Sometimes, there’s nothing more rewarding than mustering up the strength to say “I’ll just have a salad” come lunchtime. It makes you feel all high and mighty. A salad is easy to assemble on a lunch break. Just pack some lettuce and a few salad toppings and bam, insta-meal.
Most people don’t sprinkle bacon bits over the bed of lettuce, but when it comes to salad toppings, some live by the motto “the more the merrier.” Olives? Why not! Corn? Pile it on! Some go as far as eating a huge volume of salad and so the rationalisations begin: It’s still technically a “salad,” so I’m good to go, right? Wrong.
Asking a dietician to analyze a typical salad, she said it’s just a fat salad in disguise. Sure, it’s (mostly) green and contains some vegetables, but if you don’t step on the brakes to really consider all of the salad toppings, you might as well just be eating a burrito or burger.
Of course, we all know to avoid cheese, creamy dressings, and everyone’s favorite offender, the crouton. But there are plenty of other, more sneaky salad toppings that can sabotage this supposedly healthier meal option. So what are the unassuming salad toppings that are making your salad a total fat bomb, and what should you toss on top of that baby spinach instead?
Starchy vegetables, such as corn and peas, may seem pretty healthy, but these veggies “make the calorie content of that salad zoom up pretty fast,” says Barbara Bergin, M.D. Starchy vegetables have a higher amount of carbs, and when cooked, the starch turns into sugar. Moreover, starchy vegetables tend to raise your blood sugar levels more than non-starchy vegetables, which means carb cravings later in the day.
Swap it: Top your salad with bell pepper slices or fiber-packed edamame.
OK, so you skipped the starchy veggies, but what about sauteed veggies of the non-starchy variety? Sauteed vegetables soak up oil, which only adds to the fat content of your meal.
Swap it: No brainer here, stick to the raw versions of your veggies. Add crunch and texture with onions, broccoli, and celery, or sprinkle on some antioxidant-packed parsley to amp up the zest factor.
Fat-free And Low-fat Salad Dressing
When it comes to reading salad dressing labels, take the marketing claims (Low fat! Low calorie!) with a grain of salt — no pun intended. Lower fat dressings often mean something else was added to compensate for lack of flavor. And surprise — these swaps are almost always unhealthy. People think that low fat and ‘natural’ are healthy choices. But low-fat often means there’s sugar, salt, and other sneaky sugar substitutes in there to make up for the missing fat. Even ‘natural’ simply means it’s something grown on this planet. Sugar is grown on this planet.
And it doesn’t end there. While fat-free and low-fat salad dressings are lower in calories, the absence of fat inhibits the body’s ability to absorb your salad’s nutrients. Carotenoids (the powerful antioxidants found in carrots, bell peppers, and green leafy vegetables) are fat-soluble, which means they require dietary fat for proper absorption in the body. By pairing your salad with a fat-free or low-fat dressing, you’re skipping out on beneficial vitamins and doing yourself a disservice in the long run.
Swap it: Create your own dressings using vinegar and a drizzle of olive oil, and add avocado slices for a healthy source of fat. You can also mix up your salad dressing flavors by squeezing on some fresh citrus juice or herbs.
Olives (And Anything Pickled)
Olives seem to be relatively harmless, right? Well here’s the news flash, olives don’t make your salad any healthier than they make that slice of veggie pizza more nutritious. The green and black olives that regularly get sprinkled over salads are pickled — which is just another way to say packed with sodium. The same salt factor goes for other pickled partners in crime, such as spicy banana peppers and pickled cucumbers.
Swap it: Reach for toppings with an interesting texture, like palm hearts, jicama, and artichokes, to keep your salad lively.
Raisins and other dried fruits seem totally nutritious, but they’re loaded with sugar and calories. Just one serving of Craisins is 138 calories. You get more bang for your calories by adding fresh fruit.
Swap it: If you’re looking for sweetness, top your salad with fresh strawberries, apple slices, mandarin oranges, blueberries, or sliced grapes.
Too Much Salad
Here;s the real kicker: There is such a thing as too much salad. Portion control is a key factor. We’ve gotten used to eating gigantic salads in restaurants. We want them at home too. The more greens you put on your plate, the more other stuff you need to flavor it. Which greens you’re munching on is also important.
Instead of iceberg or romaine lettuce (which are lacking in nutrients and not as flavorful anyway), go for baby spinach, kale, or mixed greens. As a general rule, the darker the leaves, the more nutrients you’ll be getting.
Fix it: Add healthy protein (lean chicken and fish) to your salad to help you feel more full and control your portion size.