Hold the Salt, Please

Low-Salt Diets: Eating Out

For many people, eating out is something they do to relax and socialize. You don’t have to give this up when you are on a low-sodium diet, but it is important to be more careful about what you order in a restaurant. Sodium is not just in table salt. You can also find it in sodium citrate, sodium bicarbonate (baking soda), and monosodium glutamate (MSG). Asian foods often have MSG as well as soy sauce, which is also very salty. But with some planning and helpful tips, you can still enjoy eating out while limiting the sodium in your diet.

Key points

  • Restaurant foods are usually high in sodium.
  • Most restaurants are willing to prepare your food with less or no sodium, if you ask.
  • Food can still taste good and be low in sodium.

What is a low-sodium diet?

If you are on a low-sodium diet, you need to limit your intake of salt and other forms of sodium in the food you eat. Depending on your condition, your doctor will probably limit your sodium to less than 2,000 milligrams (mg) a day. This can be challenging for people who like to eat out, because processed foods, including restaurant food, are often the biggest source of sodium in our diets.

Why is it important to limit sodium when eating out?

Sodium causes your body to hold extra water. This can make certain conditions, such as heart failure or kidney disease, worse. For example, if you have heart failure, too much sodium makes it harder for your already weakened heart to pump and can lead to sudden heart failure. Fluid may build up in your lungs-making it harder for you to breathe-and in your feet, ankles, legs, and belly. Limiting sodium in your diet will make you feel better.

How can you avoid sodium when eating out?

It requires extra effort to avoid sodium when you eat out, because you can’t always tell by looking at the menu which items are high in sodium. It often depends on how the restaurant prepares the meal, what ingredients they use, and how much sodium they add. Here are some ways to avoid sodium when you dine out.

  • Try to choose restaurants where the food is made to order, instead of choosing fast-food or buffet-style restaurants. Before you order, ask how the food is prepared and if the restaurant offers low-sodium menu items. Often you can ask that your meal be prepared with no added sodium.
  • Most fast-food restaurants have nutrition information available, including sodium content. If you do eat at a fast-food restaurant, ask for the nutrition information and choose lower-sodium items.
  • Ethnic foods, such as Asian or Mexican, often have lots of sodium. You don’t always have to give up these foods, but ask the server to help you make lower-sodium choices.
  • When you eat out, try to eat very low-sodium items the rest of the day. This will help you stay within your sodium limit for the day.

Learn what food items are okay and which ones to avoid. For example, 1 tablespoon of soy sauce has more than 1,000 mg of sodium, and 1 teaspoon of salt has about 2,000 mg of sodium. You can use the following list and bring it with you to the restaurant. You may be able to substitute low-salt or fresh menu items for those with higher sodium content.

Tips for eating out

Foods to avoid

Instead, choose or ask for…

Smoked, cured, and salted meat, fish, and poultry Fresh,  grilled, baked, poached, or broiled meat, fish, or poultry
Ham, bacon, hot dogs, luncheon meats, and cheese Fresh roasted pork, turkey, or chicken
Canned vegetables Fresh steamed vegetables with no added salt. (Assume that cooked vegetables have added salt unless you ask for them to be prepared without it.)
Condiments, such as pickles, olives, tartar sauce, and ketchup Sliced cucumbers, malt vinegar, or low-sodium ketchup and mustard
Sauces, including soy sauce, tomato sauce, au jus, and gravy Low-sodium soy sauce, olive oil
Salad dressings Oil and vinegar, lemon juice, or low-sodium dressing
Fast foods, including french fries, pizza, and tacos Plain baked potato, grilled chicken sandwich
Fast foods, including french fries, pizza, and tacos Plain baked potato, grilled chicken sandwich

Ice cream, sherbet, frozen yogurt, and angel food cake are all lower-sodium dessert choices.

Where to go from here

Now that you have read this information, you can make low-sodium food choices when you eat out. Talk with your doctor about the changes to your diet. He or she may have more suggestions and tips on how to avoid sodium when you eat out. You may also want to meet with a registered dietitian for more ideas about a healthful diet for you.

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