Sticking to a low-salt diet when eating out

Julie Corliss
Julie Corliss, Executive Editor, Harvard Heart Letter

Going out for dinner can be a nice way to unwind with family or friends. But if you’re watching your salt intake, restaurants aren’t always so relaxing. Much of their fare is loaded with sodium, a main component of salt. In fact, some entrees at popular chains contain far more than 2,300 milligrams (mg) of sodium — the recommended limit for an entire day’s worth of food.

Limiting sodium is especially important for people with high blood pressure, because excess salt worsens this common condition, leaving you more prone to heart attack and stroke. If you eat out only once a month, you probably needn’t worry too much. But Americans tend to eat out far more frequently — about five times a week, on average.

For starters, do your prep work

But there are plenty of strategies for staying within your salt budget when eating out, starting before you even leave home, says Debbie Krivitsky, director of clinical nutrition at the Cardiovascular Disease Prevention Center at Massachusetts General Hospital. When possible, check the restaurant’s website to look up the nutrition information (including sodium) for different menu items beforehand. You can also search for your favorite dishes at CalorieKing, which includes nutrient data for foods from hundreds of popular nationwide chains. Federal law now requires all restaurants with more than 20 locations to provide this information.

Not surprisingly, the highly processed fare at fast-food restaurants is quite salty (for example, a Big Mac has 950 mg of sodium). Beware of unexpected sources: a Dunkin’ Donuts reduced-fat blueberry muffin contains 540 mg of sodium. But sit-down restaurants aren’t all that much better. “The typical meal at a chain sit-down restaurant contains about 2,100 mg of sodium for every 1,000 calories,” says Krivitsky.

Certain cuisines tend to have higher sodium levels than others. Asian restaurants use a lot of sodium-rich soy and fish sauces, and Italian food (especially pizza) has high-sodium sauces, cheeses, and cured meats, such as pepperoni and prosciutto.

Fresher options and menu tweaks

A better option (if available) is a “farm-to-table” restaurant. These newly fashionable eateries focus on fresh and often locally grown or raised foods. While they may not provide nutritional information, these establishments — as well as other neighborhood and smaller “mom-and-pop” places — may be willing to work with you to prepare a lower-sodium meal. These days, with more people following gluten-free and vegan diets, they’re used to making adjustments. And it’s in their best interest to make their customers happy.

If you’re comfortable doing so, tell your server you have a medical condition or are taking medication and need to limit your salt. They may be more inclined to take you seriously, says Krivitsky. Then say, “Please tell the chef to grill, broil, or steam my food with no added seasonings or sauces.” If you’re ordering a piece of meat, chicken, or fish, find out the weight of the serving size. Have the server bring you a plate with only the amount you want to eat and bag the rest to take home.

If you’ve got your heart set on a special entree that’s over your sodium budget, ask the server to box up half of the dish to save for the next day before bringing it to your table. That way, you can enjoy the portion without being tempted to pick at the rest just because it’s in front of you.

Don’t be shy about making sure you get exactly what you want; you’re paying for it, after all.

Related Information: Reducing Sugar and Salt

Comments:

  1. Lynn P.

    Shopping in a major grocery chain lately, I stood and looked around me. I was floored by the realization that most of what the store had in stock was full of sodium and salt. When we realize that salt is only one part of the sodium issue, we understand that even non-salty foods can be loaded in sodium. Products that have baking powder and baking soda in them come to mind. I also realized that this is not natural. Animals do not sprinkle salt on almost all the food they eat. So I realized how out of balance we are on the sodium scale. We do not know all the ways that sodium affects us. One article I read said that sodium negatively affects calcium in our bodies. It said that calcium assists in expelling fats in our feces. I believe it said 50% of fat eaten will be expelled with a high calcium diet. Whether that is true or not, I do not know. But salt has so far gone under the radar when it comes to overweight. It still carries the “only negative function” of holding onto water, causing high blood pressure and related problems. Maybe we need to take another look at our high sodium diets and how this affects our weight.

  2. Ashley

    These are all fabulous tips! I definitely enjoy going out with my family or friends to a nice meal. I think the phrase “everything in moderation” goes a long way 🙂 You should never feel as if you’re missing out on doing things because they aren’t “healthy”- just a few changes can make a big difference! Just always put in mind the ABCD rule. Appetizers, Bread, Cocktails or Dessert. These are the most high caloric foods. Choose one from that list or not to eat at all just focus on your main entree.

    Ashley

  3. Joseph Shapiro

    Living at senior facility serving dinner, skipping lunches, there, and at fast food and commercial restaurants, realized thirty pound loss within two months. Cut out bread, halved portions. Not on a “diet” ; rather, the new norm. Not heroic. No sense of sacrificing anything. Feels good. Probably another twenty five to go.

  4. Gordon Brooks

    In Hotels serving steaks with Gravy, I push aside and the gravy and ask for a big bowl of warm or hot water and dipped the steak pieces in the bowl before eating it. Gordon

  5. TERRY SMITH

    You can eat Chinese menus if you stick to the vegan side of things. I have found that steamed rice covered with mushrooms a tasty choice and what little sodium is in the mushrooms is offset by the low sodium rice dish. It is very filling and you can finish off at the fresh fruits on the salad bar. After 5 years of eating Vegan because of heart disease, I have become very comfortable eating out, or at home. The rewards of feeling good far exceed any inconvenience for me. Although, my vegan journey started because of health considerations, I have found that I also embrace the ethical side of the lifestyle.

  6. Andrew

    My own experience lead me to avoid almost all “chain” eateries. Much of their offerings are pre-prepared centrally. The salt and fat and sugar contents can be astronomical.
    Smaller family owned restaurants are generally more flexible and accommodating, especially those which cook to order.