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Jan 1, 2009 03:32 PM

Dining Tips On A Restrictive Diet [split from L.A. board]

Hi Creamfinger -- welcome to my world. Folks who don't have to monitor their sodium intake have no idea how much salt is automatically added to prepared foods -- in the supermarkets as well as restaurants. As a diabetic with multiple food limitations, salt is definitely one of them. With so much hypertension and heart disease in our nation, I am constantly (and sadly) aware of the lack of attention paid to this element in the food world. Instead of increasing the manufacturing of low-salt options in the marketplace, there has instead been a decrease. The reason is simple: salted food tastes good. Sales go down, and the manufacturer pulls the plug. Triscuit used to have a low sodium cracker buit no more. Trader Joe's had some salt free chips though all but one have been replaced by "low" instead of "no" salt. However, TJ's does sell various no/low sodium products.

As far as restaurants are concerned, any food that is NOT freshly prepared to order is usually on the "no" list. For instance, in Italian food, it's obvious that lasagna is out; however, any pasta dish made with a pre-cooked sauce is also a definite no-no as well as casseroles from any cuisine. Most Mexican food -- don't even ask. There are huge amounts of sodium hidden in cheese - including (would you believe), cottage cheese, soups (as you mentioned), chips, crackers, pickles, chilis, bread, salted butter, popcorn, condiments and sauces of almost every kind. Prepared tuna salad is usually loaded. Although low-sodium soy sauces are available in Asian restaurants, even those pack a whalloping amount of sodium. Gelson's sells a prepared no-salt chicken.

With few exceptions, I don't really know of any "designated" places that cater to us. It's all about checking with the restaurant beforehand to find out so that you're not disappointed at the table. Can they prepare your steak, poultry or fish without salt? Is there salt in your hamburger meat? Is there salt in your scrambled eggs? Can the soy sauce be omited from the stir-fry? Servorg's suggestion of Follow-Your-Heart is a good one because the wait staff is very knowledgeable about the menu ingredients, and they aim to please. There is a good Chinese restaurant at Ventura and Topanga called Super Wok that prides itself on preparing healthy foods. I'm pretty sure that a request for no salt or soy sauce would be honored. Deli's are good if their roast beef or turkey is unsalted.

The condiment thing is so difficult. Especially if you're a foodie. Sure, we can have the baked potato with sour cream and chives -- but is there salt in the butter? Have you ever had a potato without salt? Yuk. Morton makes a product called "Lite Salt" which is 1/2 salt and 1/2 salt substitute. You may want to carry some with you. Heinz makes a salt free ketchup. Ordering a salad is great if you don't mind eating it nekid -- unless you bring along your own dressing.

I don't mean to be a "bummer" about this -- I know you only asked for restaurant suggestions -- but until you've been doing this kind of diet for awhile, it's hard to realize how much salt is hidden in restaurant food. Start with places and foods that you already like and try to find out about the sodium content in their foods. Check the sodium content on every food product you buy -- including spices. Your limit of 2,000 mg can be achieved -- but not without search and discovery. Sadly, there is no easy answer or "place" to go. I rarely eat out anymore. It would be great if another chowhound can suggest restaurants for us. Take care of you. Good luck!

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  1. Very kind of you to take so much time to write all that. I honestly already knew most of what you said. My understanding of how to eat low-sodium is actually rather decent. It's my knowledge of where to find decent low-sodium prepared food in LA that's a bit lacking. I'm finding that when I eat out, my best intentions to omit salt are being foiled by chef's who think "no salt" actually means "less salt" despite what I say to the waiter (or waitress).

    Your suggestion of Morton's Lite Salt would have been a good one, but sadly it contains potassium chloride, which is a big no no for me.

    4 Replies
    1. re: creamfinger

      creamfinger, if there's one thing i've learned about dining out with restrictions (i'm severely intolerant to both gluten and soy), it's that a little humility goes a long way. it helps to be *exceedingly* polite to waitstaff and counter people when ordering...something along the lines of "I'm so sorry I have to do this, I really don't mean to be difficult, but I have a serious health condition that requires me to avoid salted foods as much as possible. Is there some way you can ask the chef to please prepare my food without salt? If it's an issue, I'd be happy to speak to him/her myself and explain how important it is for me and maybe find out which menu items can be prepared without salt for me."

      i'll even occasionally call the restaurant first to inquire about any problems i might have, or when i get there, have a quick word with the manager, pretty much just to ask if dining in their establishment is going to be difficult for me with my restrictions.

      you really just need to be your own advocate, try to provide the people who are serving you and preparing your food with as much information as possible, and learn how to identify the menu items that will be easiest for them to modify for you. it's difficult, but not impossible. and as long as you're being hyper-vigilant about your sodium intake when you prepare or buy the rest of your food, you can still enjoy a meal out occasionally if you order carefully.

      good luck, and good health!

