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As we move out of the most restrictive phase of COVID-19 restrictions, many people are once again enjoying activities they used to do, such as dining out at restaurants.
For all the joys that dining out brings — gathering with family and friends, not having to cook or wash dishes — there are some aspects about this culinary experience that we should all keep top of mind.
For starters, restaurant food is typically very high in sodium. Too much salt causes the body to retain more water and can result in unwanted weight gain. There are other issues that can arise from consuming too much salt, according to Sierra Peralta, MS, a wellness education specialist with Sharp Rees-Stealy Medical Centers.
“When there is too much sodium in the body, the body retains more water, specifically in the kidneys and blood vessels,” she says. “The increased blood volume and constriction of the arteries puts extra stress on the cardiovascular system. That’s why high-sodium diets can increase the risk for developing high blood pressure, heart disease, stroke and kidney problems.”
How much salt is recommended in the average diet
The recommended daily allowance (RDA) for sodium is 2,300 milligrams per day for the average adult. However, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 90% of Americans consume more than that. In fact, the 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans suggest the average sodium intake in the U.S. is closer to 3,400 milligrams per day, nearly twice the recommended amount. Most of that sodium comes from salt added during commercial food processing and in restaurant meals.
Why restaurant meals are so high in sodium
“Salt is used for curing meat, baking, pickling and preserving, and is also a common flavor enhancer,” Peralta says. “That’s why restaurant meals are high in sodium. It prolongs the food’s shelf life and it simply makes the food tastier.”
Not that sodium is all bad. People who sweat a lot or live in hot and humid environments experience higher sodium losses. In these cases, it is important to replenish with water and sodium.
Because sodium is essential for survival, the body has sophisticated mechanisms for keeping sodium levels under tight control. These mechanisms involve the kidneys, various hormones and proteins working together to control how much sodium and water the body retains. The same systems also signal our thirst so that we can drink more water. Thus, the more sodium we retain, the more water we retain.
How to limit sodium intake at home and when eating out
Peralta advises to check the sodium content on food labels and use the listed % Daily Value (% DV) as a tool. According to the Food and Drug Administration, 5% DV or less of sodium per serving is considered low, and anything more than 20% DV is considered high.
“One helpful tip is to flavor foods with herbs and spices instead of salt,” says Peralta. “Some brands of seasonings have a whole line of sodium-free spices.”
She adds that when choosing canned foods, search for the low-sodium or no-sodium-added options. And she recommends picking fresh and frozen meat that hasn’t been injected with a sodium solution, broth or saline.
Peralta recommends limiting the number of restaurant and fast food dining experiences to an occasional treat, and asking restaurants not to add salt to the meal.
“Enjoy smaller portions of food, especially cured meats, sandwiches, burritos, chips and other high-sodium foods,” she adds. “And drink plenty of water.”
Peralta offers this simple and sound advice for reducing salt intake: “Eat plenty of fruits and veggies. Not only are these foods very nutritious, but they are high in potassium, which balances out sodium levels in the body.”
Learn more about how to avoid hidden salt in your favorite foods.
The Sharp Health News Team are content authors who write and produce stories about Sharp HealthCare and its hospitals, clinics, medical groups and health plan.
Sierra Peralta, MS, is a wellness education specialist with Sharp Rees-Stealy Medical Centers.
Sharp partners with the American Heart Association to raise awareness about women’s heart health.