How to Avoid Healthy Salad Sabotage

by Charles Platkin, PhD

I’ve been traveling the last few days with my family, and we’ve been hitting local salad bars whenever we can. Yes, are generally healthier than fried fast food, or burgers, pizza, and many other foods; however, you can still eat too much of a good thing. Here are a few tips and comparisons to help you avoid sabotaging your salad.

Take a peek at the following salads from a few chain restaurants:

Southwest Chile Lime Ranch Salad with Chicken at Panera Bread has the following nutrition breakdown: 650 Calories, 34g Total Fat, 1270mg Sodium, 54g Total Carbs, 10g Fiber, 24g Protein.
Tender Greens, a new salad chain started by famed Danny Meyers has a Happy Vegan salad with the following nutrition breakdown: 980 Calories, 37g Total Fat, 1260mg Sodium, 146g Total Carbs, 14g Fiber, 26g Protein.
TGI Friday’s Caesar Salad with Grilled Chicken and Caesar Dressing: 810 Calories, 59g Total Fat, 1910mg Sodium, 28g Total Carbs, 5g Fiber, 46g Protein.

Now compare these salads to the stats for a Big Mac: 540 Calories, 28g Total Fat, 950mg Sodium, 46g Total Carbs, 3g Fiber, 25g Protein.

The following are a few tips and points to be aware of while choosing your next salad.

The dressing on your salad can make or break its healthiness factor. So this is your most important choice for keeping your positive eating on track. Regular dressing can be high in calories and fat, and very often salads are drenched in it, so get your dressing on the side and use only 1 to 1 1/2 tablespoons–or better yet, sprinkle it on your salad with a fork. Creamy Dressings (many are mayonnaise-based) are the worst choices nutrition-wise, and the fastest way to sabotage your healthy salad. Here’s what can be found in three tablespoons (a standard restaurant serving) of some popular dressings:

Blue Cheese: 260 calories
Ranch: 270 calories
Thousand Island: 165 calories
Creamy Italian: 240 calories
Olive Oil and Vinegar: 270 calories
Russian Dressing: 160 calories
French Dressing: 180 calories
Italian Dressing:90 calories
Caesar dressing, 240 calories

Try switching to a low-sugar, low fat dressing (some of them actually taste good!). By law, fat-free dressings must contain less than 1/2 gram of fat per 2 tablespoons, and low-fat dressing must contain no more than 3 grams of fat per serving. Try balsamic vinegar, Dijon mustard, or fat-free yogurt as healthier alternatives. Also, Pumpkin or sunflower seeds for added flavor, and while they still have calories, they also add taste with nutritional value. Add olives to create a tasty, low calorie alternative to croutons at 5 calories each. Avoid too many mandarin slices which are often packed in sugar and are 10 calories each; use clementines instead. Add any whole fruit, such as blueberries, strawberries, mangos, fresh summer peaches, etc for flavor without too many calories.

Make sure to include plenty of celery, bell peppers, cucumbers, carrots, broccoli, or kale chips, all of which are very tasty and add volume and flavor to a healthy salad without costly calories.

Avoid crunchy additions such as croutons (1/2 cup = 66 calories), fried noodles or wonton strips, and crunchy tortilla chips or shells. They add extra calories, with little to no nutritional value. Also avoid foods that are described as crispy, which really means fried.

Try to avoid whole milk cheeses. Even cottage cheese can be a source of unhealthy fat and calories. Many supermarkets carry prepackaged, shredded low-fat cheese ready to sprinkle right on your salad.
Crumbled blue cheese is 100 calories per ounce.
Crumbled goat cheese is 70 calories per ounce,
Feta is 80 calories per ounce.

We all know that bacon is full of fat, so if you must have it, try cooking it on a paper towel in the microwave to absorb the fat and save some calories. Bacon and ham both have 50 calories per slice.

With a deep-fried tortilla shell, 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!

A cup of kidney beans has just 225 calories and is loaded with protein (15g), and fiber (11g). Lentils have a similar profile with even more protein (18g) and fiber( 16g). These, and chickpeas all make good choices for a healthy salad.

I wouldn’t worry about avocados, they’re nutrient-dense and packed with antioxidants, vitamins B6, C and E, as well as folate and 60 percent more potassium per ounce than bananas. They’re also a great source of monounsaturated fat, which studies have shown reduces serum cholesterol levels when used in place of saturated fats.

The problem with dried fruit is that when the water is removed the fruit becomes less filling but still has the same number of calories. Dried fruit just becomes sweeter, more concentrated and easier to over-consume. Plus, many producers of dried fruit add sugar, thus increasing its already dense calorie levels. In fact, ounce-for-ounce, all types of dried fruit are much higher in calories than their fresh equivalents because of the water that’s lost and the concentration of sugar that’s created during the drying process. Take a look at raisins as compared to grapes: One cup of fresh grapes has 62 calories and 0.8g fiber. One (1.5-ounce) box of raisins has 129 calories and 1.6g fiber. So go light on the Craisins (dried cranberries with sugar) and raisins, and look to fresh fruit as options for a healthy salad.

Watch out for pre-made salads such as pasta salad, potato salad, tuna salad, egg salad and coleslaw, which often contain mayonnaise. One cup can contain close to 30 grams of fat. Try for “salads” made with low-fat mayo, mustard and/or vinaigrette.

TRY DIFFERENT GREENS Make your salad more exciting by switching from iceberg lettuce to a combination of healthy salad greens. Not only will you be improving the color and texture of the salad, but you will also be increasing its nutritional value. Adding romaine lettuce, spinach, herbal greens, arugula, radicchio, or cabbage provides additional beta-carotene, potassium and vitamin K. You can also try cherry tomatoes and baby carrots, which are nutritious additions that require little preparation. Speaking of which, if putting all these ingredients together yourself seems like too much work, you can buy pre-packaged mixed greens and bags of veggies in almost any local supermarket.

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