sometimes, there’s nothing more rewarding than mustering up the strength to say “I’ll just have a salad” come lunchtime. It makes me feel all high and mighty. And, in fairness, my “I’ll have a salad” days are usually preceded by a string of drive-thru trips, late night pizza, and back-to-back birthday parties. A pat on the back for bypassing French fries for a plate of lettuce seems appropriate, no?
Food guilt aside, I’ve also upped my salad consumption because a salad is easy to assemble on a lunch break. Just pack some lettuce and a few salad toppings and bam, insta-meal.
Now, I don’t sprinkle bacon bits over my bed of lettuce, but when it comes to salad toppings, my motto is “the more the merrier.” Olives? Why not! Corn? Pile it on! If I’m at the salad bar at Whole Foods, my salad always weighs in above an acceptable weight class for a plastic container full of vegetables. And so the rationalizations begin: It’s still technically a “salad,” so I’m good to go, right? Wrong.
I asked a dietician to analyze my typical salad and she told me it’s just a fat salad in disguise. Sure, it’s (mostly) green and contains some vegetables, but if I don’t step on the brakes to really consider all of my salad toppings, I 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 I asked nutritionists and dieticians to reveal the unassuming salad toppings that are making my salad (and yours!) a total fat bomb, as well as what to toss on top of that baby spinach instead. How many of these ingredients are making your current go-to salad a fat bomb?
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 saut
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. “My patients think that low fat and ‘natural’ are healthy choices,” says Bergin. “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 I hate to break it to you, but the dietitians I spoke to say 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,” says Berman. “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,” says Hillary Irwin MS RD. “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,” says Kim Hoban, RD. “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.
7 Snacks That Taste Fatty But Keep You Skinny
Now that you know which healthy-looking toppings are sabotaging your salad, reward yourself with snacks that taste fatty, but are actually good for you.