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Keep sodium low while dining out

By Ellen Loreck, Special to The Baltimore Sun

4:30 PM EDT, March 27, 2012

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Each week a nutritionist from the University of Maryland Medical Center provides a guest post to The Baltimore Sun's health blog Picture of Health (baltimoresun.com/pictureofhealth). This week, Ellen Loreck weighs in on sodium.

According to the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, people should consume between 1,500 and 2,300 mgs of sodium per day. That's equal to about 2/3 to 1 teaspoon of salt, which isn't much. Most of the sodium comes from processed foods, so eating out becomes a challenge. But finding low-sodium options at restaurants is possible with some planning.

General tips

Check out a restaurant's website before you go. A good goal is about 600 mgs of sodium for your entire meal.

Call ahead to the restaurant. Let them know you can't have salt in your food and ask if they can accommodate.

Tell your server that you don't want any extra salt or monosodium glutamate added to your food. Ask to speak to the chef to see what the lowest-sodium options are.

It may be helpful to bring your own low-sodium herbs or spices.

Try to cut the sodium in your other meals that day, saving the sodium for your restaurant meal.

Watch your portion sizes: Extra food equals extra sodium.

Entrees in natural state

Fish, steak or chicken is a great low-sodium choice for an entree. Be sure to ask if your meat selection has been marinated, as many marinades are salty. Also, ask if the butter used is salted. Choose a grilled, baked, broiled or poached selection. Beware of entrees prepared with sauces, breading and batters. If you'd like a small amount of sauce, ask for it on the side so you can control the amount you eat.

Up the fresh vegetables

Plain vegetables, steamed or grilled, are an excellent choice for dining out. It's easy for the chef to forgo the salt, and you can fill your plate with colorful and healthy veggies. Served over steamed brown rice, you've got a great centerpiece for a meal. Be sure to ask if the vegetables are canned (if they are, the sodium content will be high).

Skip the sauces

Entrees with sauces tend to be higher in sodium. Marinara and cheese sauces are especially high. One cup of either sauce has about 1,200 mgs of sodium, and that's before any other ingredients are added. In addition, Asian sauces made with soy sauce, teriyaki, wasabi or miso are also very high.

Bypass the bread

That steaming, delicious-smelling bread basket can be loaded with sodium. Just one dinner roll has about 200 mgs; eat three and you're already at your 600-mg limit. If you want bread with your meal, bring your favorite low-sodium choice.

Condiments

Prepared salad dressings are typically high in sodium. A tablespoon of Italian has about 150 mgs of sodium. Opt for oil and vinegar — you'll get flavor, minus the sodium. Balsamic vinegar adds a nice tang to your salad. Also, be careful of condiments: one tablespoon of ketchup has about 170 mgs of sodium and a tablespoon of steak sauce has about 300 mgs. A shot of hot sauce is a good choice to fire up your taste buds. Also, beware of salsas; unless freshly prepared, they tend to be high in sodium.

Pizza? Burgers?

Pizza does have a lot of sodium, but if you really have a craving, one slice of cheese pizza is OK. In general, about 1/8 of a cheese pizza has 500 to 600 mgs of sodium. Burgers tend to be high in sodium as well, but a small burger from a restaurant or fast-food establishment has about 400 to 500 mgs of sodium. For both of these options, fill up on lots of salad with oil and vinegar, have some fresh fruit for dessert, and you're good to go!

Can I eat ethnic?

The answer is yes, but the options are limited. Below is a list of some good ethnic food choices:

•Mexican: Select or bring your own corn tortillas, as they are very low in sodium. On the other hand, a small flour tortilla has about 300 mgs of sodium. Choose fajitas or tacos if the chef can prepare them without salt or high-sodium spices.

•Indian: Anything made in the tandoori oven is a good choice. Be sure to check about the seasoning used because it may contain sodium.

•Japanese: Sashimi is a good option: It's just the fish, minus the salt. A vegetable tempura may be a good choice. However, some batters do contain sodium. Be sure to ask.

•Italian: A fresh mozzarella caprese is great way to start your meal. Ask about the sodium content of the tomato products used in recipes. If too high in sodium, you may want to choose a wine-based sauce.