      1. re: goodhealthgourmet

        Although I appreciate your well intentioned advice, I don't agree with most of it. The part about being polite goes without saying, and your comment about being my own advocate certainly makes sense, but I don't feel I should have to apologize and tell a waiter "I'm sorry" for asking that my food be prepared without salt. I'm not asking for them to arrange my food in alphabetical order on my plate or to serve my beverage in a flaming coconut. Asking for them to prepare a dish without using salt is a very reasonable request, and I shouldn't have to justify it further by providing the details of my private health issues. Aside from the fact that it's none of their business, the moment I do that, it becomes the topic of conversation at the table. Would you want that? With all that said, I do realize that we live in the real world and that simply saying "please tell the chef not to use any salt" might not convey the seriousness of my need. Knowing that I try to be extra assertive, but there are some things I refuse to do, and apologizing to a waiter for a health related request is one of them.

        1. re: creamfinger

          "I shouldn't have to justify it further by providing the details of my private health issues. "
          who said anything about details? i'm not suggesting you hand the server a copy of your latest blood test results. and as far as it becoming table discussion, everyone with whom i dine already knows about my restrictions (and if they don't, they obviously will when they hear the specifications for my order). besides, there are far more interesting topics for conversation than my food intolerances.

          clearly it's your choice, you have the right to handle it however you choose. i was just trying to be helpful - i personally would rather go above and beyond what i think i *should have to* do in order to protect my health. otherwise i might as well just stay home.

          in any case, good luck.

        2. re: goodhealthgourmet

          I agree with good healthgourmet. I tend to request modifications at restaurants and have always found that the "I'm sorry to be difficult" route makes the ordering process much less difficult and even humorous at times. My apology is heartfelt, but usually for my dining companions' benefit as they have to suffer through my ordering process. And in my own defense, my modifications aren't usually beyond "dressing on the side" or "no bacon" or inquiries about how a couple dishes are made so I can then make a decision about what I want. (I'm a newly meat-eating recovering vegetarian and still learning about the food/dishes I've never tried.) I know these requests aren't too complicated, but when I am out with people who just point and order, I seem to be a little high maintenence. I don't feel guilty about it at all, I just find that apologizing in advance for being the "difficult" one at the table gains a lot of patience and understanding from the server and my dining companions. The 10 seconds of my time it takes has proven to be well worth it.

      2. gingergirl,
        sorry to break this to you, but the turkey and roast beef served at delis are NOT at all low in sodium. in order to preserve the roasted meats, deli's normally add sodium nitrite, sodium nitrate, sodium phosphate, and a host of 'other' sodiums. it is true, that these are not sodium chloride (salt), but the sodium content is VERY HIGH.

        basically any processed whole turkey will contain these high sodium ingredients, and, as far as i know so will all of the processed meats. (to get an idea about this read the ingredient list on any butterball or frozen whole turkey).

        7 Replies
        1. re: westsidegal

          westsidegal --

          You are absolutely right about many deli's and all processed meat. However, some deli's do roast their own fresh turkeys and sometime even have specified salt-free. There are many restaurants that prepare fresh beef roasts and, while not entirely salt-free, are much lower in sodium than any processed meat. I've seen packaged freshly roasted salt-free turkey in places like Whole Foods, Gelsons, and even in some grocery stores.

