

Use a variety of culinary salts in your kitchen for more minerals in your food

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, 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) 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. You can order any of these sold-to-provider-only products by logging in to the Emerson Ecologics website with access code MyNCFC and password 80303, or just call them at 1-800-654-4432. They will give you a 10% discount on anything you order, when using my log in information.

What about those adrenal glands? Salt cravings may mean these glands are drained and depleted. 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.

Don’t skimp on healthy salt in your kids’ diets, but leave the processed sodium chloride foods behind. Add culinary sea salt or Himalayan salt to your meals and let your kids salt their food. If they continue to have big cravings, let’s talk – there may be underlying issues that need attention, so their adrenal glands can function better. And have a look at Chris Kresser’s great piece on why salt restriction is not a good thing.

28 Comments

  1. This is my daughter to a T, except she does not have any of the 5 other symptoms above. Every morning she eats a Nutri-grain waffle with Nutella and a V-8 Fusion drink for breakfast with her vitamins. She is rarely sick, weighs 101# at 5’4″ and dances ballet 6-8 hours a week. She is a Pres. Fitness recipient and straight A student. Her diet consists of, her fave meal rotiss chic and brocc, (now here we go for the rest of the bad things), a ton of greek yogurt, pickels and olives, pickle juice frozen pops, turkey bacon, digiorno pizza, milk, a ton of water, strawberry apple sauce,daily banana, and her treat of choice is anything salty. Should I have her checked for something? There is no stress, she is treated like a princess and our family is solid. She has great friends who spend the night often and all they do is laugh and play. Do I chalk this up to just being a picky eater?

    • If she’s happy, healthy, growing as expected.. then I don’t see anything worth investigating based on what you’re saying. But: Straight A’s? Ballet? Presidential Fitness award? This is a high octane, high performance lifestyle that is demanding for any kid, even a happy and fortunate one. Salt cravings may mean her adrenals are fatiguing a bit – nothing that would show up on a routine lab test, but if she ever has more than expected periods of being fatigued, then there are many adrenal herbs and different foods that can nourish these glands for her. The sugary foods she likes will pull harder on her adrenals and endocrine system over all. Mineral rich foods (vegetables, meats, eggs, nuts, greens but not fruits) will be most supportive here.

  2. My son only wants sugary, starchy or salty food.He does not sleep long,3-5 hours weekdays less during weekend.He has asthma, adhd,and he’s the youngest.I need help getting his nutrients in him without dealing with his finicky eating habits

  3. My daughter craved salt when she was young and her doctor did not clue me what this article did. I finally resolved the issue when she was about 9. I removed ALL Nitrates from her diet; and I used less “processed” foods and meats. Since this is a generation being raised indoors, I have the Vitamin D level checked yearly. I “listen” each night – not instruct. And kids will pick up if the parent is under stress, so I decreased my own stressors. One tip on getting kids to eat vegetables, just give them “5.” They can see themselves eating 5 green beans or 5 carrots or whatever. If they are shy to eat lettuce, have them eat 2 or 3 leaves when they take their vitamins. And nuts are an easy way to get in the healthy fats that are essential for the brain. I buy Organic when available. I cut down on pesticides and preservatives. “Food is medicine.” I hope this helps.

    It took me about 1 year to “detox” her from the nitrates, but her behavior, social skills and math skills improved dramatically. Today, she is lovely and excelling in High School.

  4. In the past few weeks i’ve noticed my 10 yr old craving salty chips. He is very underweight for his age and has too many food allergies to list. This past week his cravings for sugar have really hit an all-time high, (may have to do with eating too much Christmas candy all week, limited, but still more than usual). Last night after eating a few gluten-free cookies before bed he started to feel shaky and fast heartbeat, extreme hunger. I knew right away it was hypoglycemia. We gave him a quick snack, monitored vitals and everything went back to normal. I also think his adrenals are fatigued. I know we have to reallllly limit his sugar, but are his slat cravings serving a purpose of keeping his adrenals functioning and blood pressure up? Thanks! Lee

