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Low-Sodium Diet: How to Eat Less Sodium at Restaurants

On a low-sodium diet? Here are 10 tips to cut the sodium when you're eating out.

Health authorities have long been warning Americans to slash the sodium in our diets. Yet with restaurant meals and processed foods growing in popularity, the low-sodium diet remains elusive. Many of us are consuming more sodium than ever -- and not just from the salt shaker.

In fact, 3/4 of the sodium in our diets comes from processed foods, says Columbia University researcher Wahida Karmally, DrPH, RD.  And the watchdog group Center for Science in the Public Interest found that 85 out of 102 meals at popular restaurant chains contained more than a full day's worth of sodium. Some of the meals had four days’ worth of sodium. 

Consuming too much sodium is serious business because it's a risk factor for high blood pressure. High blood pressure, in turn, can lead to stroke and heart disease

Most U.S. adults consume the equivalent of 1 1/2 teaspoons of salt or 3,400 milligrams of sodium each day. That's over twice the daily recommendation of 1,500 milligrams of sodium. 

And the American Medical Association has called for food manufacturers to reduce sodium in foods by 50% over the next 10 years. 

So how do you go about moving toward a more low-sodium lifestyle? One of the best places to start, experts say, is with restaurant meals.

How to Follow a Low-Sodium Diet When Eating Out

Since even unprocessed foods like milk have small amounts of sodium, it’s tough to figure out exactly how much sodium you're consuming. Eating out makes things even more difficult since it's hard to know how foods were prepared.

Some the worst restaurant offenders are fast-food outlets and so-called "fast casual" restaurants, says Sarah Krieger, MPH, RD, a personal chef and spokeswoman for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (formerly the American Dietetic Association).

"Fast-food and fast-casual restaurants have little control over the food because they simply assemble it" rather than cooking from scratch, she says. "So it is harder to request less sodium, other than checking the web site or asking for a brochure in search of lower-sodium options."

Asian restaurants like Japanese, Thai, and Chinese also tend to serve high-sodium cuisine, since they use lots of sauces, chicken stock, and soups. Likewise, Italian restaurants often rely on high-sodium canned tomato products for their red sauces and use plenty of sodium-laden cheese. 

If these are some of your favorite restaurants, Krieger suggests ordering foods as plain as possible and using portion control.

"Ordering wisely and keeping your portions reasonable, like one slice of plain or vegetable pizza and a salad, allows you to scale back on sodium as well as fat and calories," she says. 

Krieger also offers these 10 tips to help trim the sodium when dining out:

1.     Ask lots of questions to learn as much as you can about the preparation of each food; even a baked potato may be rolled in salt before cooking. Ask about spices, rubs, marinades, and finishing sauces, all of which can be loaded with sodium.

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