Unfortunately, many things. Salads can run the gamut of healthiness, depending on what is in them. Although that big bowl of greens may be packed full of antioxidants and fiber, it can also be laden with fat, cholesterol and sodium—not to mention an overabundance of calories. Some restaurant salads can even contain more calories than a cheeseburger!
Luckily, like most things in life, a salad is the outcome of several small decisions. To make sure you don't sabotage your healthy diet unintentionally, choose wisely the next time you order a salad from a restaurant or visit the salad bar. When dining out, don't be afraid to ask questions, make special requests (extra veggies, dressing on the side, light cheese) and ask about substitutions (like grilled chicken for breaded). Most restaurants will be happy to accommodate you as long as their kitchen is stocked with the ingredients you want. Here’s how to choose wisely next time you're making a salad at home or choosing one from a menu.
The foundation of most salads, lettuce adds substance, crunch, water and fiber for very few calories—only about 10 per cup. But if you want all that and vitamins, too, toss out the iceberg and toss in the romaine, mixed baby greens and spinach. While iceberg lettuce is lower in nutrients (and still makes a decent choice if it's the only thing available), these other greens are rich in vitamins A, C and K, manganese and folate.
Adding protein, such as lean meat, tofu, eggs or beans, will help bulk up your salad and keep you fuller longer. Unfortunately, many protein toppings are deep-fried, breaded and greasy, which adds unnecessary calories plus cholesterol, sodium and fat to your salad. Skimp on fattier toppings such as bacon and fried (breaded) chicken strips, and go for lean proteins instead. Grilled chicken, canned beans of all kinds, chickpeas, tofu, hardboiled eggs (especially whites) or water-packed tuna are leaner choices. Nuts and seeds are popular in salads, too, and while they’re a healthy source of good fats and some protein, they’re not exactly low-cal. If you choose to add them, watch your portions (1/2 ounce contains more than 80 calories).
Restaurants know that people love cheese, so they tend to pile on multiple servings of it on their salads. It might be tasty, but it sends the calorie counts sky high! While cheese is a nutritious food that adds flavor, calcium and protein to a salad, enjoy it in moderation due to its high fat content. Just a half-cup of cheddar cheese (the amount on many large restaurant salads) contains 18 grams of fat and 225 calories. To keep calories in check, use a single serving of cheese (approximately two tablespoons). Choose low-fat varieties as much as possible to save on saturated fat and calories. A smaller amount of a stronger-flavored cheese, such as Brie, feta, chevre, gorgonzola, sharp cheddar or bleu cheese, will go a long way toward helping you cut down on your portions.
Pile on the Veggies
Vegetables like bell peppers, grated carrots, sugar snap peas and tomatoes provide flavor, fiber and vitamins for few calories. Grated carrots, for example, have only 45 calories in a whole cup, and there are only about 20 calories in an entire red bell pepper. When building your best salad, use as many veggies as possible for extra filling power—and a nice crunch! Practice moderation when it comes to starchy vegetable toppings like corn and potatoes, which are higher in calories. And remember to go for a variety of colors to ensure you're getting several different nutrients and antioxidants in your salad bowl.
Don't Forget the Fruit
Don't leave fruit on the sidelines! Fresh, canned and dried fruits add a sweetness that can help temper the slightly bitter taste of greens and veggies. They also provide color and texture (not to mention nutrition) to your salad bowl. Chopped apples, pears, grapes, or mandarin oranges (canned in juice—not syrup—and drained) are excellent salad toppers. Chewy dried fruits (cranberries, raisins) work well, too, but they are also high in calories (so only use a sprinkle!). Avocados (and the guacamole made from them) are creamy and nutritious thanks to their heart-healthy fats, but they're also a concentrated source of calories. Keep your use of avocado to a minimum if you're watching your weight.
Sesame sticks, crispy noodles and croutons are salty and crunchy, but conceal a lot of hidden fat. Better options include water chestnuts, apple slivers, a small serving of nuts, crumbled whole-grain crackers and homemade croutons. To make your own low-fat croutons, just slice a large clove of garlic and rub it over both sides of a piece of whole-grain bread. Cut the bread into cubes and then brown it in the toaster or conventional oven.
A very healthy salad could go very wrong with one too many shakes of oil or dressing. The main issue with dressing is its fat and sodium content—and the fact that people have trouble controlling their portions. Two tablespoons is an appropriate serving of dressing, but most restaurants serve much more than that, whether mixed into your salad or served on the side. Those calories add up fast. When dining out, always ask for dressing on the side and dip your fork into the dressing before picking up your bite of salad. Caesar, ranch and other cream-based dressings (when not specified as low-fat) are calorie bombs worth avoiding. Look for dressings specified as "low-fat" that contain no more than 60 calories per serving. You can also add flavor for minimal calories by using salsa, vinegar or lemon juice.
Salad may be the symbol of healthy eating, but not every salad is healthful—or diet-friendly. The healthfulness of your next salad depends on the simple choices you make when topping or dressing it. Because you can customize salads so easily, it's possible to make a huge, main-course salad for a very small amount of calories. Pile in the lettuce and veggies, add a moderate amount of lean protein, sprinkle in some cheese and a little something crunchy, and measure a portion-controlled side of dressing, and you’ve got a dinner that won’t leave you feeling hungry.