4 Tips for Lowering Sodium and Fat Intake When You Dine Out

By James M. Rippe

A primary goal for heart-healthy eating, particularly if you have high blood pressure or high total cholesterol and LDL cholesterol, is to maintain lower intakes of sodium (salt) and saturated fat. Eating out can undermine your ability to achieve that goal.

Three ingredients many restaurant use to make food taste good are salt (or MSG) and butter and cream. At the same time, many restaurants, ranging from fast serve to fine dining, offer many menu items that taste delicious but will help you meet your nutrition goals related to sodium and fat. You can take advantage of these opportunities by adopting strategies that work for you. Here are some suggestions:

  • Choose a restaurant that offers healthier options or that welcomes special requests. Some restaurants offer a greater variety of dishes prepared in different ways or are happy (or able) to honor your requests for modifications (asking for sauce on the side, for example, or that your dish be prepared without adding salt). This enables you to select foods that fit your nutrition goals.

    Restaurants, particularly fast serve chains, that mostly assemble ingredients that come pre-prepared from suppliers have less control over ingredients, which may make finding items lower in salt and fat more difficult.

  • Opt for dishes that are prepared in healthy ways. Many restaurants are now making an effort to offer dishes that are prepared in healthful ways. Go for dishes that are grilled, baked, roasted, or steamed rather than fried. These cooking methods are typically lower in fat. Note that pickled, cured, or smoked foods are usually high in salt, and cream sauces usually have a higher amount of fat, due to the butter or cream. Enjoy a small portion of such dishes as a treat, but don’t make them a habit.

    Restaurants that provide nutrition labels for their foods (or descriptions in menus) can also help you choose wisely. If you have a question about what’s in a particular menu item, ask.

  • Remember there’s always salad. Most restaurants today offer a variety of salads. Just choose wisely. The salad should feature greens and lots of vegetables. Choose a lean protein such as a grilled chicken breast. Avoid loading the salad with lots of cheese. Skip the croutons. Choose oil and vinegar or a low-fat dressing and have it on the side, not on the salad. If you dip your fork in the dressing and then pick up a bit of the salad, you can control your intake of even high-fat and salty dressings.

  • Modify your eating habits. Choose an appetizer that features raw vegetables or fresh fruit. Leave the salt shaker on the table. Go slow with mustard and pickles, which are high in sodium. Trim all visible fat and skin from meat and poultry entrees. Don’t slather butter on your whole grain roll; if there’s olive oil, go ahead and dip it a bit.

Putting these four simple tips to work can help you lower your intake of sodium and saturated fat when you dine out — without lowering your enjoyment.