    • It’s a certainty that if your child is underweight, has food allergies, has tachycardia (rapid heart beat), and crashes hard in the way you described after a sugar snack, that his adrenals are struggling – and perhaps so are his insulin and glucose levels. Each of these presses the adrenals to produce more and more cortisol. Western medical lab tests don’t “notice” adrenal exhaustion until cortisol levels are extremely low or absent, or very high. But there is a lot of swing in between that exhausts these vital glands and wreaks havoc. He needs much more than salty foods and sugar avoidance. Your son’s weight and blood sugar can be normalized, even with food allergies – this is something I do routinely in my pediatric nutrition practice, so call me if you would like to work on that. Be sure you let your doctor know what is going on too.

    • Please ask your doctor to have your son tested for Addison’s disease. Addison’s is a rare endocrine disorder in which the adrenals cannot product cortisol any longer. “Adrenal fatigue” is not an accepted medical diagnosis and being told he has “adrenal fatigue” could prevent you from properly diagnosing Addison’s, if it is present. Addison’s is life-threatening if not diagnosed and treated. I have Addison’s myself and also suffered from hypoglycemia, salt cravings, tachycardia, weakness, low blood pressure and fatigue. Being underweight and having tanned skin without sun exposure are additional symptoms, although not always present. It took having an Addisonian crisis and nearly dying of severe low sodium to get a proper diagnosis, years after being told I probably had “adrenal fatigue” or “chronic fatigue syndrome.” I am not trying to scare you but it is important to raise awareness of this rare disease which your son’s symptoms are suggestive of. An ACTH stimulation test is the gold standard for diagnosis. Treatment is inexpensive, simple and life-changing.

  5. Hi My 2 year old girl craves for salt sooo much that she eats just the salt all the time, she is health and happy , gets cold often may be not very often ( not sure if i shld say often, monthly or 2 months once probably from her brother who goes to school) eats mostly healthy foods but some times candies.
    should i be worries about her mineral intake.
    i am from india, we mostly take millet, rice and wheat with some vegetables and dals and spices.
    she is very fond of fruits( especially water melon and oranges) and doesn’t eat much of vegetables.
    Please suggest if i should consult a doctor for her salt craving.
    thanks a ton!!

    • Well, a doctor (unless Ayurvedic or non-traditional) is not likely to do much of anything about salt cravings. In western medicine, adrenal gland function only worries doctors when the adrenals are really, really failing. In that case, symptoms are dramatically worse and more varied than what you describe, and prescriptions for adrenal hormone support are possibly needed. This isn’t your daughter, but it might be worth speaking to a naturopath or Ayurvedic practitioner to look into what minerals are missing from her diet, or what else in her food or daily life might stress adrenal glands. If she eats many whole grains and foods rich in fiber, these bind minerals in the gut and can diminish their absorption. But, that said, the standout for me here is how frequently she gets sick. Colds every 4-6 weeks indicate an immune system that is struggling – regardless of whether there are other kids around or not. Many nutrition factors can contribute to this, and this is something I assess for families in my practice. If I can help, feel free to set up an appointment anytime.

  6. My 8 year old granddaughter craves salt and ice. She pours the salt into her hand and eats it like that. She is small for age but proportional. She also has adhd. Her mother was diagnosed at age 8 with growth hormone deficiency and was given replacement until age 12 or so.

    • These are all classic features of mineral and nutrition imbalances – growth pattern changes, ADHD, and the ice and salt cravings relate to iron, zinc, magnesium as well as total food intake that may be too low, poorly absorbed, or inflammatory for your granddaughter. Unfortunately pediatrics today does not prioritize nutrition but does prioritize drug therapies. There are several nutrition-focused tools at your granddaughter’s disposal to improve her growth, ADHD, and overall functioning. If you’d like help identifying and sorting these for her case, I’d be happy to help – visit my calendar and set up an appointment anytime.

