Understanding Labels | The Fast-Food Scene | Upscale Dining | The Bottom Line: Taking Control

Sodium is essential in small amounts, but the human body does not require as much salt as many people think. The average American consumes around 3,400 milligrams (mg) of sodium daily. Although one teaspoon of salt contains about 2,300 mg of sodium, the majority of sodium eaten by Americans comes from processed foods, such as deli meats and canned, frozen, or fast foods.

The specific impact dietary sodium has on health is a controversial issue that continues to be debated by scientists and doctors. Some recommend that we all limit our sodium intake to protect our health, while others believe that only certain people with certain conditions should limit their intake of sodium. If your doctor or dietitian has recommended that you watch your sodium intake, you might find that your busy lifestyle makes it difficult. But there are ways to do it successfully, even while you're on the go.

Understanding Labels

You may be familiar with the nutrition facts labels that appear on just about every item in your grocery store. But did you know that the laws behind food labeling also apply to restaurant signs, ads, and menus? Here's how it works:

  • Items labeled "sodium-free" must contain 5 mg or less sodium per serving.
  • Items labeled "low-sodium" must contain 140 mg or less sodium per serving.
  • Items labeled "heart healthy" must be low in sodium, fat, and cholesterol.

The Fast-Food Scene

Ironically, fast-food restaurants provide some of the best nutrition information available to consumers. In fact, McDonald's was one of the pioneers in providing nutrition analyses of its menu items to consumers. By putting nutrition information about their products on the Internet, many fast food franchises have taken the guesswork out of ordering foods that are not only lower in sodium, but also in fat and cholesterol.

Fast-food chains provide standardization too. While traveling around the country, you can be assured that a Quarter Pounder in Chicago will have the same sodium content as the same burger in Miami.

Here are some practical tips for slashing salt at the fast-food restaurants:

  • Pass on the cheese. A slice of cheese can add another 200 mg of sodium to your burger.
  • Skip the pickles.
  • Ask for sauces on the side.
  • Pass on the fries or ask for them unsalted.
  • When at a sandwich shop, choose fresh meats, like chicken or turkey, instead of processed meats.
  • Opt for oil and vinegar instead of packaged salad dressings.

Upscale Dining

Some family restaurants, steakhouses, and more upscale dining establishments may not provide easily accessible nutrition information. Analyzing nutrition information can be expensive, and upscale restaurants frequently change their menus, making the process of providing nutrition information even more costly.

However, there are some simple steps you can take to control your sodium intake in these restaurants. For example, choose smaller servings of all foods, which will help slash the overall sodium intake. Try ordering lunch-size portions for dinner or share a dinner entree with a dining companion.

If your dinner plans include a five-star restaurant, you may be able to call ahead to find out how the chef can accommodate you.

Here are some tips for when you're eating at an upscale restaurant:

  • Choose salad over soup. Each 8-ounce cup of soup contains about a half teaspoon of salt.
  • Opt for yeast-risen bread, such as rolls, instead of higher sodium choices, like biscuits.
  • Choose broiled meats over fried ones.
  • When dining at Asian restaurants, ask for low-sodium soy sauce, which is almost always available.
  • Try using sodium-free salsa, chutney, cranberry sauce, or horseradish for extra flavor.
  • Choose oils over butter for the bread or vegetables.

The Bottom Line: Taking Control

With so many food options when shopping, traveling, and dining, it is easy to feel overwhelmed. But, you can take some simple steps to control your sodium intake, such as:

  • Read nutrition labels when they're available.
  • Pre-plan your food selection with the aid of websites and books.
  • Check ahead with restaurants for lower sodium menu options.
  • Pack your own lower sodium food and snacks in coolers for car trips or plane trips.
  • Keep portion sizes reasonable.
  • Avoid obvious sources of extra sodium, such as processed deli meats, soups, pickles, cheese, and salted foods.