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Restaurant foods pack a heavy sodium punch

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Restaurant foods are notorious for being high in sodium. Almost 25 percent of the sodium in Americans’ diets comes from restaurant foods. And it’s outside of your control, because it’s already added to your food by the restaurant before it gets to your table.

A new study aimed to estimate how “dense” in sodium restaurant foods are by measuring how much sodium the foods had per calorie. Researchers looked at menus of 237 U.S. restaurant chains in 2010, totaling more than 30,000 separate menu items. They found that pizza and burgers, often perceived as less healthy, were actually less sodium-dense than sandwiches, Asian foods and chicken items.

The results included:restaurant chef cooking

  • Regular menu items had an average of 2,196 milligrams of sodium per 1,000 calories (or about 2.2 mg/calorie).
  • Children’s menu items had 1,865 mg per 1,000 calories (about 1.9 mg/calorie).
  • If you are trying to meet the recommended sodium limits, you would need to be in the approximate range of between 0.75 and 1.15 mg/calorie – a far cry from where the foods in this study landed.

Sodium density was high across all of the restaurants studied, meaning that it's difficult to dine out and stay within the recommended sodium limits. An important note is that the data are from 2010, and some restaurants, like Subway, Burger King, and McDonald’s, have been working to lower sodium since then. But a more recent survey of restaurant foods (that I blogged about previously suggests that little progress has been made overall.

Compared to decades past, people are eating out more often and they’re getting more of their calories from restaurant foods. About half of Americans eat out at least three times a week, according to 2009-2010 data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey.

So, what can you do to keep the salt in check when you dine out?

Read our tips for reducing sodium in restaurants. You can also use your power as a customer to ask restaurants to give you more of a say in how much salt you eat when you’re at their restaurant.

Would you dine out more often if the foods were healthier? Would you be willing to ask restaurants to put less salt in their food so that you can have the control to add how much you want?