  7. My granddaughter, age 4, is sneaking salt all the time. So much that she once threw it up. She has been potty trained for well over a year, but is now not making it into the bathroom, peeing on carpets and outside. Her behavior is one temper tantrum after another, as many as 4/5 a day. Crying and being in trouble a good part now of everyday. She won’t eat hardly anything and her sleep pattern is bad, hardly sleeping a full night at all. She is bright and can be a darling girl when she isn’t acting out. Her doctor ran blood tests, all OK. Her mother is becoming overwhelmed with her behavior. Any ideas what we can do to help this child. It’s breaking my heart to what is happening to her.

    • Well, wow! Clearly something is wrong and your daughter’s pediatrician might want to become more curious. It’s common for initial crude screening to look fine. That does not mean all is well. It means you have to look further. If the doctor checked cortisol level in blood (which the adrenal glands make, and which may be linked to salt cravings), this can fall in normal range when drawn just once in the day. But cortisol levels swing and cut a wide swath throughout the day. To truly assess it, more accurate testing than just a single morning blood draw can be done. Other must-do’s in a case like this would be blood sugar (fasting and after meals), iron study, mineral status, and screening for infections. If you’d like help with these nutrition-related investigations, let’s talk soon – set up an appointment via my calendar anytime.

  8. Hi Judy,

    I’m really enjoying reading your blog! Thank you for the information you’re putting out there. My son took an IgG blood test, which showed sensitivities to gluten/whey, dairy/casein, egg whites, beef, peanuts, and pineapple. We had him on an elimination diet for 6 months and have now reintroduced Einkorn, pineapple, and beef. So far so good. He does like “extra” salt on his food. (We only use the Celtic Sea Salt on our home.) He occasionally wakes at night saying his legs hurt. He’s only 4 1/2 so we’re not sure if it’s cramps, growing pains, or restless leg. He also gets really energetic and disobedient before bed and doesn’t fall asleep soon after we tuck him in (at 8:15) even though we have quiet time and a consistent routine, dark room, etc. I purchased the Klaire LDA Trace Mineral Complex for him to see if that may help. Would you mix the contents of the capsule into a drink or can I just pour it in his mouth? Also, I’m unclear of the dosage (he’s roughly 34lbs and 40″ tall). Thanks in advance!

    • Hi Stacy, glad the blog has been helpful. I can’t give specs on dosing much of anything in this venue, without knowing other factors that are assessed at a new patient intake. In general the minerals are a good idea. They should not go on his tongue but best mixed in something liquid or soft. You should also request an iron screening (a full iron study, including ferritin) with your pediatrician. Weak iron status is not the only possible trigger, but it is a classic one for restless leg and hyperactivity near bedtime.

  9. I disagree with your advice on sea salt. Back in the 1950’s, the USA spent a lot of money to educate other “less educated” countries about the importance of iodized salt in preventing disease. It made a huge difference in their rates of diseases. Now, we seem to have forgotten our own advice in favor of the “trendy” sea salt. I am amazed that physicians would not tell families to always cook with iodized salt.

  10. I tried to log in on the website at Emerson Ecologics however it is asking for an email address and password rather than the access code you have so graciously provided.

    • Hi Linda, you have to create your own account with your own password and e mail address. When prompted, it will ask who your provider contact is – put in my name, my access code MyNCFC, and zip code, 80027. This will tag your account for 10% off going forward, for all orders. You can also call Emerson Ecologics at 1-800-654-4432 and order by phone, and simply give my name as provider contact when placing your order. This will also set your account as 10% off.

      • Judy,

        I have been trying to order the mineral supplement for my daughter. They seem to have a new system for patients. they said we need a link sent to us via email to order under a practitioner. I have looked elsewhere for mineral supplements and I cannot find any suitable for a child. Do have a link you can send me for the LDA TRACE MINERAL COMPLEX 30 VEGCAP ?

        • I don’t have a link to purchase this for you Nicole, I am sorry. I also don’t know if this is what your daughter might need. That said, you can likely find what you’re looking for on amazon.com.

  11. My granddaughter was diagnosed with Cystic Fibrosis after tasting salty as a baby. There are 1200 strains of CF and many children aren’t diagnosed until they are older. A genetic test may help solve the salt craving issue.

