Whether you should reduce your salt intake due to high blood pressure, congestive heart failure or you’re just simply “salt-sensitive,” meaning after consuming a salty meal you have a spike in your blood pressure which then levels out to your normal, you should be aware of the salt content of your food. Even if your blood pressure is controlled with medication, excess sodium can hinder their effectiveness. Overtime, either spikes or a consistently high blood pressure can cause damage to your arteries. In actuality, all of us would benefit from some salt (aka sodium chloride) reduction in our lives, especially if our diet is largely composed of processed, pre-packaged foods or if we eat out often. Quite often when people travel, they tell themselves they’re on vacation and let their diet restrictions fly out the window. And eat whatever their palate chooses. But you want to enjoy your trip and feel well at the same time. Who wants to end up sick and, heaven forbid, at the hospital while on a trip? Don’t cut your trip short because you don’t feel well. Taking care of your health should be something you do daily, not only at certain times of the year. Traveling the world while eating less salt may seem utterly impossible. But it can be done. All types of cuisines have regional dishes that are delicious, but lower in salt.
Sodium is a preservative so it will be found in higher amounts in canned foods, convenience foods, and the majority of boxed, pre-packaged food as opposed to fresh foods. When you eat meals out, you have little control over the ingredients used or cooking methods. The majority of fast service restaurants receive ingredients frozen and pre-seasoned, thus equating to high sodium content. The answer then lies in preparing most of your meals at home using fresh, minimally processed ingredients. Easy to do at home, more difficult when you’re traveling. Breakfast is one meal that is easy to have less salt. Think fresh fruit, yogurt or peanut butter, whole wheat toast and soft-boiled eggs. Try it next time at the hotel buffet!
Here are a few tips to help you cut the salt while traveling:
1. Choose local restaurants. Avoid the chains. Luckily in Europe this is an easier task than in the states. Local restaurants are more likely to serve fresh produce and meats, perhaps even locally sourced. Local restaurants are more likely to cook to order so the chef has more leeway in how the food is prepared and will be more accommodating to special requests you make to cut the salt.
2. Make special requests when ordering. Ask for sauce to be served on the side so you have control over the amount. For salad dressings, opt for olive oil and vinegar or lemon (which in Europe is most often the main option). Ask for no salt added during the preparation of your meal. Choose freshly baked, grilled, broiled meats instead of casseroles which are pre-made and likely contain salt added as a seasoning. For an even healthier option, order a grilled vegetable plate as your main course.
3. Choose side dishes such as fresh vegetables, fruit, baked potatoes or salads. Avoid sides coated in sauces, fried or casserole-like such as macaroni and cheese, mashed potatoes, etc. When traveling abroad, take the time to learn key phrases to use when ordering. For one it’s a sign of respect and your requests will more likely be met.
Additional Tips Based on Country
For salad dressing, eat like the Italians and simply use olive oil and lemon or vinegar. Same goes for condiments; olive oil is really the only condiment to accompany meals. Bread is served before the meal is delivered, but Italians eat the bread with the meal so you should, too. This will help reduce your intake.
Foods to include: Fresh salads, Caprese salad, grilled vegetables. Fresh fruit. Pasta Primavera. Fresh pasta with Marinara sauce (tomato sauce), pesto or garlic and olive oil. Grilled fish and seafood. Grilled lean meats and chicken.
Foods to avoid or minimize: Cured meats. These include dried sausage, sopressa, prosciutto, mortadella, salt pork, spalla, lardo, pancetta, spec, culatello. You will see an abundance of these cured meats all over the menus in Italy, so either avoid or just eat very small servings. And go easy on the cheese for pasta and pizza.
The culinary traditions of Spain include locally grown produce, ham, seafood and fish, eggs, beans, rice, nuts (almonds), cheeses and bread (crusty white bread). Food is often prepared using olive oil and garlic.
Foods to include: Fresh salads. Use olive oil and lemon for dressing. Paella is a popular Spanish stew-like dish composed of rice, broth, onion, garlic, wine, sweet peppers, saffron and a variety of mix-ins such as shellfish, chorizo (sausage), vegetables, chicken or rabbit. When choosing this dish, avoid the chorizo to cut the salt. Gazpacho (cold tomato soup), Tortilla Espanola (Spanish omelet), grilled fish and shellfish are all excellent choices.
Foods to avoid or minimize: jambon (ham), cheeses, bacalao (dried salted fish) olives (healthy but high in salt. Go easy!)
The bulk of the diet is fruits, vegetables, grains, potatoes, seafood and bread. Due to the long coastline, the Greek diet is heavy in fish and seafood with meat typically used as an ingredient rather than the focus of the dish. As you move inland the diet becomes heavier in meats and cheeses. Some staples include olives, eggplant, cucumbers, tomatoes, spinach, lentils, beans, lemons, nuts, honey, yogurt, feta, eggs, chicken and lamb. Olives and feta are quite salty, so limit the amount you consume.
Foods to include: Dolmades (grape leaves stuffed with rice and/or lamb), Greek salad, Horiatiki salad (cucumbers and tomatoes), Gigante beans, Hummus, Gilled octopus, Horta (dandelion greens), Spanikopita (spinach pie), Grilled fish and shellfish, Moussaka (meat and eggplant dish), Souvlaki (lamb or chicken on skewer), baklava (nut and honey pastry in layers of thin dough called phyllo. For the healthiest dessert, fruit is the best option.
Foods to avoid or minimize: Feta cheese is high in salt, so go easy. Casserole dishes may be high in salt. The olives are delicious, but also high in salt so limit your intake.
Fresh fruits, vegetables, herbs, grains, cheese and meat make up the bulk of the French diet. The baguette – a thin loaf of crusty bread is a staple. Crepes (thin pancakes) would be a low sodium option.On the coastline seafood makes up many dishes such as mussels, oysters, clams, shrimp, squid. Escargots (snails) cooked with butter, garlic; rabbit and roasted duck are characteristic of French cooking. Choose these fresh meats over the casseroles or cheese-laden dishes.
Foods to include: Fresh salads, Salad Nicoise’, Goat Cheese salad, sautéed vegetables, Grilled and sautéed fish and shellfish, Coq au Vin (chicken cooked in wine), Roasted chicken. Lower sodium cheeses, such as Goat cheese, Brie and Mascarpone are fine.
Foods to minimize or avoid: La choucroute (cabbage dish with sausage) will be high in sodium due to the sausage. Mussels and oysters are delicious in France, but they are high is sodium. So, again, go easy. Share a dish with your mate. Cheese, which is usually high in sodium, has a important role in most meals so try to limit your intake. If eating fondue, skip the cheese course.
Lisa Stollman, MA, RDN, CDE, CDN was recently honored as the 2015 Outstanding Dietitian of the Year by the New York Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. She loves traveling the world and experiencing new foods, cultures and meeting interesting people. Lisa is the author of the ebook The Trim Traveler: How to Eat Healthy and Stay Fit While Traveling Abroad (Nirvana Press 2014) and The Teen Eating Manifesto: The Ten Essential Steps to Losing Weight, Looking Great and Getting Healthy (Nirvana Press 2012). Lisa maintains a nutrition practice in NYC and Huntington, Long Island where she specializes in weight management, diabetes and travel nutrition. Lisa is also the CEO of Eat Well Restaurant Nutrition where she collaborates with chefs to get healthy dishes on the menu. For more info on Lisa, visit here. Special thanks to Lauren Zimmerman, MS, RDN for her contributions to this blog post.