A salad can be a wise nutritional choice – but don’t kid yourself. A salad can also be as healthy as a greasy cheeseburger and fries, depending on what you add to the bowl. Here, Edward Hospital Nutrition Counselor Toni Havala, MS, RD, LDN, debunks some myths about that summertime meal staple.
It’s a salad – it’s low-calorie!
Veggies are extremely low calorie, but when you start adding fatty toppings like cheese, crispy (i.e. fried) chicken, bacon and croutons, or mayo-based salads such as chicken salad, you are ramping up the calories dramatically, Havala says.
For instance, a popular chicken salad entrée at a restaurant chain packs 1,300 calories and 72 grams of fat (50 percent more fat than is recommended in one day). Also, use salad dressing sparingly as it typically contributes a good deal of fat and calories. Try dipping your fork into the dressing before you put a bite of salad on your fork rather than pouring the dressing on top, Havala suggests. You’ll use much less dressing.
All lettuce is equally nutritious.
All lettuce is low in calories and has fiber and water that will help fill you up. However, the darker greens such as arugula, spinach and kale also contain vitamins, minerals and disease-fighting antioxidants, Havala says. Some of the darker greens can be stronger in flavor and coarser than the light-colored greens. Try cutting darker greens in shreds to make a chopped salad, and you will find they are much easier to eat and more popular with kids, she suggests. This also works for Brussels sprouts and cabbage. Adding shredded Brussels sprouts and cabbage to a salad bumps up its cancer-fighting properties and adds nice texture, Havala said. If you prefer the lighter varieties of greens, try mixing these with the more nutrient-dense, darker varieties.
If a salad is not made with organic ingredients, then it isn’t healthy.
Many studies have shown that those who eat over five cups of fruits and vegetables daily have a greatly-reduced risk of cancer, diabetes, heart disease and other chronic diseases. This is regardless of whether the produce is organic, Havala says. So don’t pass up salads that contain conventionally-grown produce for an entrée that is meat or pasta based – you’ll cheat yourself out of important phytonutrients.
A vegetable salad is a balanced meal.
Vegetables are a wonderful source of fiber, vitamins, minerals and antioxidants, but they are very low in protein – and vegetable protein is not a high-quality, complete protein, Havala says. Think about adding two chopped, hard-boiled eggs (throw one of the yolks out to decrease the saturated fat content), grilled chicken, boiled shrimp, tuna packed in water or 1/2 cup of legumes such as garbanzo or kidney beans. Avoid using cheese as your main source of protein or you’ll add a lot of calories along with the protein.
Pour on as much fat-free dressing as you want!
Fat-free salad dressings still contain calories and often are heavily processed, Havala says. Instead, toss a bit of heart-healthy oil with your salad – such as ¼ of a sliced avocado, 1 teaspoon olive oil, or a tablespoon of chopped nuts – to increase absorption of the vitamins in the vegetables, she said. If you are looking for a delicious, virtually calorie-free, healthy dressing, squeeze lemon or drizzle balsamic vinegar on top.
Healthy Salad Recipes
Catalan Bean Salad
¼ cup olive oil
2 cloves garlic, minced (or 1 teaspoon bottled minced garlic)
¼ teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon dried mustard
2 15-ounce cans of low sodium cannellini beans, drained and rinsed (any type of canned bean works well)
1 red pepper, diced
¼ cup pitted Greek olives, chopped
¼ cup of fresh basil or mint, chopped fine
Combine all dressing ingredients in a bowl. Add dressing to salad ingredients, mix, and serve. Best when served the same day.
Fennel, Orange, and Arugula Salad
2 Tablespoons olive oil
2 Tablespoons orange juice
2 Tablespoons red wine vinegar
¼ teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 medium bulb fennel, thinly sliced into half moons
5 cups (5 ounces) arugula
2 navel oranges, peeled and sliced
In a small bowl, whisk together the oil, orange juice, vinegar, salt and pepper. Add to the fennel and arugula and toss to coat. Put the mixture on serving plates and top with 4 slices of orange.
**To serve as an entrée salad, add 8 ounces of chopped grilled chicken