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Surviving Restaurant Food

Restaurants can be a minefield of mostly bad choices for someone trying to lose weight. Everything is loaded with salt & fat, and even if you’re counting calories, without knowing how much salt, butter, or other oil goes into the preparation of your dish (hint: it’s a lot more than you would imagine) you’re at a disadvantage.

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My wife and I sat at the “chef’s table” at a popular local restaurant once. It was a lot of fun, like having dinner and a show. We got to see many dishes being prepared, and were a bit startled to see an entire stick of butter go into a single serving side-dish that otherwise contained mostly vegetables. Yikes.

I enjoy eating in restaurants. I tend to order dishes with ingredients that are difficult to come by for the home chef, dishes that are difficult to prepare, or that have a long list of ingredients that it wouldn’t make sense to make at home. Eating out often also helped me to gain a tremendous amount of weight. I especially enjoy “fine dining” restaurants where the preparation of food is akin to an art form. These forays into haute cuisine are an annual tradition, though (at most) – not part of my regular diet.

Most of the time you’re not going to be eating at the best restaurants, but eating fast food on the go or grabbing a bite on the way to your next appointment. Getting delivery, fast food, or take out is “eating out” too. Just because you eat the fried chicken at home doesn’t make it any healthier. These days I tend to avoid any food served in a bucket.

I’ve noticed on days that I eat out, not only do I tend to go over my calorie budget, but I also tend to gain weight the next day. Even if I stay within my budget, if I eat out for dinner I tend to go up the next day, sometimes more than a pound or two. Since I know that you need to eat about 3,500 more calories than you burn to gain a single pound, even if I underestimated what I ate I’d still not be off by enough to warrant gaining a single pound, let alone more than one in a single day. So what happened?

Salt. Excess salt in your system makes you retain fluid because it messes with the water/salt balance that’s regulated by your kidneys. Since most restaurant food is salty, I’m more concerned with the salt than I am the fat, as it has more lasting effects (at least in the short term for the next day’s weigh-in).

When I talk about salt I mean standard table salt, sodium chloride, NaCl. The kind the girl with the yellow raincoat is standing under. Whether it’s finely ground, coarse, kosher, or comes from the sea, it’s all just good ol’ salt.

Salt of the Earth

One teaspoon of table salt contains 2,325 milligrams (mg) of sodium. The U.S. Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends no more than 2,300 mg per day for most adults, and no more than 1,500 mg for those over 51 or who have high blood pressure or kidney problems. How much do typical American’s consume instead? The CDC report on sodium claims that the U.S. average is 3,300 mg per day, and many restaurant dishes contain much more than that in a single meal.

You need some salt for your body to function correctly, but chances are you’re getting way more salt than you need. Most foods naturally contain small amounts of salt – even vegetables. Prepared foods are usually loaded with salt, though, as it’s a preservative, makes the food taste better (personally, I love salty things), and is a cheap ingredient to add to prepared foods.

The only way you can truly know how much salt is in your food is to cook it yourself. Well, that would be true if so many foods you buy at the store aren’t already heavily salted. Most supermarket chicken and pork are essentially brined with salt so that they stay juicier, longer. You know how if you eat a lot of salt you retain fluid? So does the meat you buy. Brining is a great way to protect meat during a long roasting or grilling process, but it does add extra salt to your diet, making your meat retain moisture too.

A Salient Point

Restaurants salt their food because salt is a natural flavor enhancer. It not only makes food taste salty – it makes other flavors taste better.

This Salt, like table salt, should also be avoided.

This Salt, like table salt, should also be avoided.

You may see a notice on a Chinese food menu that says “No MSG.” That’s an abbreviation for monosodium glutamate, another type of salt (table salt is sodium chloride, NaCl). They’re bragging about not adding MSG to their food because back in the day Chinese food in the United States was often prepared with insane amounts of MSG which causes all sorts of health issues associated with a high salt intake, like high blood pressure and heart disease.

The benefit of using MSG is that it’s a flavor enhancer like table salt, but it doesn’t taste salty. So you can eat a large amount of MSG without even realizing you’re consuming way more salt than your body can process.

When you eat more salt than your kidneys can deal with, it stays in your bloodstream causing your blood volume to increase, which means that your heart has to work harder to push more blood through your system. Some people are more sensitive to the effects of salt than others. I know when I’ve had too much salt because I can feel added pressure in my ears due to the temporary increase in blood pressure.

Chains of Fools

Chain restaurants, where the foods are assembled rather than cooked, are some of the biggest culprits in the crime of over-salting food.

For instance, the Denny’s chain’s “Moon Over My Hammy” breakfast sandwich with a side of hash browns comes out to 3,230 mg of sodium before you add any condiments like ketchup. So that’s about twice what you should be eating, or a thousand mg over your maximum recommended intake for the entire day, just at breakfast.

Eat a larger meal at Denny’s, say, a bowl of clam chowder, their Spicy Buffalo Chicken Melt sandwich, and a side of seasoned fries, and you’re eating over four and a half days worth of sodium in a single meal (which contains about 1,700 calories too).

The Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) performed a study in 2009 in which they looked at some national chains and attempted to put together reasonable meals at those restaurants. The amount of sodium in each is astounding:

  • Red Lobster Admirals’ Feast with Caesar Salad, Creamy Lobster Topped Mashed Potato, Cheddar Bay Biscuit, and a Lemonade: 7,106 mg
  • Chili’s Buffalo Chicken Fajitas (with tortillas and condiments) and a Dr Pepper: 6,916 mg
  • Chili’s Honey-Chipotle Ribs with Mashed Potatoes with Gravy, Seasonal Vegetables, and a Dr Pepper: 6,440 mg
  • Olive Garden Tour of Italy (lasagna) with a Breadstick, Garden Fresh Salad with House Dressing, and a Coca-Cola: 6,176 mg
  • Olive Garden Chicken Parmigiana with a Breadstick, Garden Fresh Salad with House Dressing, and Raspberry Le[m]onade: 5,735 mg

Saline Solution

Cooking your own food is the only way you’ll know for sure what’s in what you’re eating. Sometimes you just have to eat out, whether it be due to convenience, a work or social function, party, or vacation. In those cases, there are some things you can do to at least alleviate the problem of too much salt and fat in standard restaurant portions:

  • Eat Local – If you can’t prepare your own food, try to at least eat somewhere that prepares its own foods. Most chain restaurants do little but reheat and combine ingredients that are processed and packaged elsewhere, and have no control over what goes into your dish. Local restaurants may be able to prepare your food with less salt if you ask when you order.
  • On the Side – Ask for potentially salty ingredients on the side. Instead of pouring salad dressing on your salad, just dip the tines of your fork into the dressing before eating a bite. Sauces are another culprit and are usually the saltiest ingredient in a dish, especially when eating Asian cuisines. If you can get the sauce on the side at least you can limit your intake.
  • Simply Prepared – Skip the gloopy dishes where everything is mixed together with a ton of sugary, salty sauce that’s thickened with starch. Look for keywords like “roasted,” “grilled,” “steamed,” or “baked.” Avoid things that are “glazed,” “crusted,” or “fried.”
  • Break the Shaker Habit – Don’t add extra salt to your food with the salt shaker on the table. Or if you do, at least taste the portion you’re about to eat before you add salt to it. When you do add salt (say to vegetables that have been as yet unseasoned) limit the amount you shake on, or better yet, shake the salt into your palm and then sprinkle it onto your food when you can see how much you’re using (salt shakers in restaurants usually use fine-grained salt which pours very easily).

When shopping at the supermarket, beware health claims on labels. “Sodium-free” means that a serving contains less than 5mg of sodium per serving, which even though it’s a minor amount toward your 2,300 mg of sodium per day, still adds up. “Reduced sodium” means that it contains 25% less sodium than the standard item. So if something’s loaded with 2,000 mg of sodium, a 25% reduction to only 1,500 mg may not be doing you much good. “Lite,” “light,” or “low” sodium means that it contains 50% less than the standard, whatever that standard is.

The USDA recommends avoiding foods containing more than 200 mg per serving. Of course, that means being conscious of how many servings you eat. The nutritional facts label on a 20 oz bottle of Coca-Cola, which I’d consider single-serving, actually claims it contains 2.5 servings. Ditto most bags of microwave popcorn.

Your taste for salty things is acquired through years of eating too much salt, so if you cut back gradually you can help retrain your body to get by with much less salt. It’ll take time to reduce your sodium intake without craving salty snacks all the time.

I’ve Eaten Too Much Salt. What Now?

Drink plenty of water to try to wash out as much as possible. As your kidneys process the salt and water the extra water you take in will help to dilute the salt.

Exercising and sweating will also help remove salt from your system (have you ever tasted how salty sweat is?).

Otherwise, wait it out and in a few days of drinking copious amounts of water your body will re-align your salt/water balance (unless you have kidney disease or another medical condition that affects your kidney’s ability to regulate sugar and water balance).

There Was Talk of Salt and Fat

Yes, restaurants tend to add a lot of fat to your foods too, but except for adding a huge amount of extra calories (since fats are the most caloric food you can eat) they have little lasting ill-effects. By eating out less, reducing your sodium intake, and being smart about what you order when you do eat out, you’ll be able to live a normal life while losing weight.

It’s possible, but it’s not easy. Restaurants really work against you because salt & fat make things taste really good. I’ve found that substituting protein for fat helps keep me just as satisfied, although most proteins contain some fat too. Once you’ve weaned-off salt you’ll find a little goes a long way.

Don’t be afraid to ask for less salt & fat when eating out. You’re going to have to eat it, and you’re paying for it, so don’t be shy about protecting your own health. Of course, your mileage may vary, so take my advice with a grain of salt[1].


  1. Cue the sad trombone.  ↩

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2 Responses to “Surviving Restaurant Food”

  1. July 24th, 2012 at 1:33 am

    Joe Dempsey, Sr. says:

    “These days I tend to avoid any food served in a bucket.”
    Now, THAT is funny! :-D

  2. July 24th, 2012 at 1:39 am

    Joe Dempsey, Sr. says:

    ” I know when I’ve had too much salt because I can feel added pressure in my ears due to the temporary increase in blood pressure.”

    Sorry, son, you inherited that nasty trait from me.
    I got it from your Grandmother, who got it from your
    Great-Grandmother, etc., ad nauseum. It’s an Irish curse.

Disclaimer: I am not a doctor. I'm just some guy who lost a lot of weight and studied up on nutrition, diet, and exercise in order to improve my personal fitness. The contents of this site in no way contains medical advice. You should visit your doctor before making any dramatic changes to your diet or activity. While I make every attempt to be as accurate as possible regarding current knowledge and scientific studies (please feel free to let me know when I'm wrong about something), and may from time to time post updates to correct inaccuracies in previous entries, the information on this site is provided "as-is" for entertainment purposes only. Don't do something stupid and then sue me. I'm just trying to help. Thanks.