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I am drawn to the briniest of foods: salty olives that make my saliva glands wince; sour pickles that explode with tangy juice at every bite; anything dunked, dipped, or cooked in soy sauce.
My constant, unwavering desire for salt was an ongoing battle with my parents throughout childhood. In an earnest attempt to be health-conscious, they continually refused my pleas for excessively salty treats (like pickle juice as an after-school snack). As I grew older, and attempted to develop healthier habits myself, I internalized this attitude to some degree, trading in my french fries and Doritos in favor of salads and grain bowls. I never completely disavowed salt — it just became my guilty secret.
Then I started fainting.
The first time it happened was three years ago at a concert in Harlem. I’d had the overwhelming urge to sit during the show, which hadn’t been especially crowded or hot, and then felt a haziness that seemed best solved by something cold and sweet. I left to buy an ice cream and, the next thing I knew, I was lying in the street outside a bodega, surrounded by friends, strangers, and a neat little puddle of Haagen Dazs puke.
The second time was in the bathroom of a friend’s sister’s holiday party — or maybe it was in her living room? I just remember crawling around on the bathroom floor as some seemingly older, cooler guest banged on the door asking what was taking so long. I was told I collapsed in my friend’s arms and was dragged, unconscious, outside the apartment, where I promptly projectile-vomited all over her sister’s stairs. I awoke to the sound of her sister saying something along the lines of, “and this is why I don’t party with college kids.” I looked down at the trail of puke and wished I hadn’t eaten so many rainbow-sprinkled cookies.
Since then, I have fainted — and woken myself by vomiting — about 20 times.
In our cultural consciousness, fainting is a uniquely feminine ailment. When I faint, I feel my body betray me in a way that’s been associated with female helplessness for hundreds of years — a way that seems to confirm that un-killable idea that there are some things women are just too dainty to stomach.
I’m not sure what’s dainty about puking like some kind of vomit-zombie as I come to, but I do know that, besides the vomiting part, I hate fainting because it makes me feel, at best, like an ill-equipped little girl, and at worst like a hysterical woman.
The doctors I met seeking answers did not help matters. They were convinced that there was something about the way I’d chosen to live my life that was causing my body to punish me. There was the the time I fainted after I’d eaten vegetarian food all day (clearly, I was dieting too much), or the time I had a mojito (too much booze!), or the time when I didn’t drink enough water (leave it to a young woman to irresponsibly spend too much time in the sun).
It didn’t seem to matter that I’ve also fainted after eating a steak, or that for the last three years, I’ve been drinking three liters of water a day, or that I’ve never fainted on any of the occasions I’ve had three mojitos, or shots of tequila, or drank half a bottle of red wine. My doctors promoted the myth that our bodies’ behaviors are obvious extensions of our choices. When I fainted in my living room, with a half-eaten grapefruit in my hand, after a day of painting my nails and watching reality TV, I decided that despite previous doctors’ conclusions, I had done nothing to deserve this.
It took three months and much research before I found a young female cardiologist who carefully listened to me and easily determined that I was suffering from a severe form of vasovagal syncope, a heart condition that causes fainting and — in my lucky case — vomiting upon regaining consciousness. Vasovagal syncope, my doctor said, disproportionately affects women in their 20s, pregnant women, and women experiencing menopause. Doctors think it’s connected to hormonal changes in the female body but haven’t been able to determine exactly how.
Even though there was still some mystery surrounding the exact cause of my ailment, my doctor had a cure: She told me to start eating and drinking a lot more salt. She said that salt helps the body retain fluid, which my body, for whatever reason, has an especially hard time doing. The more water I drank, the more it flowed freely out of me, making me a woman with both a very active bladder and a bad habit of passing out. If I incorporated more salt into my diet, I’d ironically stay more hydrated, and hopefully faint less.
After three years of misdiagnoses, embarrassment, and self-blame, the cure was exactly what I’d been craving, and avoiding, my entire life.
The nights I most freely indulged in my salt cravings were childhood visits to my grandmother’s house. She and I shared a deep, biological love for salt. In addition to being the only woman I know who combined soy sauce and kosher salt in a dish, my grandmother also fainted for no apparent reason — and she could stomach a lot.
Nights at Grandma’s, on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, were a bonanza of salty foods. Sometimes we picked up a pizza from Sal & Carmine’s on 102nd Street and Broadway, where one slice for dinner will wake you up in the middle of the night searching for water. Other times, we ordered in from Empire Szechuan, scouring the menu for the saltiest dishes. When we discovered black bean sauce, we never looked back, fighting over the tiny, fermented beans in the bottom of the plastic container.
Occasionally we’d dine out, and my grandmother and I would exchange a nervous glance if we sat down at a table without a salt shaker. Never one to be shy, she’d usually wave someone over, be it a waiter or the head chef, and ask for salt, often before we’d even ordered. Her undiluted chutzpah would have been embarrassing — she was essentially telling restaurant workers their food lacked flavor — if I wasn’t also desperate for the stuff.
Beyond a fear of insulting your chef, it’s tricky to order salt in restaurants because to do so is to disregard entrenched conventional wisdom that salt is evil. As Jerome Groopman writes in the New Yorker, “obesity anxiety” has led to a constant search for “easy answers,” and over the past century, fat, sugar, and salt have all been shifting targets of this witch hunt. If that’s not scary enough, salt also causes bloating, which women’s magazines cast as an evil beyond compare. My cardiologist told me that many young women who come to see her are devastated that the treatment for vasovagal syncope almost always involves some sort of induced bloating, a word with almost as much baggage as “salt.” The fact that her patients don’t see this remedy as a straightforward cure-all is telling.
That’s all to say that in the past, unlike my grandmother, I’ve been reluctant to demand the salt shaker. But as I left my cardiologist’s office after my initial appointment, I made a pledge to myself, silly as it sounds, that I was never going to be shy about asking for salt again.
This promise has created all sorts of unforeseen awkwardness, because asking for salt is not a natural question at a bare-bones pizza shop, like Sal’s, where most customers are chasing their already-salty slices with gulps of water or soda. And it’s not the most polite question at a tableclothed restaurant where someone has carefully measured all the spices in his or her dishes to achieve what he or she feels is a perfect flavor balance. It’s not the point at a healthy chain like Sweetgreen, where they don’t keep salt packets next to the tubs of cucumber ginger lime fresca and biodegradable forks. And it’s never appetizing to watch someone shake salt into her glass of water (the days of plain, unsalted water are over for me, according to my cardiologist), no matter the restaurant. Nevertheless, I now request salt in all these places.
I also keep a glass tub of Himalayan pink salt on my desk (which I figure most people mistake for a decoration), and every time I pass a McDonald’s I grab a couple more packets for my purse. I’ve tried to maintain my healthy eating habits, bringing my Sweetgreen and Little Beet bowls back to my desk for full salting, but if I pass a McDonald’s and feel the urge for more than just a salt packet, I don’t hesitate to get a small order of fries. I’m still waiting for Women’s Health to feature a spread on six foods that will help you avoid fainting, with french fries as No. 1.
My vasovagal syncope may wax and wane with my hormones as I grow older, so it’s unlikely I will always carry salty water in my Swell. But I have a feeling those cravings will never completely leave me. And I know I’ll never question my body in the same way again.
Fiona Lowenstein is a freelance writer and editor, covering food, feminism, media, and more. She lives in New York City.
Vance Lump is a freelance illustrator in the Pacific Northwest.
Editor: Kira Goldenberg