RODALE NEWS, EMMAUS, PA—Eating out can be a headache these days for people who are trying to stick to a healthy diet. Meals are intentionally loaded with sugar, fat, and salt to make them more palatable, and while most chains are making efforts at cutting down on fat, a new study published in the Archives of Internal Medicine finds that they're doing a pretty poor job of reducing the salt, exposing a large percentage of Americans to more than an entire day's recommended sodium allotment of 2,300 milligrams (mg) in a single entrée. Concerns about America's over-salted diet have prompted the federal government to consider regulating the use of salt in packaged and restaurant food.
"In all fairness to these places, if you conducted a similar study at sit-down restaurants, you'd get similar results," says Joan Salge Blake, MS, RD, spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association and professor of nutrition at Boston University. "This is why the industry really needs to step in to help us. Between, calories, fat, sugar and sodium, we have the consumer looking for so many things when they go eating out, it's easy to get confused about what the best food choices are." Fortunately, there are ways to navigate the drive-through and still have a relatively healthy meal.
THE DETAILS: Representatives from the New York City Department of Health asked customers of major fast-food chain restaurants to give them their meal receipts, and the researchers analyzed the sodium content of each entrée on that receipt (they didn't look at side dishes like french fries and small salads). In total, they collected 6,580 receipts from a variety of fast-food restaurants, including burger joints, pizzerias, sandwich shops, fried-chicken chains, and Mexican-food chains. On the whole, the findings with regard to salt content were pretty grim. The average entrée contained 1,751 mg of sodium, and 20 percent of the meals contained greater than 2,300 mg. The highest levels were found in Popeye's fried-chicken restaurant entrées, at an average of 2,497 mg of sodium, with Domino's Pizza coming in a close second, at 2,465 mg per entrée. The lowest levels were found at McDonald's, with an average of 1,477 mg per entrée.
WHAT IT MEANS: Even at the low end of the sodium spectrum, eating a single fast-food meal can put some people in the danger zone for daily sodium intake. Imagine what that means for people who eat fast-food fare multiple times per week—or per day. While 2,300 mg of sodium per day is the maximum safe level recommended for the average healthy adult, the authors write, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advises that several demographic groups, including African Americans, middle-aged and older adults, and people with hypertension, should limit their consumption to 1,500 mg per day. Together, those groups make up 69 percent of the adult population in this country.