When you’re looking at the sodium content of a food, the general rule is as follows:
- 5% DV (daily value) or less of sodium per serving is considered low
- 20% DV or more of sodium per serving is considered high
The FDA considers 140 mg of sodium or less per serving a ‘low’ amount and notes that most adults should try to remain under 1,500 mg per day — particularly those with high blood pressure.
To put this all into perspective, consider that a teaspoon of salt contains about 2,300 mg of sodium — your entire daily value. Fast food restaurants usually use more than this amount in their food products.
Let’s start by talking about why we crave fast food. One of the main reasons is because of the high salt content, which enhances its flavor and taste. Fast food restaurants use salt in most dishes, which increases our appetite and our need for hydration — prompting us to buy more fast food.
While seeking out low sodium fast food options can be challenging, it’s not impossible. As more and more people become informed about their health, fast food restaurants are changing their menus to better cater to the concerns of their customers. Menus now have options that are gluten-free, heart-healthy, dairy-free, and sugar-free — and low sodium fast food options are slowly being added to the list.
It’s true: fast food probably isn’t the best choice for a low sodium meal. But if you have limited options and don’t want to skip meals, it’s important to arm yourself with the right information before you get there so you can ensure you’re making the best choice.
While the available low sodium fast food options might not always meet the FDA’s classification of ‘low sodium,’ we’ve compiled some tips and tricks that will keep you keep your sodium intake in check:
- Steer clear of sides, dressings, spreads and fatty toppings. These items are usually loaded with salt and/or sugar, in addition to unhealthy calories. If you’re ordering a salad, minimize the amount of sodium by saying ‘no’ to bacon and croutons on top. If you want dressing, choose a simple vinaigrette and ask for it on the side.
- Choose grilled, broiled, or baked meats. While deli, fried, and breaded meat options can be tempting and look delicious, they’re guaranteed to have far more added salt than, for example, grilled options.
- Avoid super-sized items. The words “jumbo,” “super-size,” or "double” are clear red flags that indicate high levels of salt, calories, and unhealthy fat.
- Stick with water. While most drinks don’t contain high amounts of sodium, getting in the habit of drinking water with your meals is a good idea — especially when you’re eating out and have less control over what’s in your food and how it’s prepared.
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Generally speaking, fruit cups, oatmeal, and yogurt parfaits are ideal low sodium fast food options for breakfast. Greek yogurt options, in particular, can also be enjoyed for lunch. We’ve sorted through menus to find some other low-sodium items at popular eateries, with the number in brackets representing the amount of sodium per serving.
McDonald’s has a surprisingly good variety of low sodium fast food options that contain less than 500 mg of sodium per serving.
- Fruit and Yogurt Parfait (80 mg)
- Fruit and Maple Oatmeal (160 mg)
- 2 Scrambled Eggs (180 mg)
- Hash Browns (310 mg)
- Cinnamon Melts (370 mg)
Lunch / Dinner:
- Side Salad, no dressing (10 mg)
- Small French Fries (unsalted) (130 mg)
- Bacon Ranch Salad, no chicken or dressing (320 mg)
- Hamburger (480 mg)
- Taco Bell
Taco Bell also has a wide range of low sodium fast food options that contain less than 500 mg of sodium, even with meat and cheese included. You can further reduce the sodium content by opting for corn tortillas instead of flour ones, where applicable.
- 4 pack Cinnabons Delight (160 mg)
- Hash Browns (270 mg)
- AM Grilled Taco with Egg and Cheese (330 mg)
- AM Grilled Taco with Sausage (460 mg)
- Lunch / Dinner
- Beef Crunchy Taco (310 mg)
- Nacho Cheese Doritos Taco Supreme (390 mg)
- Fiery Doritos Locos Taco Supreme (400 mg)
- Chicken Crunchy Taco (430 mg)
- Panera Bread
Panera Bread has over 2,000 restaurants in the US and Canada and boasts a wide range of low sodium fast food menu options to suit every diet and taste.
- Oatmeal (< 300 mg)
- Fruit Cup (< 300 mg)
- Parfait (< 300 mg)
Lunch / Dinner
- Half-size Ancient Grain and Arugula Salad (135 mg)
- Full-size Strawberry Poppyseed and Chicken Salad (300 mg)
Chick-fil-A is known for its heart-healthy nature and genuine desire to make food that considers their customers’ health.
- Fruit Cup (0 mg)
- Greek Yogurt Parfait with Granola (<100 mg)
- Au Bon Pain Greek Vanilla Yogurt and Blueberry Parfait (160 mg)
- Hash Browns (400 mg)
Subway has partnered with the American Heart Association with the aim of improving the overall health of the country. Therefore, the base sandwiches without sauces and condiments are generally heart-healthy.
Lunch / Dinner
- Tuna Salad with lettuce, spinach, tomatoes, onions, green peppers, cucumbers, and olives (270 mg).
- Veggie Delight on whole wheat bread with lettuce, tomatoes, onions, green peppers, and cucumbers (280 mg)
- Tuna Sandwich on whole wheat bread with lettuce, tomatoes, onions, green peppers, and cucumbers (580 mg)
Preparing a low sodium meal at home is simpler than you may think. There is a myriad of salads and low-sodium vegetarian sandwiches you can prepare with minimal effort. Homemade food is great because it allows you to better control the amount of salt, sugar, and fat that go into your food.
If you’re serious about your venture into low sodium fast food cooking at home, you’ll need to make some small changes. Perhaps most importantly, you must eliminate (or significantly minimize) processed, cured, and smoked meats from your diet, as they have a rich sodium content. Replace these foods with fresh poultry and fish. Likewise, canned fruits and vegetables also tend to contain a lot of sodium. If you’re using canned products, be sure to choose ones that are labeled ‘low sodium’ or ‘sodium free,’ and always check the nutritional label to determine how much sodium these products actually contain. You should also rinse them thoroughly beforehand, which can help wash away some of the salt. Meal prep is imperative in order to succeed with low sodium fast food at home. Using quick and affordable ingredients and following tried and tested recipes will save you tons of time. Creating a weekly or monthly meal plan is also a good idea to ensure your ingredients are used up for various meals and they don’t go bad sitting in the fridge.
Finding low sodium recipes online is quite simple, as they’re increasing in popularity. Here’s a short list of meals that contain 300 mg or less of sodium that you can try at home:
- Grilled Basil Chicken and Tomato
- Lemon Pepper Tilapia with Mushrooms
- Fish and Chips
- Roasted Chicken with Peppers and Tomato
- Whole Wheat Veggie Pizza
- Mixed Spice Burgers
There’s lots of recipes and information out there to help you stick to a low-sodium diet without sacrificing taste. Arm yourself with it, and you’ll be set no matter whether you’re eating at home or out.