When you order a salad from the menu, you’re often doing so because you want something low calorie or healthy, but the truth is, few of us would be happy eating a salad without toppings or dressing. We may mean well, but when we cover all the low-calorie and nutritious vegetables in creamy dressings, we often end up consuming the same number of calories as if we’d added a side of fries.
Salads can be rich and satisfying, but many pre-made and restaurant salads contain a surprising amount of sugar, dairy, salt, and fat. Even the salads we make at home often don’t live up to their potential. So, are your salads sabotaging your weight loss plan?
How to Create a Healthy Salad
Firstly, let’s think about your favorite salad dressing. Ranch, Caesar, thousand island, buffalo, and honey mustard dressings all sound delicious, but they end up negating all the healthy food you’re eating in the salad. Thick and creamy dressings might taste good but they often contain high amounts of sodium, sugar, fat, preservatives, and salt. For many people, mayonnaise and salad cream are favorable options, but again, they simply are not low-calorie options.
If you’re on a weight loss program, opt for a healthier option such as balsamic vinegar or vegetable oil such as olive oil with some lemon juice. If you’re feeling like putting in a little effort yourself, you could always make a quick salsa and serve it with your salad for a refreshing and flavorful sauce.
If you are desperate to use your favorite dressing, cut back on how much you use. In most cases, a tablespoon (or two) will cover your salad with enough dressing to add flavor, but not so much that you’re essentially eating your dressing with a side of lettuce.
Crispy & Crunchy Toppings
Next, we turn to those infamous crispy, crunchy toppings. We all love something crunchy – it’s satisfying and usually salty, but watch out for anything that isn’t naturally crunchy like bread or fried veggies. These small bites of croutons or onions might add some crunch for your cravings but they are often high in calories. They are likely crunchy because they’re breaded or deep-fried which can set your weight loss goals back in the long run.
Instead of adding pre-packaged fried onions, opt for a handful of toasted walnuts or pine nuts. You could also grill fresh onions yourself or roast some well-seasoned chickpeas for some satisfying healthy salad toppings.
When we think of the main ingredient in a salad, we often think of leafy greens, but surprisingly, not all leafy greens are equal. Iceberg lettuce is the most commonly used lettuce in a salad but contains fewer nutrients than its cruciferous counterparts. It’s also significantly less flavorful than other leafy greens, which means we’re more likely to cover it in dressing. Instead of plain old iceberg lettuce, look for salads with romaine, spinach, kale, or peppery arugula.
Think about your salad’s protein source. While a fried chicken and bacon Caesar salad might sound tasty, it ceases to be a healthy option with all that fat and salt. Red meat and deep-fried white meat may add some flavor to a dish, but nothing’s stopping you from getting that satisfaction from some pan-fried chicken or grilled fish. All of these options can be just as delicious when you season and cook them properly!
Avoid mayonnaise-heavy protein sources such as tuna salad and egg salad. Alternatively, you can add a hardboiled egg or sustainably-sourced canned tuna instead.
Watch out for the cheese! Cheese can be a healthy addition to meals in moderation, but it’s so easy to get carried away, thinking “I’m eating a salad – I can get away with adding a little cheese.” Make sure you’re only adding a sprinkle, not handfuls. A tablespoon of spicy jalapeno cheese or blue cheese will add a ton of flavor, without too many calories. You could also sprinkle some nutritional yeast on your salad for a deliciously cheesy and umami flavor. If you can forego cheese altogether, do.
Focus On Healthy Veggies
Finally, we move on to the rest of the salad’s vegetable content. When choosing your salad vegetables, opt for tomatoes, broccoli, onions, carrots, bell peppers, and other fresh vegetables. Avoid dried fruits and candied nuts as they contain a lot of sugar. Many people add whole fruits to their salad for a hint of a sweeter flavor, so try some salad recipes that incorporate pieces of orange, blueberries, or strawberries if that’s something you’d enjoy.
Consider the purpose of your salad
Before you order or prepare a salad, ask yourself: “what am I trying to get out of this?”
If the answer is that you just crave something green with some crunchy things on top, then go for it. But if your current goals involve consuming fewer calories, you’ll want to be mindful of dressings, toppings, and even the vegetables that go into your salad. A salad can be an excellent way of getting in a whole lot of fresh produce, but all that goodness can go to waste if you add in things that aren’t as healthy as you might imagine.
When you’re making a salad, you don’t necessarily have to weigh out every gram of oil or limit yourself to flavorless, low-fat cheeses. But if you’re on a journey towards weight loss, be sure to use salads as a way to eat lots of vegetables you love, rather than trying to hide veggies you dislike underneath a bucket of dressing!
Dr. Nancy Rahnama, MD, ABOM, ABIM, is a medical doctor board certified by both the American Board of Obesity Medicine and the American Board of Internal Medicine. Her specialty is Clinical Nutrition, that is, the use of nutrition by a medical doctor to diagnose and treat disease. Dr. Rahnama has helped thousands of people achieve their goals of weight loss, gut health, improved mood and sleep, and managing chronic disease.