          creamfinger -

          I absolutely concur with goodhealthgourmet about calling the restaurant in advance and talking to a manager or chef. In the flurry of a harried mealtime, It's difficult, if not impossible, for a busy server to get the complete focused attention of an engrossed chef. Now, if you are dining at a high-end restaurant, that is probably not the case. Determining whether or not a menu item has a low salt content is much more complex than "I'm a vegetarian," or "Hold the dinner rolls." The fact remains that there is already so much salt in the prepared food additions in a restaurant kitchen that even requesting that "no salt be added" can result in getting a plate full of sodium. Virtually EVERYTHING on a regular menu is full of salt other than items that are prepared fresh to order. Even then, they can certainly leave the salt off of your freshly prepared (unmarinated) fish, but the mashed potatoes and vegetables will have already been pre-seasoned for the masses. Since there are no designated "salt-free restaurants" (with the possible exception of spa menus), we are trying to make suggestions that might help. While you seem to know most or all of the information which has been presented, you have really not-yet accepted the fact that you, yourself must do the research in advance so as not to be embarrassed or disappointed at your meal. I know how frustrating this issue is. My sodium intake is limited to 1,000 mg per day, so your allowance seems almost luxuriant to me. If you can find restaurants that allow you to dine out frequently, while maintaining your diet, please let the rest of us know. In the meantime, you may have to come to terms with cooking more and eating out less frequently.

          1. re: Gingergirl

            Calling the restaurant in advance is not a bad idea when it's possible, but I was really just looking for a few restaurant suggestions, not an instruction manual or a lecture.

            1. re: creamfinger

              Since there are none that we know of, we were only trying to help. Be kind now.

              1. re: creamfinger

                I haven't had too much of a problem at most restaurants when I've asked for no-sodium preparations (it used to be that I would ask for no salt/fat/meat, but that was many many years ago).

                Sashimi is easy, as are places which grill foods. I'd avoid burgers (usually pre-seasoned) or anything fried. You could even ask for the sauce on the side. Salads or vegetables with herbs, fresh lemon and pepper work well too, as are poached dishes.

                It really depends on the waitstaff and temperment of the chef. Seriously, if you're with an alcoholic who has to decline the wine list repeatedly, the wait staff is seriously rude. The same is true for any guests who make specific requests. No reason should be required.

                I don't know what city you're in, so I really couldn't make any specific restaurant suggestions. Hope this helps.

              2. re: Gingergirl

                normally when they say 'salt-free' they mean that the roaster has not added any sodium chloride. this DOES NOT MEAN that the processor that processed the poultry or meat did not add sodium nitrate, sodium nitrite, nor sodium phosphate BEFORE the animal is roasted.

                the total SODIUM content often is extraordinarily high in these 'salt-free' meats.

                1. re: westsidegal

                  I concur w/ westsidegal. Even uncured roast beast typically has 600-800+ mg sodium per serving (usually 1 slice or 1 oz.) , and turkey's not much better. In fact, you're better off forgetting processed, third party meats. Your answer is DIY lunch meat. Learn how to make your own roast beef, pulled pork, sliced turkey, grilled chicken, et al. (Garlic will be your new best friend, as will chilis, DIY spice rubs, marinades, citus.)

                  Watching your sodium intake is crucial. When I go too far over my limit, it affects my breathing and increases my body's fluid retention.

                  Reading labels has become an indispensible part of my eating/grocery shopping. Yes, it's a pain in the ass and it triples my shopping time, but it's keeping me alive, so I do it.

                  As for surviving in restaurants, it is doable with caveats. I've learned to ask wait staff to look at the salt content on the labels of any third-party soy sauces. for example. I ask for corn tortillas (<15mg/ea) instead of flour (often >200 mg ea.) I skip cheese except for parmesan or swiss (both usually around 85mg/oz). I sometimes pack my own low sodium soy sauce (from TJs) or salt substitute (I hate the bitter taste of NoSalt and Morton's LiteSalt is still too salty, so I use Also Salt @ At Chinese restaurants, I order the dim sum and look for minimally processed foods, like shrimp hargow (shrimp wrapped in a simple rice paper wrapper) or steamed veg.

                  So far I have yet to find a restaurant that won't honor my request for no soy sauce/no salt.

                  Creamfinger, I don't believe anyone was suggesting you apologize for having a medical condition. Goodhealthgourmet, if I read her post correctly, was apologizng to the waiter and to the chef for the extra effort she was about to put them through. It's nothing more than politeness, an acknowledgement that you recognize you're asking them to do more than is usual, that's all.

                  No blood, no foul. ;)

                  1. re: KenWritez

                    yes, Ken, that's precisely what i was saying...thanks for the clarification.