NYC should be commended for standing at the forefront of attempting to regulate some of the unhealthy meals that are being served up “undercover”. People across America are being served incredible amounts of salt and fat in restaurant food, without even knowing it. Most of the sodium is entering people’s diets from pre-prepared foods, like canned foods, breads and cereals, deli meats, soups and restaurant foods. In fact, in 2002 and in 2006 the The American Medical Association , urged manufacturers to reduce the sodium in their foods, by 50% within 20 years.
There are restaurants that are serving up lovely epicurean treats, that you would have zero idea had the amount of fat and sodium in them that they do. Even if you choose from the menu, what looks to be innocuous, like a healthy serving of veggies on the side, whole grain this and organic that… it is not unheard of for these items to be prepared in loads of duck fat, butter and salt. This is certainly unfair to the person who is attempting to eat healthy.
The best bet for me is to do a little planning ahead. If I know I am headed to an unknown restaurant, that looks challenging, I try to check out the menu before I get there. Sometimes, I will even call up ahead of time, let them know I have dietary restrictions and that I am wondering about a few items on their menu. They have always been happy to help. Restaurant work is hard work, they are dealing with impatient, hungry clientele, pulling at them for this and that. If I do call to ask about an item on the menu, I try to do it in the lull between rush meal times. This helps them to provide me with the best outcome. Since I am vegan and have a peanut allergy, it helps me to be able to do that, to cut down on surprises.
A little Leeway
Upon arriving at the restaurant, the experience is a much more pleasant one. The rushed waiter doesn’t have to go back and disturb the rushed chef, while our hungry table waits. If I cannot do this, there are certain meals that I know work fairly well for me. Now that I know about the sodium issue, I can make way for the “planned sodium extravaganza” during the day by eating less sodium in my first two meals. This gives me a little extra leeway later, when I’m eating out. When I am eating raw vegan the first two meals of the day, sodium is not an issue, because those meals typically consist of only the sodium naturally in fruits and veggies, but when I have zero idea of the amount of sodium my meal is packing, it is still a good idea to eat wisely! Believe it or not, it is very easy to go out to eat and consume well over the daily recommended allowance of sodium (Note: not the suggested allowance per meal, but for the entire day!), in one sitting. Groups like the Center for Science in the Public Interest (a watchdog group) have reported that over 80% of meals at popular restaurants, packed amounts of sodium that tipped the scale on what one can consume in an entire day! Again, that means consuming your daily dose of sodium all in one meal!
Things you can do
There are a few things you can do reduce the sodium “sticker shock”, when eating out. Calling up ahead to ask about ingredients is one, as mentioned above. If you are going to a “fast food” restaurant, you have less wiggle room. In NYC, the good news is, if it is a chain (more than 12 locations nationwide), they are required to provide warning labels on items that exceed the daily allotment of sodium (not per meal mind you). They also are required to provide nutritional information. The difficulty is that these restaurants have food that comes to them pre-prepared in pouches or otherwise. The sauces often are already incorporated. The staff typically is only assembling the meal and warming it up. That being said, it is worth it to see if you can order any of the meal items with sauces on the side, or exclude certain items from it that you know to be high in sodium.
A good deal of local restaurants and some chains (like California Pizza Kitchen and The Cheese Factory) as well, are willing to let you substitute items. I will choose a salad for instance that looks awesome and remove the meat and cheese items. I may ask to substitute it with items I see in other places on their menu, like grilled veggies, cooked lentils or a bowl or rice. Sometimes it may cost a little extra, but normally it doesn’t. Some of these restaurants also mark their menus with little symbols that denote, low sodium meals, “heart smart” meals, or vegetarian or vegan meals.
I have always enjoyed Asian food, because of their often fresh ingredients, but Asian restaurants are double-edged sword. The good thing is, as mentioned, the fresh items on the menu; the down side is those items are often drenched in high sodium sauces and broths. I have started asking for sauces on the side in these style of restaurants. Of course one can also order steamed meals at many Asian restaurants and that cuts down on a lot of sodium issues, but sometimes that is not practical or what I feel like eating! Since these restaurants are typically cooking meals fresh, it is often possible to make such special requests. You can order veggies, rice, if you eat meat (then lean meats), fresh without the sauce. Some people recommend dipping your fork tines into the sauce and lightly spread it on your meal, instead of pouring it on. Being vegan I also head for vegan sushi's. I know a lot of my friends who are "almost" vegan are part-time pescatarians, so sushi is a frequent choice for them as well. I am learning that sushi can be a sodium trap as well! Ugh...! How is that even possible?
