Did you know that the human body requires only about 500 milligrams (mg) of sodium per day? Most Americans, however, consume closer to 4,000-6,000 mg daily, many exceeding the tolerable upper intake level of 5,800 mg. Although one teaspoon of salt contains almost 2,100 mg of sodium, the majority of sodium eaten by Americans comes from processed foods, such as deli meats and canned, frozen, or fast foods.

Just what 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 nutritionist 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:

  • Items labeled "sodium-free" must contain 5 mg or less sodium per serving.
  • Items labeled "low-sodium" must contain 140 mg or less sodium per serving.
  • Items labeled "heart healthy" must be low in sodium, fat, and cholesterol .

Sky Dining

Most airlines provide low-sodium meals, but not necessarily on all flights. Airlines frequently need 24 hours notice and ask that you call ahead to determine if a special meal can be provided on your particular flight. Fruit plates, if available, are always a good low-sodium option. Tossed green salads are another option, but be aware of the high-sodium ham, cheese, or salad dressings that may accompany them.

The Fast-Food Scene

Ironically, fast-food restaurants provide some of the best nutrition information available to consumers. In fact, McDonald's Corporation 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 burger in Chicago will have the same sodium content as its New York cousin.

Joanne V. Lichten, RD, PhD, author of Dining Lean: How to Eat Healthy in Your Favorite Restaurants, offers some practical tips for slashing salt at the fast-food restaurants, such as:

  • Pass on the cheese. A slice of cheese adds another 200 mg of sodium to your burger.
  • Skip the pickles and you've shaved another several hundred mg of sodium.
  • Ask for all sauces on the side.
  • Pass on chips and fries or ask that the fries be unsalted.
  • When at a sandwich shop, choose fresh meats like chicken or turkey rather than processed meats, such as cold cuts and sausage.
  • Opt for oil and vinegar instead of packaged salad dressings.

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.

But 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 overall sodium intake. Try ordering lunch-size portions for dinner or share a dinner entree with a dining companion.

If your dinner plans include a five-star restaurant, you may be able to call ahead to find out how the chef can accommodate you. Five-star Chicago restaurant Spiaggia suggests calling several days in advance of your reservation time to let the chefs know your dietary needs, so that your dinner can be customized to fit your needs.

Dr. Lichten has some tips for when you're eating at an upscale restaurant:

  • Choose salad over soup. Each 8-ounce cup of soup contains about a half teaspoon of salt.
  • Opt for yeast-risen bread, such as rolls, instead of higher sodium choices like biscuits.
  • Choose broiled meats over fried ones.
  • When dining at Asian restaurants, ask for low-sodium soy sauce, which is almost always available.
  • Try using sodium-free salsa, chutney, cranberry sauce, or horseradish for extra flavor.
  • Choose oils over butter for the bread or vegetables.

The Bottom Line: Taking Control

Although the restaurant, airline, or food manufacturer may ultimately be in charge of the choices they give you, you can take some simple steps to control your sodium intake, such as:

  • Read nutrition labels when they're available.
  • Pre-plan your food selection with the aid of websites and books.
  • Check ahead with restaurants and airlines for lower sodium menu options.
  • Pack your own lower sodium food and snacks in coolers for car trips or plane trips when necessary.
  • Keep portion sizes reasonable.
  • Avoid obvious sources of extra sodium, such as soups, pickles, cheese, and salted foods.