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Is There Such a Thing as Simple Greens? How to Build a Better Salad

By Beth Sumrell Ehrensberger, RD, MPH

“I’ll just have a salad.” So you fold up your menu and sit back in your chair, confident that you’ve made a healthy choice.  Certainly better than your buddy’s cheeseburger meal or pasta dish, right?  Actually, you could be so very wrong. 

Over the years, salads have morphed from a pale side of iceberg lettuce spiffed up with a few wedges of flavorless tomato to a serving-bowl-sized garden tossed with a dizzying variety of flavors. And, of course, it’s not the greens that tempt customers to choose a salad from the menu. It’s the gorgonzola, candied pecans, and macadamia-encrusted chicken strips. A quick scan of the nutrition information at a fast-casual restaurant turns up a wide selection of earthquake-worthy salads. How about an 820 calorie salad with 52 grams of fat, 10 of them of the artery-clogging saturated sort?  That’s the same caloric damage as devouring four glazed doughnuts and taking a bite out of a fifth. Not to mention that it's half a day’s worth of saturated fat. Even worse, at the same restaurant the salad has 60 more calories and almost 3 times more fat than a big bowl of pasta with meat sauce. So much for a healthy meal of salad greens! With this kind of “diet” food, it’s no wonder that over half of the states in this country can claim that at least a quarter of their population is obese...and those numbers continue to rise.  

But all salads aren’t a minefield.  If you order carefully and make some adjustments, you can come out ahead of a cheeseburger meal or pasta dish. If you’re choosing from a pre-made salad menu, we’ve culled some tips to help keep you from reaching calorie overload. But keep in mind that if you can’t make adjustments (or if you can, but only by ending up with a completely denuded salad), you may find a healthier, more flavorful meal by straying from the salad menu.  Even better, if you have the luxury of building your own salad from a salad bar (which is always the best scenario), you can use our tips plus a few we’ve singled out below in “Build a Better Salad” to keep your meal healthy.  

Top Five Salad Stumbles 
1. Bread: What seems to go better with salad than a breadstick? Or at least, that’s what a lot of restaurants think. But a lone breadstick can add another 200 calories (and 13 grams of fat, four of them saturated!) to your already calorie-teeming meal. And how about the south-of-the border answer to bread with salad—the almighty edible taco salad bowl? Add at least 300 calories to the salad bottom line. Whether it’s pita wedges, warm tortillas or artesian bread, thanks to baked-in cheese or a good lather of butter, the accompanying carbs can have as much as a quarter of your salad’s calories. Instead, request that your server leave off the bread that comes with your salad, and ask for a couple of plain saltines, which give a satisfying starchy crunch when crumbled on top, but only add about 25 calories per two-cracker pack. 

2.Cheese: It used to be only a smidge of grated cheddar dusting the top of salads, but we’ve become an “up-marketed” nation, with more premium choices available almost anywhere you dine. So now you’ll not only find cheddar, but also tasty types like Pecorino Romano, aged feta, and handcrafted farmhouse white cheddar—and lots of it. Check out the salad description, and if it lists cheese, ask for it on the side so you can control how much you use—or better yet, request that it is left off entirely. Asking that the chef go easy on the cheese isn’t always a successful strategy, since your idea of using a light hand is usually very different than the kitchen’s. Because cheese is a major contributor of saturated fat on a salad, leaving it off can drastically improve the health of your meal. 

3. Protein: Some people see “grilled chicken” on a salad’s ingredient list and stop reading, assuming the salad is probably a healthy choice. ] But there are often high fat partners pairing up in the mix:  bacon, cheese and grilled chicken go together very nicely, no? It goes without saying, but always choose a protein like chicken, shrimp or fish that has been prepared using no fat—such as in grilling. A boiled egg, which often turns up on salads, is also a great way to sneak in protein, as are beans or tofu. Protein is what keeps you feeling satisfied and less tempted by the dessert menu, so make sure your salad has one serving of lean protein.   

4. Dressing: Here’s a surprising fact:  it’s better to take a pass on the gelatinous glob of fat free dressing. In fact, research shows that healthful phytonutrients, like carotenoids (think: orange veggies) are nearly unabsorbed when dressed with a fat free dressing, as opposed to a full fat version. But that’s not carte blanche to pour on the ranch dressing. Monounsaturated fat—the heart healthy fat found in olive oil—is a great choice, as long as you keep an eye on portion control. Opt for oil-based vinaigrettes over creamy dressings, or better yet, ask for the oil and vinegar cruet and eyeball your own 3:1 mix (three parts vinegar to one part oil). If you really want a ready-mixed dressing, it helps to ask for it on the side—but that strategy only works if you’re careful about policing yourself to a single serving (two tablespoons). 

5. Extras: Add-ons are where the calories hide. If there are not bacon bits on your salad, you can count on croutons, tortilla strips, nuts, seeds, dried fruit or sour cream, just to name a few. Your best bet is to select the extra that means the most to you (and isn’t a nutrition disaster) and leave off the rest.  If your salad already comes with cheese, and you decide to keep it on, that should be all of the “extra” you need. Better choices for extras include thin slices of avocado, a handful of nuts or a few olives, since even though they contain fat and calories, it’s monounsaturated and healthy as long as you keep a handle on the portions.  

Building a Better Salad
If you’re standing at the end of a long row of colorful compartments at the salad bar, you have the opportunity to apply what you’ve just learned, plus take the nutrition up a notch. The healthiest salads are brimming with veggies, with a small amount of a lean protein, and have limited extras plus a moderate amount of dressing (which is usually one small ladle—2 tablespoons). 

If you have the choice, go with a bed of darker greens, instead of the pale iceberg—you’ll pack more nutrition onto your plate. And if spinach is available, pile it on; doing so will add the prostate cancer fighting benefit of the phytonutrient neoxanthin. And don’t be stingy with the veggies:  to make sure you’re fully loaded with antioxidant power, aim for a colorful plate, making at least one choice from each color group (for example, reds=tomato, oranges=carrots).  Cruciferous vegetables like broccoli and cauliflower are especially potent cancer fighters. 

Top your salad with a serving of lean protein, and if it’s cheese you want, than cheese you can get—but just a bit. Strong flavored cheeses, like gorgonzola, parmesan or feta make the best choices because just a tablespoon delivers a flavorful bang without a lot of saturated fat. Take a pass on any pre-made pasta, chicken or creamy fruit salads, which can easily ratchet up calories and fat. Even bean salads dressed in a vinaigrette can do diet damage. The exception, though, is if you top your salad with a reasonable scoop of a flavorful oil-marinated salad, you can skip the dressing, which saves you calories.

  And if you’re looking to finish your meal with something sweet, add a few pieces of fresh whole fruit like berries, oranges or melon to the side of your plate. In fact, adding fruit can power up your plate, since, for example, pairing citrus with beans allows your body to better absorb the iron in the legumes.  

Salads can be stellar if you keep your focus on a variety of veggies and bypass the calorie and fat-loaded extras that can wreck your arteries—and your waist size.