How to Dine Out and Stay Healthy

What these researchers found out about fast food was pretty impressive, from a (bad) health perspective: Each one of those speedy breakfasts, lunches, or dinners contained an average of more than 1,750 milligrams (mg) of sodium.

To put these findings in perspective, consider that the new U.S. government dietary guidelines recommend that a person consume no more than 1,500 mg of sodium–over the course of a whole day. Would you be shocked if I also told you that over half of those 6,500 single meals (57 percent of them) contained more sodium than the 1,500 mg daily supply?

Far too much salt

And how much sodium does the human body really require in a day? Only about 500 mg. And yet, the experts estimate that the average American swallows between 6,900 mg and 9,000 mg of sodium every day.

Since 1 teaspoon of salt contains roughly 2,000 mg of sodium, this means that the average American is downing up to 4 1/2 teaspoons of salt each and every day! If a high-sodium diet can leave you feeling bloated, what must these folks be feeling?

A hazardous substance

For people sensitive to sodium, such as those with a family history of hypertension, people with diabetes, African Americans, and the elderly, the accumulation of too much salt in the body can be particularly risky–it can, for example, increase one’s chances of getting heart disease, a leading killer. Add to this the fact that about half the people with high blood pressure aren’t even aware that they have hypertension–and, Houston, we’ve got a problem here.

Consuming less sodium in restaurants

Now that you know that restaurant food in particular is laden with piles of sodium, maybe it’s time for us all to review the tips given by the American Heart Association (AHA) to reduce sodium intake when dining out:

  • Get to know which foods are low in sodium, and look for them on the menu.
  • Ask for your dish to be prepared without salt.
  • When you order, be specific about how you want your food prepared.
  • Don’t add salt to your food. Instead of the salt shaker, reach for the pepper shaker.
  • Ask for fresh lemon and squeeze its juice onto your dish instead of using salt. (Lemon juice goes well with fish and vegetables, for example.)

And consume less fat as well

As always, we’ve got to also continue to keep track of the calories and fat when dining out. What should your daily target be for calories and fat? The AHA now recommends that most adults, besides limiting their sodium intake to 1,500 mg per day, consume no more than about 2,000 calories and 20 grams of saturated fat (the artery-clogging kind) each day.

Healthy options are possible–even at McDonald’s (sort of)

So how are you supposed to navigate the unhealthy meals being dished out by so many of today’s eating establishments? If you find yourself at a McDonald’s, for example, what can you do to stay healthy? The medical and health news publisher WebMD recommends steering clear of the fatty offerings and going with the Egg McMuffin, which totals

  • 300 calories
  • 12 grams of fat (5 grams of it saturated fat)
  • 2 grams of fiber
  • protein that should help you feel satisfied for hours

But… please know that the McMuffin falters in the sodium department, containing as it does a whopping 820 mg of the stuff, or a little more than half the daily limit of 1,500 mg.

… And even at Burger King (sort of)

In Burger King, you could choose the Egg and Cheese Croissan’wich, which provides

• 320 calories

• 16 grams fat (7 grams of it saturated)

• 11 g of protein to keep your hunger at bay

Like the McMuffin’s, however, the Croissan’wich’s sodium content is still too high: 690 mg.

If you’re ordering lunch at Burger King, the chicken baguette sandwich will supply you with 350 calories and 5 grams of fat.

A great source of dietary info from restaurants

HealthyDiningfinder is a website that has teamed up with restaurants and with registered dietitians to help diners in the U.S. find–and restaurants to serve–food that passes or surpasses a list of healthy-eating criteria. The website shows diners a selection of restaurants in their area that offer tasty, dietitian-approved, menu choices, while it inspires the restaurants themselves to offer healthier choices.

The site also provides tips on how to decrease the content and consumption of calories, fat, and sodium. In order to meet HealthyDiningfinder‘s “Sodium Savvy” criteria, for example, an entrée can have no more than 750 mg of sodium, whereas appetizers, side dishes, and desserts must contain no more than 250 mg.

Playing with HealthyDiningfinder

Here’s how I had fun playing with this website:

  1. Go to the search mechanism on HealthyDiningfinder.com and you’ll find the search parameters listed in a column down the left-hand side of the page.
  2. Type in your city, state, and zip code. (It’s not necessary to enter your exact street address.)
  3. Narrow your search to within 5, 10, 15, 20, or 50 miles of your house, depending on how far you’re willing to drive for a meal.
  4. Don’t bother choosing a “Price Range”–you might as well see all the restaurant options available out there.
  5. I clicked on only 1 “Cuisine” choice at a time–“American/Family”; “Asian/Chinese”; “Italian”; Fast/Quick”; “Mexican”; “Seafood”; “Other”; etc.). By choosing just a single category each time, I could keep my search results simple.
  6. Click the “Apply” button after each of your “Cuisine” choices, take note of the results, and then go back to the search page and unclick your last choice. Choose another type of cooking that you’re interested in and click “Apply” again. Repeat as long as you want to keep looking.
  7. I also didn’t bother to choose any of the 3 Specialties–“Sodium Savvy,” “Kids LiveWell,” and “Coupons”–because whenever a restaurant popped up in the search results, its specialties were automatically listed below its name and logo.

A couple of surprises

HealthyDiningfinder‘s search form worked pretty well for me, although it presented me with a couple of surprises. A Hooters restaurant here in Baltimore, for example, proudly listed 7 “Healthy Dining Options”–who knew? And when I searched “Seafood,” not a single restaurant turned up, even when I extended the search out to 50 miles. I have to assume that the “Seafood” category was not functioning, since I live in Baltimore, a city that sits right on the Chesapeake Bay and is world-renowned for its piscine delights. Oh–that reminds me of 1 further step:

8. At some point in your search, be sure to click on the last category, “Other.” When I finally got around to searching it, several seafood places did pop up–although none was a Baltimore great.