Restaurant food isn't worth its salt

It's tough enough to eat healthy foods at home. But out in a restaurant, it's almost impossible -- because even seemingly healthy dishes are often loaded with a not-so-secret ingredient: too much salt.

Chain restaurants have been very loud about their supposed attempts to make their meals healthier, including the use of less salt. But a new study finds there's not much action to back up all that noise.

In fact, sodium levels have actually risen by an average of 2.4 percent over six years, according to a look at menu items from 78 chain restaurants. And in six of the menu items examined, sodium levels shot up by 30 percent or more.

Processed foods sold in supermarkets did a little better -- but still have too much salt. Sodium levels in 402 common packaged food items fell by an average of just 3.5 percent, according to the study in the Journal of the American Medical Association: Internal Medicine.

When you consider that processed foods often contain double or triple the recommended limits for salt, 3.5 percent is a very small drop in a very large bucket.

On the other hand, processed foods and chain restaurant meals are unhealthy even when they don't contain too much salt, so it's best to steer clear even when the sodium levels are truly low.

And that brings me to a question my patients often ask me: Just how much salt should we get anyway?

Recent headlines would lead you to believe it doesn't matter. I'm sure you've seen them, they all looked a little like this: "Cutting back on salt offers no health benefits."

Those headlines come from a recent recommendation from the Institute of Medicine -- but the agency didn't say there's no benefit to cutting back. In fact, they said there's plenty of evidence that the current recommended limit, 2,300 mg a day, is just about right.

Some people want to cut it further, to 1,500 mg a day for most, but the agency said there's no benefit to going that low -- and that's what led to those headlines.

Leave it to the mainstream media to get the story wrong (as usual).

The best way to get just the right amount is to avoid packaged foods and fast food that contain too much salt and prepare your own meals from fresh ingredients. Cook with spices, but don't add salt until you're ready to eat.

You'll eat better, tastier, healthier meals -- and you'll get just the right amount of sodium.