Eating a salad has a connotation that one is eating a healthy meal. Salad, by definition, is a cold dish with a mixture of leafy and colorful vegetables, with or without topping and a dressing. More and more people are choosing salad over other meals thinking that they can lose weight.
But . . . not so fast! Not all salads are low in calories and rich in nutrients. It will largely depend on what and how much dressing and how many toppings you add. Here are some ideas on what good and not so good salads look like:
When it comes to leafy greens, the darker the better. They have the most nutrients. Kale and spinach have over 10 times more immune-boosting vitamins A and C than iceberg lettuce. Not a fan of those? Try different types of lettuces, arugula, watercress, mizuna or cabbage.
Topping: try a variety of colorful vegetables (raw or roasted) such as bell peppers, red beets, carrots, onion, mushroom, tomato, green onions, broccoli, cucumber, radish, asparagus or fresh fruits and some lean protein to keep you fuller. Good options for protein are grilled chicken, grilled meat, grilled fish or seafood, eggs, edamame and beans. You may also add some nuts, seeds or avocado.
Dressing: For the best dressing, whisk together oil (olive, canola, vegetable, avocado), which has heart-healthy unsaturated fat, with balsamic, rice or wine vinegar, or lemon or lime juice. You can also add a little Dijon mustard, garlic or honey for flavor, and season with salt and black pepper. A typical Italian dressing has 90 calories in 2 tbsp.
Not so healthy: A base with a leafy vegetable such as iceberg lettuce with high fat, high carb and high salt topping such as crispy or crunchy fish, chicken, meat or seafood, lots of cheese, bacon, croutons or candied nuts. If a product is crispy or crunchy, they generally mean deep fried or breaded. If using bacon or cheese, use small amounts as they add unhealthy saturated fat. The store-bought croutons are usually deep fried and high in calories.
Dressing to be used sporadically: creamy dressing like ranch, blue cheese, or Thousand Island are loaded with calories, unhealthy fat and salt. Two tbsp can pack over 150 calories. If you use more than ½ cup, your salad may end up having more calories than a cheeseburger with fries. Using fat free dressing? Read the label and ingredient list first. Most fat free dressings add sugar and salt to accentuate flavor.
Take Home Message: If you are eating out, check the menu and nutrition information before you order. Most restaurants’ salads have only one type of leafy vegetable and come loaded with cheese, fried onions, bacon, or croutons and bathe them in dressing. A simple Cobb or Caesar salad can have over 1,000 calories. If you want to slash calories, ask for those toppings and dressing on the side.
The best bet is to make your own salad, so you control what goes into it. You can pile on variety of veggies, use healthier ingredients and limit the amount of those high calorie toppings.
Tips for Restaurant Salads: Many restaurants load their salads with cheese, fried onions, bacon, or croutons. Then they douse them in dressing. Even a simple Cobb salad can clock in at nearly 1,000 calories and 85 grams of fat. Check out the restaurant’s nutritional info to make a smart pick. In addition, ask for those toppings on the side.
Homemade Salads: When you make your own, you control what goes into it. You can pile on the veggies and use healthier ingredients. Swap in low-fat turkey bacon for the regular kind, and crunchy seeds for croutons. Keep tabs of your portions of higher-calorie toppings -- a serving of cheese is 1 1/2 ounces, about the size of four dice.
Add Grilled Chicken or Fish - A salad of veggies alone won’t fill you up for long -- you need protein to fend off hunger. Protein takes longer to digest, so you stay satisfied longer. Good sources include chicken breast (26.7 grams in 3 ounces), salmon (21.6 grams in 3 ounces), and shrimp (20.38 grams in 3 ounces). Make sure to grill, poach, or bake it. Some cooking methods -- like blackened or fried -- add extra butter, oil, or breading.
Salad Loaded With Veggies - Add a mix of veggies to your salad to get more nutrition and flavor. Top those leafy greens with crunchy produce like carrots, cucumbers, or broccoli. Then add a punch of color from tomatoes, bell peppers, beets, or red onion. While you’re at it, toss in last night’s leftovers, such as roasted Brussels sprouts, sweet potatoes, or asparagus.
Spinach or Kale Salad – easy peasy!
Crispy Chicken Salad - A green salad with chicken may sound like a healthy meal, but descriptions like “crispy” and “crunchy” are red flags. These words are code for breaded and deep-fried, which can turn that healthy-sounding salad into a calorie bomb. What’s worse, research shows that eating a lot of fried foods can raise your chances of heart disease and type 2 diabetes.
Salad with Croutons and Cheese - Store-bought croutons and bacon bits are high in salt, and they don’t offer much nutrition. Like the crunch? Try adding nuts, seeds, or crisp veggies -- such as jicama and carrots -- instead. Cheese has calcium, but it also packs roughly 100 calories per ounce. If you really want some, opt for a low-fat one, like feta or Parmesan, and add just a sprinkle.
Iceberg Wedge Salad - This is a classic, but don’t order one if you’re trying to eat light. Thanks to the blue cheese or ranch dressing and bacon crumbles, it can pack in four times the fat of a T-bone steak. It also falls short in the nutrition department. That’s because iceberg lettuce contains fewer vitamins and minerals than most dark leafy greens.
Dried Fruit, Candied Nuts - These sweet toppings are often made with added sugar and oil. For example, an ounce of candied pecans can pack in 4 grams (1 teaspoon) of sugar. Dried fruits have less water and volume than the fresh kind. That means you get less: One serving is half-cup, or half that of fresh fruit.
Remember, if done right, salads are a healthy and nutritious way to eat right!