Basket of french fries.
Pgiam/istockphoto
Basket of french fries.
Pgiam/istockphoto

Shaking the Habit

We all know too much sodium is a dietary danger, but the Food and Drug Administration wants restaurants and food companies to take action. The FDA recently issued voluntary guidelines aimed at reducing sodium levels in prepared foods over the next two and a half years. Driving the new effort: The recommended daily sodium allowance is 2,300 milligrams, but the FDA says the average American consumes about 3,400 mg. Whether you're on a low-salt diet or just want to be proactive, these tips can help you get a head start on lowering your salt intake when you're dining out. 


Related: 15 Meaningless Nutritional Claims by Some of Your Favorite Foods

Various toppings pizzas
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Know the 'Salty Six'

The American Heart Association has a "Salty Six" list of foods that contribute the most sodium to the average American diet. Bay Area nutritionist Carly Wertheim says these foods may not be what you expect, either. "You may be surprised by the foods that make the list: breads and rolls, pizza, sandwiches, cold cuts and cured meats, soup, and burritos and tacos." The list also recommends ways to cut down on sodium within these categories.


Related: How Fast Food Meals Are Less Healthy Today Than 30 Years Ago

Dollar Meal
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Limit Fast Food

In general, fast food is the worst option for those looking to limit sodium. Holland Matheson, a Bay Area nutrition specialist, warns that these quick meals, produced "in bulk ahead of time" are tricky because they're "injected with sodium additives to increase shelf life." Yikes. So, Wertheim says, "Salads are probably going to be your best bet." Also, fast-food nutritional information is readily available; don't ignore it.


Related: Which Fast Food Salad Is the Best?


Find a Hot Dog Stand Near You!
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Salty Meats

Matheson cautions, "If your meats are smoked, cured, or processed, you can bet they have a lot of sodium injected into it for added flavor." That means a lot of comfort-food favorites are best skipped, Wertheim says, "Avoid lunch meats, sausage, bacon and hot dogs. Choose freshly cooked chicken, turkey, or fish instead."

Marinated Olives
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Salty Non-Meats

Meat isn't the only salt bomb, though. Vegetarians and fans of condiments should keep an eye out, as well. "While delicious, pickles, olives, sauerkrauts, and other fermented foods are often high in sodium as well," Wertheim says.

Go for Plants
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Go for Plants

In general, plant-based foods will have less sodium than animal-based foods. Think veggies, whole grains, fruits, legumes, raw nuts, and seeds. Wertheim explains, "Not only are plant-based foods naturally low in sodium, they contain potassium, which helps to balance sodium levels in the body. Sodium and potassium are like two peas in a pod. They work together to maintain a healthy blood pressure." However, there is reason to use caution, she says. "Check with your doctor before raising potassium levels, as it can be harmful to those with impaired kidney disease or heart failure, or taking certain medications."


Related: Where to Find Plant-Based Fast Food

Whole is Healthier
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Whole is Healthier

No matter where you're dining, seek out whole foods to cut down on sodium. "Sodium is highest in processed foods and fast foods," Wertheim says. "Food manufacturers add salt to enhance flavor and create that feeling of 'Oh, I just want one more bite.' The opposite of a processed food is a whole food — a food that is as close to the way nature made it as possible."


Related: 25 Easy Recipes for Fresh Fruits and Vegetables

Coffee and banana on table
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Snack Smarter

When you're hungry between meals and go to your local coffee shop for a hot beverage and a snack, less-processed foods are always better. "Try a whole piece of fruit, like an apple, pear, or banana with a small handful of raw, unsalted nuts or seeds. The fat and protein from the nuts and seeds will help you feel fuller longer, and they have a crunch," Wertheim recommends.

Oatmeal
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Eggs Benedict breakfast served on English muffins next to sliced apples on a white plate
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Where to Go

Some restaurants will be easier to navigate for those who are trying to cut their sodium intake. "Look for more farm-to-table restaurants that keep the menu simple," Matheson says. If a restaurant is proud of their ingredients, they often keep things simpler, steering clear of heavy seasoning.

All spices for the fish
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Watch for Salty Seasoning

If you're eating at a made-to-order restaurant, communication is key. Tell your server that you are on a low-sodium diet and request that no salt be added to your food, Matheson recommends. Wertheim agrees: "Tell them that you'd appreciate fresh herbs or dried spices as seasonings to your food in place of salt."

Grilled vegetables
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Preparation is Key

Even if you order a plate of veggies for dinner, be careful that you're ordering veggies prepared in the simplest manner. "Vegetables should be raw, grilled, or steamed," Matheson recommends.


Related: 30 Vegetable Recipes for People Who Hate Vegetables

Woman working at a restaurant
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Be Clear and Polite

As you're ordering, start a friendly dialogue with your server on the options — what would they recommend for a low-sodium diet? As Matheson says, "When we eat out at restaurants, we're unsure of all the ingredients in our foods and ingesting many unknowns." So, let the experts do the work. Ask about available substitutions, too. "When it comes to fine dining, most likely they will be able to accommodate your requests," she says.

avocado almonds spinach salad
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Low-Salt Lunch Tricks

If you're at a fast-casual spot for lunch, with customizable bowls and salads, it's easy to optimize flavor without getting too much salt. "Utilize different textures to make your brain feel more satisfied," Wertheim says. "Crunch goes a long way." Try nuts and seeds in salads, or raw, whole veggies. Avoid cheese and processed meats, or at least keep them to a minimum.

Let Your Palate Travel the World
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Let Your Palate Travel the World

At your favorite lunch spot, don't be afraid to go for international flavors. "Try cumin, paprika, oregano, and lime for a Latin twist, or basil, parsley, garlic, and lemon for something more Mediterranean," Wertheim recommends. "These global flavor profiles will help keep your meals interesting and satisfying while on a low-sodium diet."

Tacos
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Sideline the Sauces

Ask for sauces on the side, or just avoid them when possible. "Add a squeeze of lemon or lime juice, or a splash of vinegar for acidity," Wertheim recommends. "The sour flavor adds a high note to foods, brightening flavor." Instead of salad dressing, you can always ask for oil and vinegar on the side.

Sidestep the Side Dishes
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Sidestep the Side Dishes

Your entree isn't always the sodium culprit. Keep an eye on those side dishes, too. Rather than fries, bread, or chips, ask for a piece of fruit or a salad.

Portion Control Is Key
Odairson Antonello/istockphoto

Portion Control is Key

While the experts have many recommendations for simple, lower-sodium substitutions, sometimes it's a special occasion and you just need a burger. Consider splitting it with your future self — ask the server to bring you half and box up the rest for later. Then you get all your favorite flavors, but fewer grams of sodium in one sitting.