Welcome   >  Heart and circulation  >  The genuine risks of...

The genuine risks of ‘eating out’

Sel & phtalates

In order to successfully juggle work, exercise, leisure activities and commuting, many people are no longer choosing to cook in the middle of the day and are instead buying their lunch ‘on the hoof’. They either get something delivered, or buy a ready-meal that they quickly polish off at their desk (1-2). And for those who prefer to have lunch in a restaurant, the problem will be more or less the same: what they eat will almost certainly be full of salt and contaminated by phthalates.

That’s the summary of two studies revealing the shortcomings of restaurant food and the consequences of leaving our diet in the hands of the big manufacturers …

Levels of salt that significantly alter our neural circuits and weaken our blood vessels

Even though the recommended intake for sodium has been set by several bodies at 1600mg a day (3), our daily consumption may actually be in the region of 3400mg (4). Our growing indifference to cooking is to blame, since around 72% of our daily salt intake comes from food prepared outside the home (5) – either from restaurants or from ready-to-eat dishes sold at bakeries, fast-food outlets or supermarkets. Needless to say, the biggest offender is fast-food such as cheeseburgers, pizzas or take-away dishes in sauce.

Unfortunately, such findings are rarely taken seriously. Between those who see little point in reducing their salt intake as long as they don’t have high blood pressure, and those who think they can compensate for it by eating healthy foods such as fruit and vegetables, salt continues to find easy victims.

How salt changes our taste receptors and behaviour

Like all animals, humans need salt. It helps maintain acid-base balance as well as being essential for the transmission of nerve impulses and muscle contractions. Anyone who deliberately eliminates salt from their diet will see their health decline within a few weeks. It’s such an important mineral that in the course of evolution, an astonishing survival system developed in herbivores and omnivores: each mouthful of food that contains salt produces a sensation of instant pleasure. Stimulation of the sodium receptors located close to taste receptors activates a gratification mechanism in the hypothalamus and in this way, we naturally gravitate towards foods that contain salt.

Thousands of years ago, this system made sense as foods containing sodium were relatively rare (6), but nowadays, with unlimited access to salt, it has become a death-trap. If we humans continue to consume salt in excessive amounts even though we know it’s bad for our health, it’s not through a sense of challenge but because it’s irresistible. Salt does not provide more taste, but more pleasure. It’s a complex pleasure which over time becomes insidiously associated with taste and flavour. It has the drug-like ability to alter neural circuits and sensory plasticity (7): in order to achieve the same feeling of pleasure, you have to keep increasing the dose. It’s the kind of escalation that can lead to complex behavioural patterns of addiction, deprivation and compulsion. Over the long term, excess salt consumption alters our taste receptors and reversing this change becomes difficult: any reduction in salt intake causes withdrawal syndromes (such as irritation, excessive perspiration, and the uncontrollable urge to eat junk food) and the sensation that healthy foods are tasteless (8).

The agro-food industry, which is always one step ahead, is obviously well-aware of this property in salt: the fact that salt is so prevalent in catering and food products is not because it’s good at preserving them. It’s because manufacturers want to make the end products – depleted of micronutrients and full of unpleasant compounds – more appetising. Eye-watering sums of money are spent on finding the right combination - one which will satisfy the palates of the maximum number of people while using the cheapest possible products. Such is their drive to do so that they regularly use other flavour enhancers, such as potassium chloride or monosodium glutamate (suspected of causing a number of symptoms such as nausea, headaches, muscle pain, impaired insulin secretion (9) and which is implicated in the physiopathology of migraines (10-11)). An analysis of 222 dishes from 12 of Canada’s most popular restaurants showed that 69% contained at least one flavour enhancer (in addition to salt).

Though they normally prioritise quality products, our top restaurants also make abundant use of salt, though not always for the same reason: the tendency of chefs to constantly taste the food they’re preparing sooner or later makes them succumb to salt’s siren call to ‘season’ their dishes and they too fall into the trap. Their taste receptors are not immune to its pull and the amounts of salt required to achieve the same sensation of pleasure get progressively greater.

How can we reduce our salt intake?

