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Keeping Sodium Low When You're Eating on the Go

Sodium is essential in small amounts, but the human body does not require as much salt as many people think. The average American consumes around 3,400 milligrams (mg) of sodium daily. Although one teaspoon of salt contains about 2,300 mg of sodium, the majority of sodium eaten by Americans comes from processed foods, such as deli meats and canned, frozen, or fast foods.

The specific impact dietary sodium has on health is a controversial issue that continues to be debated by scientists and doctors. Some recommend that we all limit our sodium intake to protect our health, while others believe that only certain people with certain conditions should limit their intake of sodium. If your doctor or dietitian has recommended that you watch your sodium intake, you might find that your busy lifestyle makes it difficult. But there are ways to do it successfully, even while you're on the go.

Understanding Labels

You may be familiar with the nutrition facts labels that appear on just about every item in your grocery store. But did you know that the laws behind food labeling also apply to restaurant signs, ads, and menus? Here's how it works:

The Fast-Food Scene

Ironically, fast-food restaurants provide some of the best nutrition information available to consumers. In fact, McDonald's was one of the pioneers in providing nutrition analyses of its menu items to consumers. By putting nutrition information about their products on the Internet, many fast food franchises have taken the guesswork out of ordering foods that are not only lower in sodium, but also in fat and cholesterol.

Fast-food chains provide standardization too. While traveling around the country, you can be assured that a Quarter Pounder in Chicago will have the same sodium content as the same burger in Miami.

Here are some practical tips for slashing salt at the fast-food restaurants:

Upscale Dining

Some family restaurants, steakhouses, and more upscale dining establishments may not provide easily accessible nutrition information. Analyzing nutrition information can be expensive, and upscale restaurants frequently change their menus, making the process of providing nutrition information even more costly.

However, there are some simple steps you can take to control your sodium intake in these restaurants. For example, choose smaller servings of all foods, which will help slash the overall sodium intake. Try ordering lunch-size portions for dinner or box up half the dinner right away so you can take it home.

If your dinner plans include a 5-star restaurant, you may be able to call ahead to find out how the chef can accommodate you.

Here are some tips for when you're eating at an upscale restaurant:

The Bottom Line: Taking Control

With so many food options when shopping, traveling, and dining, it is easy to feel overwhelmed. But, you can take some simple steps to control your sodium intake, such as:


American Heart Association

National Restaurant Association


Dietitians of Canada

Heart and Stroke Foundation of Canada


Heart-check mark nutritional guidelines. American Heart Association website. website. Available at: http://www.heart.org/HEARTORG/HealthyLiving/HealthyEating/HeartSmartShopping/Heart-Check-Mark-Nutritional-Guidelines_UCM_300914_Article.jsp#.WekBpFtSxxB. Updated June 7, 2017. Accessed October 23, 2017.

Reading food nutrition labels. American Heart Association website. website. Available at: http://www.heart.org/HEARTORG/HealthyLiving/HealthyEating/HeartSmartShopping/Reading-Food-Nutrition-Labels_UCM_300132_Article.jsp#.WekCHFtSxxB. Updated May 15, 2015. Accessed October 23, 2017.

Sodium: the facts. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website. Available at: https://www.cdc.gov/salt/pdfs/Sodium_Fact_Sheet.pdf. Accessed October 23, 2017.

Sodium fact sheet. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website. Available at: https://www.cdc.gov/dhdsp/data_statistics/fact_sheets/fs_sodium.htm. Updated February 29, 2016. Accessed October 23, 2017.

Sodium in your diet: Use the nutrition facts label and reduce your intake. US Food & Drug Administration website. Available at: https://www.fda.gov/Food/ResourcesForYou/Consumers/ucm315393.htm. Updated June 6, 2013. Accessed October 23, 2017.

Last reviewed October 2017 by EBSCO Medical Review Board Michael Woods, MD, FAAP  Last Updated: 1/22/2014