By: Karen CiceroA couple of weeks ago, I was sitting in the ER with my grandmother when the staff cardiologist walked into the room. After looking at my grandma’s legs, which were swollen to at least twice their normal size, he asked her if she’d been following the low-sodium diet he recommended months ago because she has high blood pressure and heart disease. She answered yes, but I knew better: While she did indeed stop adding salt at the table, well-meaning neighbors and family would bring her restaurant takeout several nights a week. And one restaurant entree likely contains more than the 1,500 milligrams of sodium that she should have for the entire day. I told the doctor on the sly. Then he left me with, well, some food for thought: “You should watch your salt too. One of two people has high blood pressure, and it runs in families.”
Yep. I knew he was right. I never add salt to cooked food. I buy low-sodium versions of packaged food that can be salt landmines, like tomato sauce and broth. But I do eat out a couple of times a week and I really don’t want to give it up. So I asked Karen Ansel, a registered dietitian and a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, how I can get out of a restaurant eating 1,000 milligrams or fewer of sodium. Her No. 1 tip: “Skip the bread basket. Bread isn’t just a huge source of extra calories. It’s loaded with sodium.”
In fact, she went on to say that a recent study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that bread and rolls contribute more sodium to American diets than any other food category. You can read the study here.
OK, I tell her that I can live with that. “What else?” I ask. “If you order a salad, request olive oil and vinegar for the dressing -- that step alone will save you several hundred milligrams of sodium.”
“Is there anything I can do about the entree?” I asked. “For instance, will a steak have less sodium than a pasta dish?” Ansel told me that it’s hard to know. If you’re going to a chain restaurant, you can typically check the sodium content of the food on the website. I did. And, unfortunately, there doesn’t seem to be a safe bet across the board. In fact, it’s horrifying. An 8-ounce prime rib at one steak restaurant forks over 1,900-plus mg of sodium, and the tilapia packs more than 2,500 mg. The pasta dishes at an Italian restaurant we go to once or twice a month are in that range too. And the kids’ menu for my daughter? Don’t get me started.
I was beginning to think it’s a lost cause. Then Ansel said, “Don’t be shy about telling your server that you’re trying to avoid sodium, and request that the chef be told. It could be as simple as the chef not adding a salt-packed rub to your piece of fish.”
OK, I have lots of experience at making special requests, so I’ll give this strategy a shot. Stay tuned!
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is Completely You’s Need to Know blogger. A health journalist and magazine editor with more than 15 years of experience, she has contributed to such publications as Prevention, SELF and Health, and she has edited the dental column for Heart & Soul magazine.
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