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Be Wary of Excessive Salt in Some Restaurant Meals

spoon full of salt

Oct. 30, 2017 -- We’ve heard that restaurant meals have a lot of salt, but it can be difficult to know just how much.

While many chain restaurants now list calorie counts on their menus, that information doesn’t include sodium content. Diners may get some insight next year, when chain restaurants with 20 or more locations will be required in May to have pamphlets available with nutritional information, including sodium.

In the meantime, the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) hopes to raise awareness with a new award for restaurant chain meals with sky-high amounts of sodium.

The health and nutrition nonprofit and advocacy group, known for its Xtreme Eating Awards of calorie-laden restaurant meals, calls its latest award the MilliGrammy.

In a series of videos meant to mock awards shows, the group named its first winners:

  • P.F. Chang’s Pad Thai with Shrimp received the MilliGrammy for Sodium Content in a Single Menu Item, with 5,250 milligrams of sodium. That’s more than twice the daily 2,300 milligram limit the American Heart Association recommends.
  • Subway’s Footlong Spicy Italian with Provolone and Mayo received the award for Sodium Content in a Sandwich by a Chain Restaurant, with 3,380 milligrams of sodium.
  • Chili’s received a special Lifetime Achievement award for serving high-sodium meals. The award recognized some of the chain’s saltiest meals, including the Beef Bacon Ranch Quesadilla, (3,990 milligrams), Crispy Fiery Pepper Crispers (6,240 milligrams), and its full rack of Texas Dry Rub Ribs (6,250 milligrams).

“We know on average, Americans get about one-third of their calories from eating out, so it's not a question about whether or not people will be eating out, but it's important to be aware of how to find the healthier dishes,” says Lindsay Moyer, senior nutritionist at the CSPI.

Although the American Heart Association recommends no more than 2,300 milligrams a day of sodium, it says an ideal limit is 1,500 milligrams per day for most adults.

One-third of American adults have high blood pressure, and 90% of American adults are expected to develop high blood pressure over their lifetimes.

“It's such an important health issue and it gets remarkably little attention,” says Michael Jacobson, co-founder and senior scientist of the CSPI. “Countries around the world are beginning to set limits and targets on sodium levels, which is recognition that high-sodium diets place a tremendous burden on our health care system, and the government needs to do something to lower sodium.”

P.F. Chang's, Subway, and Chili’s did not return requests for comment. The National Restaurant Association, a trade organization that often speaks on behalf of its members, also did not return requests for comment.

Torey Armul, a registered dietitian and spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, says that while people need salt to help balance fluid in the body, eating too much can lead to bloating, high blood pressure, and stroke. It is also linked to chronic conditions such as diabetes and obesity.

"Sodium intake can be kind of tricky at restaurants because it's not just one type of food that is high in sodium, it's everything. I've seen salads that are high in salt, flat breads, chili, turkey burgers, so even those food items that you think are a healthy choice can be high in sodium,” Armul says.

Armul offers these tips when dining out to limit your salt intake:

  • Don’t sprinkle table salt on your food.
  • Do your research. A lot of restaurants post the nutrition content of their foods online.
  • Don’t arrive hungry and load up on appetizers like bread and chips.
  • Fruits, vegetables, and lean protein tend to be better choices. Try to avoid sauces and fried foods because they tend to be high in salt, and ask for the dressing on the side.

And of course, eat more meals at home.

“The more often you eat at home and make ingredient substitutions and try to make your diet a little healthier, you will see benefits in your weight and other areas of your health,” Armul says.

WebMD Article Reviewed by Neha Pathak, MD on October 30, 2017
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