Given its ability to significantly alter our neural circuits, it makes sense to free ourselves from its grip as soon as possible and keep within the amount recommended . There has long been a strong association between salt consumption and hypertension (12), the leading risk factor for premature death in the world (13). It’s estimated that reducing salt intake to 1200mg a day could prevent 2.5 million deaths each year (14). This sobering figure shows the full destructive power of salt, a fact which is too often played down. It could even be behind the obesity epidemic which is currently harming Western populations (15).

To restore your taste receptors, rediscover the authentic flavour of food, and free yourself from salt’s infernal spiral, here are some practical steps you can take right now:

  • Gradually lower your salt intake (16) by cutting down on ready meals and eating out. All the research shows that this needs to be a gradual process in order to prevent withdrawal symptoms and relapses.
  • Support your efforts with plants that are traditionally recognised for reducing the feeling of deprivation such as kudzu. Take 4-6 capsules ofKudzu Extract a day until you no longer have the compulsive desire for salt.
  • Compare food labels and choose products that contain less salt.
  • Learn to cook again taking the time to prepare meals yourself for the following day.
  • Choose healthy, flavoursome foods, ie, those that arein season and locally-produced . In Western countries, for example, you’re not going to find a tomato packed with flavour in April, even one grown organically.
  • Try eating different grains such as barley, quinoa and rice which are naturally unsalted.
  • Always opt for unsalted nuts.
  • Choose mineral water that’s low in salt (less than 20mg of sodium/litre).
  • Substitute table salt with spices, onion powder, herb salts, fresh ginger, mixed herbs (basil, oregano, etc) and lemon juice …

Alarming exposure to phthalates

The findings of a second study have also made uncomfortable reading for the catering sector. It seems that eating out – in cafes or fast-food restaurants - may increase our levels of chemicals called phthalates. These hormone-disruptors are classed by the European Chemicals Agency (ECHA) as substances presumed toxic for human reproduction and are associated with a list of diseases and dysfunctions as long as your arm. In laboratory animals, the side effects caused by exposure to phthalates (particularly when ingested) are spine-chilling: reduced fertility, testicular atrophy, restricted foetal growth, increased malformations, harmful effects on the liver and kidneys …

The researchers behind this study (17) discovered that people who frequently took their meals outside the home had 55% higher phthalate levels than those who normally prepared their own food at home. The use of gloves by restaurant staff, contact with food packaging containing phthalates as well as certain kitchen equipment are believed to be responsible for these worryingly abnormal concentrations.

In the space of 40 years, total sperm counts have fallen by around 60% in the US, Europe, Australia and New Zealand and concentration of sperm has declined by 53% (1 8). Like other hormone disruptors which are part of everyday life (bisphenol A, diesel fumes, PCB, DDT), phthalates are thought to be a contributing factor.

If you regularly eat out, you need to take action now. Here are some practical suggestions as to how you can avoid phthalates in the future and eliminate your existing levels:

Devote more time to preparing your own meals using raw ingredients, preferably bought direct from the producer in order to avoid packaging and handling.

Maintain a healthy weight. Animal studies have shown that hormone disruptors target fat cells and may be associated with insulin resistance (a risk factor for type 2 diabetes). It’s highly likely that some of them accumulate in adipose tissue.

Hormone disruptors stimulate the production of reactive oxygen species (ROS) which damage DNA and impair the body’s antioxidant defence system (19). The best way of neutralising them is with a well-researched antioxidant formulation such as AntiOxidant Synergy preferably combined with a diet rich in seasonal fruits and vegetables.

Help your body eliminate undesirable substances. The detox formulation Rehab has the advantage of containing several potent antioxidants (flavonoids from kudzu, vitamin C, glutathione precursors) as well as compounds that facilitate the detoxification mechanism initiated by the liver (dimethylglycine, curcumin and calcium D-glucarate). Supplements are also available for cleansing the body and helping it to function better.


