Salad Sabotage

by Charles Platkin, PhD

What could possibly be fattening about a ? Well, according to the USDA, the average woman, ages 19 to 50, gets more fat from salad dressing than from any other source, and that’s not including the various other toppings we pile on our salads. I don’t know about you, but I used to think that if I only ate salad, the weight would just drop from my body. But much to my dismay, with just a few wrong steps, a salad can end up in the “food hall of shame” alongside french fries and chocolate cake. Isn’t anything safe these days?

Salad consumption is at an all-time high, with 73% of American households serving salad as a regular part of their meals. We start out with great intentions — green leafy lettuce, fresh peppers, onions, beets, cucumbers and other healthy foods. However, the problems begin when we start “dressing up” the salad. We add dressing, croutons, cheese, oil-drenched sweet peppers, bacon bits, egg, ham, and anything else we can think of that packs on the calories and fat. “Consumers are looking for taste, texture and — most of all — flavor in everything they eat today, right down to the salad toppings,” says Nutritionist Carey Clifford, MS, RD.

So what can we do to keep up the flavor, and keep off the pounds?

Regular dressing can be high in calories and fat, and very often salads are drenched in it, so get it on the side and only use 1 to 1 1/2 tablespoons. Choice of dressing is also important. Here’s what can be found in three tablespoons (a standard restaurant serving) of some popular dressings:

  • Blue Cheese: 260 calories, 26 grams of fat
  • Ranch: 270 calories, 30 grams of fat
  • Thousand Island: 165 calories, 15 grams of fat
  • Creamy Italian: 240 calories, 26 grams of fat
  • Olive Oil and Vinegar: 270 calories, 27 grams of fat

Try switching to a low-fat or fat-free dressing (some of them actually taste good!). Fat-free dressings, by law, contain less than 1/2 gram of fat per 2 tablespoons, and low-fat dressing must only contain 3 grams of fat per serving. Try balsamic vinegar, dijon mustard, and fat-free yogurt as healthier alternatives.

Avoid crunchy additions such as croutons (1/2 cup = 86 calories and 3.5 grams of fat) and fried noodles. They add extra calories with little to no nutritional value.

Try to avoid whole milk cheeses. Even cottage cheese can be a source of unwanted fat. Many supermarkets carry prepackaged, shredded low-fat cheese, ready to sprinkle right on.

We all know that bacon is full of fat, so if you must have it, try putting it on a paper towel in the microwave to absorb the fat and save some calories.

With a deep-fried tortilla, guacamole, cheese, meat, and sour cream as add-ons, taco salads can be one of the least healthy options on the menu. The taco salad at Taco Bell outweighs most of the other menu options, with 850 calories and 52 grams of fat!

Watch out for pre-made salads in delis and markets, such as pasta salad, potato salad, and coleslaw (many of these contain mayonnaise). 1 cup can contain close to 30 grams of fat. Try for “salads” made from low-fat mayo, mustard and/or vinaigrette.

Make your salad more exciting by switching from iceberg lettuce to a combination of greens. Not only will this improve the color and texture of the salad, but it also increases its nutritional value without adding too many calories (about 25 calories per 1/2 cup). Adding extras like romaine lettuce, spinach, herbal greens, arugula, radicchio, and cabbage adds extra beta-carotene, potassium, and vitamin K. You can also try cherry tomatoes and baby carrots, which are nutritious additions that require little effort. Speaking of which, if putting all these ingredients together yourself seems like too much, you can buy pre-packaged mixed greens and bags of veggies (make sure to wash) in almost any local supermarket.

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