When we’re on the road, it can be difficult to eat well. We often resort to pre-packaged snacks, fast-food or dining out at restaurants that cook with questionable ingredients. Salt (also known as sodium) is typically an afterthought on most people’s minds when they are aiming to eat well. Although sodium is essential to our health and well being in certain amounts (it assists in balancing body fluids, transmitting nerve impulses, and the contraction and relaxation of muscles), too much in our diet can contribute high blood pressure – which can lead to cardiovascular disease and/or kidney disease.
Because many foods naturally contain sodium (such as milk), it isn’t always easy to tell how much sodium we consume. Dining out only makes it more difficult to tell since we don’t know how meals are prepared. In general, adults should consume no more than 1,500 to 2,400 milligrams (mg) of sodium a day. Follow these tips to keep your sodium intake to a healthy amount while on the road:
- Choose Whole Food for Snacks: Avoid snacks that are pre-packaged, as many are high in sodium. Whole fruit and unsalted nuts are a great snack during the day.
- Read Nutrition Labels: If you DO purchase pre-packaged foods, read nutrition labels to understand their sodium content. First, look at the ingredient list. MSG, baking soda, baking powder, disodium phosphate, sodium alginate, and sodium nitrate all represent sodium. Secondly, look at the sodium percentage on the Nutrition Facts label. Choose foods that represent less than 15% of your daily value of sodium.
Types of Cuisine to Avoid:
- Fast-Food and Fast-Casual-Food: Fast-food (E.g., McDonalds) and fast-casual-food (E.g., Panera) outlets are frequently convenient when we are on the road. However, these establishments have little control over the ingredients they use because they assemble meals with pre-cooked food. As a result, sodium is already part of the food, even before you order. Unless a fast-food company says they can honor low-sodium requests, they don’t. Check out the company’s website for nutritional information and look for those meals with lower sodium content.
- Asian Cuisine: Soy sauce, a staple in Chinese and Japanese cuisine, is extremely high in sodium. Further since many Asian restaurants, including Thai, Vietnamese and Korean, use lots of sauces, chicken stock, and soups, their food tends to be high in sodium. If you and your colleagues are dining out at an Asian restaurant, however, ask the waitstaff if they have any low-sodium dishes and request low-sodium soy sauce whenever possible.
- Italian and Mexican: Both Mexican and Italian food tend to be high in sodium content due to the tomato based sauces and salsas. Further, dishes from both of these cuisines tend to have lots of cheese – another high sodium ingredient.
- Ordering at Restaurants: Ask a lot of questions to understand how food is prepared. Ask about spices, rubs, marinades, dressings and finishing sauces. All of these can be high in sodium.
- Avoid Foods Naturally High in Salt: Avoiding foods such as cheese, olives, pickles, cured or smoked meats and deli meat will help to keep sodium intake down.
- Keep it Simple: The more complicated a dish, the more likely the sodium content is high. Avoid casseroles, “pot pies” and other dishes that have a lot of “mystery” ingredients. Instead, opt for entrees that are grilled, baked, or roasted. When it comes to side dishes, choose fruits and vegetables that are prepared simply, such as steamed vegetables with no sauce. Ask for lemon to season vegetables (it is great on steamed broccoli!).
- Go Local: When dining out, look for locally-owned restaurants. More likely than not, food is prepared to order which may make it easier for them to accommodate low sodium requests.
- Dressings, Sauces and Condiments: All of these are high in sodium. To eat well, ask for any and all sauces to be served on the side and lightly dip your fork into the sauce before spearing your food. Also, steak, teriyaki and barbecue sauces, as well as ketchup, are high in sugar, sodium and calories. If you use them, do so sparingly.
- Taste Before Spicing: Always taste food before seasoning with salt. If it needs salt, sprinkle it into your hand and then onto the food so you can see how much you are using. Also, try seasoning with pepper instead.
Do you watch your sodium intake in order to eat well? How do you minimize consumption when dining out or on the road?