The taste and convenience of fast food may not be worth its effects on your cardiovascular health. The sodium content in commercially prepared foods has contributed to the increase in sodium intake in the United States since the 1970s, according to a 2010 report from the Institute of Medicine, or IOM. The sodium content in one fast-food meal often approaches or exceeds the recommended daily limit of 2,300mg per day, or 1,500mg if you have high blood pressure. Making high-sodium fast foods more than an occasional indulgence may put you at risk for hypertension and heart disease.
Commercial processing and preparation make fast foods high in sodium, according to the Harvard School of Public Health. Add table salt, sauces and condiments, and you may be getting far more than the recommended daily limit from a fast-food meal. According to data from the University of Maine, one large cheeseburger with condiments contains 1,108mg of sodium. A large side order of fries adds 335mg—before they've been sprinkled with salt and dipped in ketchup. An order of two pancakes with syrup has 1,104mg of sodium. Even a plain roast beef sandwich from a fast-food chain takes up a sizeable portion of your daily sodium intake, at 792mg.
If you're eating fast food regularly, your overall sodium intake may be compromising your cardiovascular health. Your body needs sodium for fluid balance, nerve conduction and muscle function. Your kidneys regulate the amount of sodium in your body to maintain the right balance of fluids. When your sodium intake is too high, your kidneys can't process the excess and the sodium level in your blood increases, which raises its fluid volume and can increase arterial pressure, tax your heart and lead to chronic hypertension.
If you can't avoid fast-food meals, choose low-sodium options. If a restaurant posts the nutritional content of its menu items in a public area, look for foods that have the lowest amount of sodium. Some chains offer salads, baked potatoes, yogurt and fresh fruit as healthy alternatives to burgers, breaded chicken sandwiches and french fries. If you can't resist the burger and fries, omit the cheese and condiments and ask your server if you can have your french fries prepared without salt.
Cutting back on fast foods is a good start, but you can lower your sodium intake even further by choosing fresh, whole foods over processed foods whenever possible, advises the Harvard School of Public Health. Explore sodium-free or low-sodium seasonings like fresh herbs, ground black pepper and spicy salsas. As your taste buds adjust to the reduced sodium content in your meals, you may find that you enjoy food even more when its flavors aren't masked by salt.
In its 2010 report on reducing salt intake in the United States, the IOM recommends that the Food and Drug Administration establish guidelines for the use of sodium in commercially processed and prepared foods. Food manufacturers, restaurants and fast-food chains would lower their salt content gradually to allow consumers to adjust their tastes. Over time, according to the IOM, a reduction in dietary sodium might lead to improved cardiovascular health in the general population.