The Sodium Pitfall: 9 Ways to Avoid the Secret Health Risk Hiding in Your Office Meals

Posted by on Wednesday, July 9th, 2014 with 6 Comments

You’ve probably noticed by now that calorie counts on restaurant menus are becoming the norm — and the more information we have about the food we eat, the better. But, new research from the Center for Science in the Public Interest (or CPSI) is shedding light on another health risk that’s lurking in many of the office meals you order from your favorite restaurant: sodium.

And no, sodium is not just something your grandparents should be worrying about. Having too much sodium in your diet, at any age, can increase your risk of kidney stones, headaches, and stomach cancer… not to mention directly leading to bloating and weight gain, thanks to higher water retention (talk about an unpleasant way to spend an afternoon at the office).

Spicy Italian salad from Subway

Cured meats & cheese are sure to be full of sodium.
Image source: Flickr user heroiclife

What’s worse, chances are very good that you fall in that “too much sodium” group — 9 out of 10 Americans do.

How much is too much? Well, the maximum amount recommended for a healthy, low-risk population who eat plenty of fruits and vegetables is 2,300 mg/day. For people who are over 51, African American, OR have diabetes or high blood pressure, the recommended amount is 1,500 mg/day. But if you eat out even a few times per week, you’re likely way above your recommended amount. Restaurant meals and packaged foods have been singled out as being an incredibly guilty party to the American overconsumption of sodium, with many chains serving meals that contain a day’s worth of sodium in one item.

Just to put things in perspective, an Italian Combo on Ciabatta sandwich from Panera Bread has 2,850 mg of sodium. A six-inch Spicy Italian at Subway has 1,490mg. And an Olive Garden breadstick (yes, just one) has 370 mg. Even a large lemonade from Panda Express has 480 mg!

That’s the danger of sodium: we have no way of knowing where it’s hiding. Unlike avoiding fried foods and creamy sauces to cut back on fat and calories, there’s no easy rule of thumb to avoid sodium when dining out.

The good news is that many restaurants are voluntarily scaling back their sodium. The progress might be slow, but heavy hitters like Darden Restaurants (which includes Olive Garden and Red Lobster, among many others) and Yum! Brands (i.e., Taco Bell, KFC, and Pizza Hut) have pledged to significantly reduce their sodium over the next decade. That’s good news for our collective health, and the latest news from the CSPI shows that some brands are knocking it out of the park, with sodium levels at Burger King and Subway down over 27% each over the last four years.

And in the meantime, while we wait for the sodium levels to drop to a healthier level at more restaurants, there are at least a few tips and tricks that can help you stay on track when it comes to consuming a reasonable sodium. Here are a few simple ways to start cutting back on the salty stuff during your takeout orders and office meals:

1) Do your research. Most restaurants have nutrition info posted online, and there are plenty of nutrition-related apps that can help you find the healthiest options from many chains. Take five minutes to check your stats before you order.

2) Don’t get cheesy. At Subway, the highest-sodium options tend to have one thing in common: cheese. A six-inch Italian herbs & cheese has 470mg, Parmesan Oregano has 420, while plain old honey Italian has 280.

3) But if you have to have a few slices on your sandwich, think Swiss. Again at Subway, there’s 95 mg of sodium in a serving of Swiss cheese, versus 200 mg in American.

4) At the Chinese place, opt for steamed rice instead of fried. At Panda Express, it will save you 790 mg of sodium. And try out hot mustard (115 mg/packet) instead of soy sauce (375 mg). Better yet, keep a bottle of reduced-sodium soy sauce in the office fridge for just such occasions.

5) Go for corn instead of flour tortillas when you’re ordering Mexican food. At Chili’s, for example, this will save you 540 mg of sodium when you order fajitas (which come with three tortillas of either variety).

6) Wherever you dine, get your dressing on the side, or replace it with a simple oil-and-vinegar you keep at the office. At Olive Garden, the house salad without dressing has 270 mg of sodium. Add regular dressing, and it jumps to 760 mg. That’s nearly 500 mg of sodium in a condiment!

7) Remember, just because something is classified as “light” doesn’t mean it’s lower in sodium — in fact, the opposite can often be true, as the absence of flavor from fat is covered by adding more salt. At Olive Garden, for example, the “lasagna primavera with grilled chicken” on their Lighter Italian Fare menu contains 1,700 mg of sodium. The traditional Lasagna Classico has 1,520 – almost 200 mg fewer.

8) Whenever possible, avoid cured meats. Some of the worst sandwich offenders at Subway include pastrami (1,470 mg for a six-inch) and the aforementioned, 1,490 mg Spicy Italian. By comparison, a six-inch oven-roasted chicken has 610 mg, a tuna sub has 600 mg, and a veggie delite only 280 mg. Cured meats include pepperoni, sausage, and ham — so keep this tip in mind on pizza delivery days!

9) It bears repeating: do your research. At Chili’s, a side of steamed broccoli — sounds so healthy, right? —  has 450 mg of sodium. The salt is truly hiding everywhere!

And you’ll have the five minutes to spare to check those nutrition facts — and then some — because ordering your office meals from will save you tons of time! We offer easy online ordering and prompt delivery, so that you can rest easy knowing your healthy, wholesome meals consist of the fuel you need to make it through the day — no headaches or bloating allowed!

When it comes to feeding employees and coworkers, make your company's food program really count! If your workplace dining plan needs to take it up a notch — or if you don't have one at all — is here to help. From Virtual Cafeteria Service to diverse menus to local takeout & offers customizable dining solutions for every business and budget. Contact us today to get started!

6 responses to “The Sodium Pitfall: 9 Ways to Avoid the Secret Health Risk Hiding in Your Office Meals”

  1. Kat Kristar says:

    Interesting…with so many Americans being overweight, I hadn’t thought that sodium was also a culprit (as is high fructose corn syrup) in almost everything we Americans eat! Also, as far as broccoli having sodium, normal broccoli is almost sodium-free. Chili’s must somehow steam it in salted water (or a sodium bath of some kind).

    • Sara says:

      You’re right – HFCS gets all the attention, while we still tend to think of sodium as only important for older Americans. The truth is, all of us tend to eat too much sodium, and it can have other consequences beyond blood pressure!

  2. Ben says:

    I use reduced sodium soy sauce already, and it works great in stir-frys and marinades so you can really control the salt. All of the flavor, without any of the sodium!

    • Sara says:

      Well, without as much of the sodium 😉 There’s still some in reduced-sodium soy sauce, but in any case, it’s certainly a great improvement!

  3. Rachel says:

    Yikes, I had no idea that high sodium levels could lead to stomach cancer. Yet another reason to follow these tips–I never would have thought that corn tortillas had less sodium than flour!

    • Sara says:

      Thanks Rachel – it’s true, just like in many areas of nutrition and healthy eating, small changes can make a big difference!