It would seem, at least at first, that the notion of eating a very low salt, no butter, no cheese diet would be at complete odds with the current state of the fast food industry. And to a large extent, you would be correct. However, in the vast sea of salt, fat, and sugar that comprises most of the fast food industry's offerings, there are a few nuggets of goodness that you can cling to when you are looking for a quick fix or are traveling and haven't had time to research local restaurants.
Having combed through more than a dozen published nutritional guides on the Internet, I've come to a few conclusions:
1) Many fast food restaurants offer some type of "garden salad" which is usually okay. Almost all only offer salted dressings, although as you'll see, some dressings are better than others.
2) Of those that offer garden salads, that's usually all they can offer that would be acceptably low sodium.
3) There are some fast food chains that offer nothing acceptably low sodium.
4) Grilled chicken breast is often as salty or saltier than beef (thanks to brining).
So, how do I differentiate between fast food and fast casual? I know it isn't a completely cut and dry set of rules, but in general, if the restaurant has a drive thru, I'd consider it fast food and not fast casual. That being said, I consider Subway to be fast food although I've seen very few Subway locations with a drive thru.
And with that distinction out of the way, here are the only fast food restaurants at which I've had any success.
While none of the proteins (chicken, beef, or fish) at Wendy's would even remotely qualify as low sodium, the one thing that Wendy's has on their menu that I find appealing is the presence of a baked potato. Now, of course, when you load up that baked potato with cheese, bacon, and sour cream, it is no longer low sodium, but according to their published nutrition information, a plain baked potato by itself has almost no sodium and if you decide to splurge and add chives and sour cream (just one container of sour cream), you top out at 35mg of sodium.
And while the garden salad has nothing particularly salty on it, you do have to be careful of the dressings. Your two best choices are the pomegranate vinaigrette (150mg of sodium for the entire packet) or the ranch dressing (170mg of sodium for the entire packet). Since I tend to not like overdressed salads, I usually use only half of the packet. Thus, for about 100-110mg of sodium, you can walk away with a baked potato with sour cream and chives and a garden salad with half a packet of pomegranate vinaigrette. Not bad.
Just like Wendy's, every single protein and cheese option is out at Subway if you are considering a sub sandwich. Which means that the only real choice you have if you want a sub sandwich is a 6" Veggie Delite on either 9-grain wheat, Italian, honey oat, or multigrain flatbread. Each of these types of bread has between 280mg and 290mg of sodium for the 6" version. Skip the cheese and load up on non-salty vegetables (lettuce, tomato, red onion, spinach, cucumber, green peppers, etc.). Fortunately, Subway is one of the few (maybe only?) fast food restaurants to offer plain old oil and vinegar as a dressing. Other non-salty toppers include ground pepper and dried thyme. Pair that with a package of apple slices from the kids menu and you've got a decent meal with about 300mg of sodium total.
If you're wanting to go more of the salad route, you can certainly go with the Veggie Delite option at 75mg of sodium or, the one protein-based salad that seems acceptable to me is the oven-roasted chicken salad at 280mg of sodium. Again, dressing will be limited to oil and vinegar. A possible third option is the Monterrey chicken melt salad, but it clocks in at 360mg of sodium. Plus, with the addition of cheese, you up the fat and saturated fat by a couple of grams each. Nothing heart-seizing, mind you, but the first two salads are the healthier options.
Steak 'n Shake
As you've seen so far, fast food proteins and low sodium don't mix. However, at Steak 'n Shake, you can get either the single steakburger (310mg sodium) or the double steakburger (330mg sodium) if what you crave can only be satiated by beef. Of course, realize that cheese is out, as are all forms of condiments. The standard burger toppings of lettuce, tomato, and onion will be okay additions.
For sides, you could go with applesauce (0mg), apples and caramel (75mg), small French fries (80mg), regular French fries (140mg), small garden salad (105mg), or a cup of Mandarin oranges (15mg). I'm guessing by the fact that the garden salad has 105mg of sodium that it probably has cheese or croutons, which you can either pick off yourself or ask for it to be served without, which would substantially lower the sodium content. While I don't see oil and vinegar as an option from the salad dressings portion of the nutritional spreadsheet, one ounce of the honey mustard dressing does clock in at only 115mg of sodium. As with Wendy's, a light touch with the dressing can reduce that number by half.
If breakfast is what you are after at Steak 'n Shake, you also have a couple of options from that menu, too. Two eggs, any style, will set you back 140mg of sodium. Other choices include a cup of Mandarin oranges (15mg), the parfait (95mg), oatmeal (260mg), or hash browns (300mg). While the combination of eggs and hash browns is a bit high for my liking (440mg for both), combining two eggs with a parfait seems like a perfectly reasonable amount of sodium (235mg for both) when eating out at a fast food restaurant and getting something that is nutritious and filling.
So, there you have it -- three recommendations for those looking to both maintain a low salt lifestyle and still be able to occasionally stop in for a quick meal at a fast food restaurant. Are there others out there that might qualify? Of course, I'm sure there are. I really only researched fast food chains that are common to the northeast Ohio area. And for those that hoped Swenson's might make the list, even though it is a local chain here in northeast Ohio, unfortunately, they haven't published any nutritional information about their food, so I ruled them out.
Please feel free, gentle reader, to suggest other fast food chains (and more specifically, menu items) that might make the cut.