The culprits here are the rice, soy sauce, pickled products, fancy sushi and sauces. Sushi rice for rolls contain rice vinegar and salt. Some establishments do not do this and some better establishments are sparing with these ingredients, but many do have seasoning in their rice, so check this. Many Americans like to pile on the soy sauce and wasabi. This is not typical in Japan and seen as an insult to the chef. So trying the more authentic fashion of enjoying sushi, will cut your sodium levels. Pickled products are most often an issue and one to keep to a minimum, but it is the fancy sushi's that pack the punch. They are often marinaded and doused with sauce; so keep it simple!
Italian Restaurants can pack a punch in the sodium arena, since they often use sodium-laden cheeses and canned tomatoes, that already come heavily seasoned with salt. Just check out the sodium in some common Italian Chain Restaurants like Johnny Carinos, The Old Spaghetti Factory, Olive Garden or Romano’s Macaroni Grill. Olive Garden's facts are pretty helpful, because they list the nutritional information of some items that when combined together make a meal. It offers some insight into how you can play around with the quantities of separate items to construct a reasonable meal. It also lets you see the incredible amounts of sodium in the "added ingredients". For instance, their chart shows that their pastas only have about 10 mgs. of sodium, but as expected, the sodium level rises, when sauces and meats are added in:
If one starts with a simple Spaghetti (10 mg of sodium), pairs it with a traditional marinara (720 mg.) and then adds in grilled chicken (230 mg.), they are tallying 960 mgs of sodium. Wait, so let's be honest, people don't really go to Olive Garden and not have at least one bread stick (460 mg.- which may not be healthy, but IS vegan) and probably a salad (770 mg) as well. They will often order the American standard Coca-cola (45mg. of sodium), or an apple juice (65 mg of sodium) if trying to be healthier. For this example let's say that the customer
forgoes ordering a dessert. This is an example of the most basic meal order. Often times customers are far more lavish with their orders, getting appetizers and dessert and much less sodium reserved meals. This being said, the meal that I just described previously above, has a grand total of 2,235 mg. Even for me as a vegan, If I order marinara on the side (720 mg) with a pasta (10 mg) and a salad without dressing (250 mg), I am at a meal totaling 980 mgs. of sodium. You can see how helpful it can be to order sauce on the side and to exercise some control over the amounts of sauce you add to your meal. In addition to the tips already mentioned, you can of course opt to do portion control. Not so fun, but if you are "dying" to dine at a particular eatery, you don't actually have to! I have ordered pizza or pasta sans-cheese and tomato sauce. I have also gotten pasta with the sauce on the side. This way I have some control over the amount that goes on my pasta. Sometimes the chef will simply paint the bottom of the pizza, with just enough tomato sauce to stain it red-more for a little variety in flavor. In place of cheese, I opt for roasted veggies, mushrooms or greens (normally on their menu somewhere). If you have any concern about what sodium count you are racking up, pass on the olives! One black olive has at or over 32 mg. of sodium and who eats just one? A serving size is typically 10 that is 320 mg of sodium. In fact Sky Island Organics Brand, for instance, has a serving size of 3 olives, but for 440 mg. of sodium! Yikes. 1,466 mgs. of sodium for a serving of 10 olives? Craziness.
Tex-Mex ain't no bull
I grew up in California, so one of my go-to meals is always Tex-Mex food. I try to stick to fresh veggies, roasted veggies, fresh corn and a side plain rice (not the seasoned one) and beans. The beans are a little tricky, because sometimes these have a lot of sodium in them, and sometimes you can tell there is virtually none. I alter my proportions of these items based on whether they are salted or not. I add in a little guacamole, to get a little fat in my diet and I go lean on the salsa. Salsa really varies in sodium content, and really depends on who makes it. It can be relatively innocuous or it can have upwards of 115 mg. of sodium for a tbsp.
I've switched to tacos from the usual, massive, two meal, mission-style burritos, I grew up with, but flour tortillas commonly have more sodium than the average corn tortilla. Those flour tortillas used for the burritos at Chipotle have 600 mg of sodium. That is over a meals worth of sodium. The ex-large store bought flour tortillas have around 445 mg of sodium and the smaller to medium ones have about 191- 293 mgs., which is still pretty high. Corn tortillas have typically only 0-11 mgs of sodium, so they seem sodium-wise to be a better option; of course with corn tortillas, there is more of an issue with GMO's. I am not the best authority on GMO's and myself purchase a sprouted corn tortilla that used to say GMO free. I believe it is getting increasingly more difficult to assure the corn is GMO-free. I have yet to research this issue enough.
The Big Picture
Anyway, I digress! My goal is to live in balance. I come from a family/culture where food is very important and for me it is vital to remain a part of that. I eat really fresh (raw fruits and veggies) most of the day, and healthy dinners consisting of fresh ingredients, so I don't worry so much when I have an occasional "bad" thing. I think happiness (state of mind) is an important part of the equation as well.