04/20/2015 05:49 EDT | Updated 06/20/2015 05:59 EDT

The Downside of Restaurant Food

Neilson Barnard via Getty Images
NEW YORK, NY - APRIL 06: Chef David Burke of David Burke Restaurant Group prepares Chicken Pot Pie, Chicken and Jack Cheese Dumplings with Cowboy BBQ Sauce, Seaweed Brined Chicken Breast with Asparagus Risotto for Creating David Burke's Segnature Dishes class during Day 2 of the New York Culinary Experience 2014 presented by New York Magazine and the International Culinary Center on April 6, 2014 at the International Culinary Center in New York City. (Photo by Neilson Barnard/Getty Images for The New York Culinary Experience)

Eating out is generally considered a pleasurable experience, not least because of its convenience. Busy lifestyles as well as lack of cooking skills and amenities make it an easy choice for many working-age adults to let others take care of their nutritional needs. Unfortunately, not being in charge of your own food preparation can prove hazardous for your health in the long run.

For example, a new study from Duke-NUS Graduate Medical School in Singapore showed for the first time a direct link between eating meals away from home and hypertension, a.k.a. high blood pressure.

Hypertension is considered a risk factor for heart disease, heart attack and stroke, all of which are among today's leading causes of death.

Even young adults were found to suffer from pre-hypertension or full-fledged hypertension if they ate out on several days a week. In fact, just one weekly restaurant visit was associated with a six per cent increase in risk of pre-hypertension. The researchers involved in the study advised especially younger males to have their blood pressure checked regularly and, if necessary, modify their eating behavior.

Although this particular study focused mainly on young Asian adults, the warnings should be heeded worldwide. It is estimated that hypertension affects about one in three Americans to various degrees, based on statistics of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). In Canada it does about one in five, according to the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC). Only half of all patients diagnosed with the disease have their condition under control through medication as well as diet and lifestyle changes, the agencies say.

Almost 30 per cent of what causes hypertension is attributed to excessive dietary sodium (salt). Processed foods, which are widely used in restaurants like fast food places and other low-cost eateries, are notorious for high sodium contents.

Although consumers have shown greater interest in reducing their salt intake in recent years, and some restaurant chains have pledged to cut back on salt use, there is still not enough progress to make a noticeable difference. According to the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), a consumer advocacy group, too many food outlets are making it hard for their patrons to identify how much sodium they are getting with their meals. Items that don't even taste salty can nevertheless have sodium levels that exceed recommended limits.

Eating out on a regular basis makes it difficult for people to control their salt intake because they don't know how the food was prepared. And many fast food and fast-casual restaurants don't monitor the quality of their ingredients, since they often only assemble their meals instead of making them from scratch. So it's hard to make special requests for less salt use in these places, explains Sarah Krieger, a registered dietitian, professional chef, and media spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (AND).

Still, patrons should be able to ask questions and navigate around the worst pitfalls, she says.

Preferably patronize locally-owned eateries where the food is mostly cooked to order. Avoid dressings, toppings and sauces as much as possible. Stick to whole food items like fresh vegetable dishes and fruits, and go easy on cheese platters and desserts, she advises.

Of course, none of this will give you the kind of control you have in your own kitchen, but a little bit of awareness and caution when eating out can be a good first step.

Food and Health with Timi Gustafson R.D.


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