1. Guthrie JF, Lin BH, Frazao E. Role of food prepared away from home in the American diet, 1977–78 versus 1994–96: changes and consequences. J Nutr Educ Behav 2002;34:140-50.
2. Food-away-from-home. Washington: United States Department of Agriculture; 2014. Available: www.ers.usda.gov/topics/food-choices-health/food-consumption -demand/food-away-from-home.aspx#nutrition (accessed 2015 Jan. 4).
3. Australian Department of Health and Ageing, National Health and Medical Research Council & New Zealand Ministry of Health(2006) Nutrient Reference Values for Australia and New Zealand. Canberra: Australian Department of Health and Ageing and New Zealand Ministry of Health
4. SA Skeaff , R McLean , J Mann et al. (2013) The Impact of Mandatory Fortification of Bread with Iodine. Wellington: Ministry for Primary Industries.
5. Quader ZS, Zhao L, Gillespie C, et al. Sodium intake among persons aged ≥ 2 years — United States, 2013–2014. MMWR Morb Mortal Wkly Rep 2017;66:324-238.
6. Liedtke WB, McKinley MJ, Walker LL et al. Relation of addiction genes to hypothalamic gene changes subserving genesis and gratifi- cation of a classic instinct, sodium appetite. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A 2011; 108: 12509–12514
7. Shuler MG, Krimm RF, Hill DL. Neuron/target plasticity in the peripheral gustatory system. J Comp Neurol 2004;472(2):183–92.
8. Rajagopal Raghunathan, Rebecca Walker Naylor, and Wayne D. Hoyer (2006)The Unhealthy = Tasty Intuition and Its Effects on Taste Inferences, Enjoyment, and Choice of Food Products. Journal of Marketing: October 2006, Vol. 70, No. 4, pp. 170-184.
9. Baad-Hansen L, Cairns B, Ernberg M, et al. Effect of systemic monosodium glutamate (MSG) on headache and pericranial muscle sensitivity. Cephalalgia 2010;30:68-76
10. Chan K, MaassenVanDenBrink A. Glutamate receptor antagonists in the management of migraine. Drugs 2014;74:1165-76
11. Cananzi AR, D’Andrea G, Perini F, et al. Platelet and plasma levels of glutamate and glutamine in migraine with and without aura. Cephalalgia 1995; 15:132-5.
12. FJ He , J Li & GA Macgregor (2013) Effect of longer term modest salt reduction on blood pressure: Cochrane systematic review and meta-analysis of randomised trials. BMJ 346, f1325
13. SS Lim , T Vos , AD Flaxman et al. (2012) A comparative risk assessment of burden of disease and injury attributable to 67 risk factors and risk factor clusters in 21 regions, 1990–2010: a systematic analysis for the Global Burden of Disease Study 2010. Lancet 380, 2224–2260
14. FJ He & GA MacGregor (2009) A comprehensive review on salt and health and current experience of worldwide salt reduction programmes. J Hum Hypertens 23, 363–384.
15. Cocores JA, Gold MS. The Salted Food Addiction Hypothesis may explain overeating and the obesity epidemic. Medical Hypotheses 73 (2009) 892–899
16. Institute of Medicine. Strategies to reduce sodium intake in the United States. Washington: The National Academies Press; 2010.
17. Julia Varshavsky et al. Dietary sources of cumulative phthalates exposure among the U.S. general population in NHANES 2005-2014. Environment International, 2018
18. Hagai Levine, Niels Jørgensen, Anderson Martino-Andrade, Jaime Mendiola, Dan Weksler-Derri, Irina Mindlis, Rachel Pinotti, Shanna H. Swan. Temporal trends in sperm count: asystematic review and meta-regression analysis. Human Reproduction Update, 2017; 1 DOI: 10.1093/humupd/dmx022
19. Valko M et al. Metals, toxicity and oxidative stress. Curr Med Chem. 2005;12(10):1161-208.
Order the nutrients mentioned in this article
Kudzu extract

40% isoflavones, effectively reduces dependence on alcohol and tobacco

AntiOxidant Synergy

Powerful, multi-action antioxidant defence


Broad-spectrum, systemic detoxifier

Further reading
A nutrient that rejuvenates the skin and...
Imagine a nutrient that could prevent wrinkles, slackening and ageing of the skin, not just on the face (eyelids, cheeks, lips) but also on the...
Read more
Lose weight without lifting a finger
Here’s a simple way to burn calories without having to undertake strenuous exercise - or even move an inch.Scientists have discovered that the body uses...
Read more
Effective combination against 'bad' cholesterol
cholesterol - Aloe Vera - ProbiotiquesAn Indian research team has just...
Read more
Follow us
Please choose your language


Thank you for visiting our site. Before you go

Club SuperSmart
And take advantage
of exclusive benefits:
  • Free: our weekly science-based newsletter "Nutranews"
  • Special offers for club members only
> Continue