Best and Worst Salad Toppings

A few years back I typed up a list of New Year’s resolutions on a small piece of cardstock, laminated it, and put it in my wallet. On that list was the resolution to eat a salad every day, simply because eating salad always made me feel like I was doing something good for myself. After all, salad provides several vitamins and can fill you up while reducing your caloric intake. What could be healthier than a big, fresh salad?

Unfortunately, many things, as I later found out. 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 full 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 2 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 in 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 sources of calories. Keep your use of avocado to a minimum if you're watching your weight.

Crunchy Toppings
Sesame sticks, crispy noodles and croutons are salty and crunchy but conceal 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 in to 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. Perhaps my greatest discovery about salads was that because you can customize them so easily, you could 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, sprinkling 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.
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Member Comments

Thanks for all the advice and suggestions. This was really helpful to me when I eat out or make my own. Report
thanks Report
Thanks for sharing Report
Thanks for the suggestions. I love kale. Report
Love spinach and kale. Long gone are the days for me of iceberg lettuce! And really mindful about the toppings! Report
Spinach please Report
I've begun to try kale in mixed salad greens. Have been pretty skeptical about trying it. Surprisingly, at least with a mix, I like it!
Michele Obama needed to push calorie reduction because that was easier for the average person to follow. The nutrition part comes from the schools and teachers and takes a long while to learn. Even doctors don't know a lot about nutrition. And the parents of the little darlings could learn on their own, but expect schools to do it for them. Report
Great comment on Michele. They were big on introducing arugula into our salads. I think 90% of the people that voted for them did not know that vegetable. Report
I think it is sad that just because it is a salad that people think it is good for them. I think Michelle Obama should have worried less about reducing the calories in school lunches and more about educating children on nutrition. Report
Some great ideas here but beware of low calorie and low fat dressings as they are not always a healthier choice. My husband loves Kraft Zesty Italian dressing so I decided to compare the nutritional information for the regular Zesty Italian, the Calorie Wise Zesty Italian and the Fat Free Italian dressing one day.

The regular dressing has 25 calories/Tbsp with 2.5 grams of fat, of which only 0.3 grams are saturated, and 110 mg of sodium.

The "calorie wise" dressing has 5 calories/Tbsp with 0.4 grams of fat and 140 mg of sodium.

The "fat free" dressing also 5 calories/Tbsp with 0 grams of fat and 180 mg of sodium.

When they reduce or remove the fat from foods to make them healthier it is generally replaced with either sugar or salt, and sometimes both!

I buy the regular Zesty Italian dressing because the fat in it is polyunsaturated which helps our bodies absorb all those vitamins & minerals that are in the fruits & veggies and I don't want the extra sodium, thank you very much.

There are definitely times where it is a good idea to choose low calorie or fat free products but, in my experience, salad dressings is not one of them. You have to read the labels and compare. I first learned of this when I took a heart healthy eating workshop led by a dietician who specialized cardiovascular care. Report
Have you ever tried a salad with dandelions, or violets, How about boiled milkweed tops or the immature fruit of a cattail. Jerusalem artichokes are good. Boiled skunk cabbage is very healthy(because of the smell- I don't eat it, but have), It's kinda like kimche, not bad if the smell doesn't get ya or baalot (pickled gorrami fish ( the smell of that will wake you right up. I like to eat a lot of wild foods and mushrooms; with which one must be very careful. Report
I generally opt for healthy salads, Blue cheese is my favorite dressing but I have learned to live with one I developed which is very healthy, no cheese but vinegar spices and olive oil. I eat a spoon of feta cheese with it on the salad. Sometimes I combine salad with 97% fat free ham and turkey sliced up in a chefs salad with a sliced Hard boiled egg some homemade tomato soup and a couple slices of toasted whole grain 12 grain bread dressed with 2TB homemade toasted garlic, jalapeno hummus. I call that a meal Report
I build my salads very carefully. I use spinach kale and romaine lettuce, black beans, kidney beans and chick peas. Beets, baby corn, carrots, celery, carrot, cucumber and tomatoes. Shrimp, crab meat, roasted chicken... Nothing fried, nothing breaded. Usually no dressing except a squirt of lemon juice.

I love going to a salad bar, because I can choose a huge, healthy, low fat, low sodium meal.

Gail Report
I liked the tips on this article, but as a few people said, low fat dressing tastes awful! Since I eat mostly vegetarian, I found that I don't usually get enough fat in my diet. Therefore, regular dressing works fine for me if I chose to eat it. One thing bad about the low fat dressing is they use sugar to replace the fat. Sugar is worse for you than most fats. My favorite is balsalmic vinegar with a good olive oil, which is a good fat for you. Just remember to read the ingredients before you eat that dressing. Report


About The Author

Liza Barnes
Liza Barnes
Liza has two bachelor's degrees: one in health promotion and education and a second in nursing. A registered nurse and mother, regular exercise and cooking are top priorities for her. See all of Liza's articles.
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