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    Chili’s? Try Salty’s!

    When it comes to nutritional advice on eating out, the spotlight usually shines brightly — and, many times, solely — on calories.  I don’t necessarily object to that; after all, it is certainly possible to consume three quarters (or a hundred percent, for that matter) of one’s caloric needs in a single restaurant meal these days.

    In some parts of the country, some chain restaurants are legally required to display calorie counts alongside menu items.  In states and cities where this legal requirement is not in play, some of these restaurants voluntarily point out their lower-calorie options (usually grouping a variety of dishes under something akin to a “500 Calories or Less” heading).  While that provides quantitative nutritional information, it is but one tiny piece in that large jigsaw puzzle known as health.

    Sodium, a mineral that while necessary in small amounts for basic body functions is over-consumed by the average American, is often left out of the picture.  Even more troubling, this high consumption of sodium in the United States co-exists with insufficient intakes of potassium and magnesium, two minerals that play a crucial role in heart health and blood pressure regulation.  Since nutrition is often viewed through a reductionist lens, sodium is usually isolated in scientific and public discourse (whether in a study, as seen with the recent “restricting sodium makes no difference for your health!” one, or as part of general “eat less salt” advice), which isn’t very practical, effective, or accurate.

    Highly processed fast food is especially problematic, as it tends to be extremely high in sodium and ridiculously low in potassium.  While no fast food chains offer anything resembling reasonable sodium figures, the Chili’s menu is chock-full of “wait, that HAS to be a typo!” sodium ridiculousness.  Consider the following examples (and their sodium equivalents in parentheses):

    • Boneless Buffalo Wings Appetizer: 4,590 milligrams (46 McDonald’s Chicken McNuggets)
    • Texas Cheese Fries with Chili & Ranch Appetizer: 5,920 milligrams (17 orders of large McDonald’s french fries)
    • Boneless Buffalo Chicken Salad: 4,310 milligrams (12 slices of Domino’s 12″ cheese pizza)
    • Ribs Platter: 6,510 milligrams (6 and a half Burger King Whoppers)
    • Crispy Shrimp Tacos: 4,760 milligrams (1,100 Goldfish crackers — yes, eleven hundred!))
    • Jalapeño Smokehouse Burger with Ranch: 6,600 milligrams (6 and a half large cans of Pringles)
    • Brownie Sundae: 930 milligrams (1 Egg McMuffin with sausage)

    Interestingly, Chili’s online menu recommends that diners “try one of Chili’s longstanding “Guiltess Grill” favorites for a meal that is low in fat and calories, but high in fiber and flavor”.  I can’t help but wonder if the term “flavor” in that context is simply a PR-friendly synonym for sodium.  These options, by the way, are suspiciously absent from the online “nutrition facts menu” as well as the detailed, picture-laden menu on the Chili’s website.

    And, while diners are encouraged to seek out these healthier options (apparently with a cleaner conscience), they are simultaneously bombarded with deals like the “Bottomless Express Lunch”, where patrons can order any soup, a House or Caesar salad, and chips and salsa, each with unlimited free refills.

    Let’s do some more math.  One order of chips and salsa comes out to 1,210 milligrams of sodium.  A chicken Caesar salad?  1,130 milligrams.  A cup of broccoli and cheese soup (which is by no means their saltiest option)? 600 milligrams.  Assuming that order of chips and salsa is split with someone, that meal adds up to 2,335 milligrams of sodium — an entire day’s worth, before any refills!

    I point all this out to make the case that no one should allow themselves to be put at ease when Chili’s or any other fast food establishment relies on low calorie counts or gimmicks like “low fat” and “guiltless” to advertise certain foods.  A cup of Chili’s chicken and green chile soup may appear harmless at 200 calories, but the accompanying 1,250 milligrams of sodium (just over half a day’s worth) raises a red flag.  Remember — calorie and fat grams aside,  the salt monster is still very much present in fast food world.

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