  12. My daughter is 9 and ever since I can remember she has been a salt eater. She hates olives, doesn’t crave salt and vinegar chips but just has a taste for salt in general. On her food or eaten out of her hand… I’m constantly fighting with her to slow down on the salt. Two years ago she developed a bowel blockage that caused her to miss tons of school, saw two different hospitals, her pediatrician and finally a specialist multiple times having blood drawn and xrays the whole nine. Finally with all the stool softener and exlax and enemas I could shove in this girl (after three long months of her being in pain) the blockage finally broke up.. terrible experience I know! Anyways could the blockage been caused by the salt intake? Also, she is healthy, skinny but healthy. eats wells loves her veggies (broccoli above all) Is partial to fruits but will eat them, overall has ok eating habits, its just the damned salt every time I cant find my salt shaker its in her bedroom, she plays with her dolls and eats the salt, it’s driving me insane! Should I start her on vitamins or possibly get her checked for addisons?

    • Hi Heidi, have your pediatrician do usual work up for adrenal function – but as this post points out, those tests are not very sensitive and will only pick up extremely disordered function, such as Addison’s. Fine to rule out. But the fact that your daughter’s constipation is so bad as to require such drastic measures indicates that she is not digesting or absorbing her diet very well. She is likely eating a mineral-poor diet, which will worsen salt cravings, and also happens to often be a constipating way of eating. The clues will be found in more sensitive blood work for mineral status, in looking at her food intake, and in assessing if she has gut dsybiosis. These are routine work ups in my practice and you are welcome to make an appointment if you would like to investigate further.

  13. My grandson is 6 and has craved salt for quite sometime but due to some other things that his mom and dad have dealt with about this child and talked with his pediatrician about I am writing to try to help as they are exhausted with trial and error.They found he had low iron and supplemented til in normal range.He has behavioral problems sometimes although is a straight A student. Is not under weight, but his craving of salt and sugary snacks or pure sugar is alarming to me.
    When at my house, he sneaks the salt shaker and shakes in his mouth and raids my pantry for sugar snacks and acts as though he is starved all the time.
    His parents are limiting sugar and watching his foods with dyes. Doctor wants to try him on ADHD meds but we are all a little hesitant if there may be other tests or supplements he could try.
    He does not listen to instruction of discipline in school or at other social outings. Sometimes he is fine but more times than not he gets in trouble in school for something.
    We do not want him to be labeled as a child that other children or parents do not want to be around and wonder if his adrenals may be a problem here.We have thought he was just immature since he has a late birthday in August but I think there is more to it now; than this theory. He is a good hearted little boy and loves people but he is stressing his parents out very much and hoping you may have some ideas that they could try.

    • Hi Connie, several clues here. Your grandson may indeed be underweight; that is only discernible by assessing his growth pattern over time. Most pediatricians aren’t scrutinizing this unless a child hits the 5th percentile for weight, but kids are actually underweight when they drop more than 15 points off expected channel for weight or body mass index. That can drive the sugar cravings; so can gut dysbiosis. Pediatricians generally aren’t scrutinizing that either. Eating lots of sugar will in turn stress adrenals. All of this can be sorted out. If you like, have your family make an appointment for nutrition intervention, and by August he may be feeling and behaving much better.

  14. my 6 year old graddaughter craves salt and chocolate. The salt thing is fairly recent. She seems to eat a good amount of Lunchables and has always had snacks like granola bars and fruit. She’s very thin and petite but also seems small next to her kindergarden friends. Is there anything else we could be doing to help her?

    • You can start by finding out if she is “just small” or if she actually has a growth impairment. This is discernible with good nutrition screening. Usually pediatricians don’t have the time to scrutinize growth patterns – much less food intakes of kids – in any detail and they aren’t concerned until kids are at bottom of chart, or drop off. But kids’ functioning can disintegrate long before this point. Sounds like she is eating a lot of processed food and sugar, and that her adrenals are stressed by this. If you’d like more help to replenish healthy growth and solid eating patterns, you can start anytime by clicking on the appointments button at the top of this site.

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