Just because it’s not a big bowl of pasta doesn’t mean a salad can’t be a shady way to overdo it in the calorie and fat department. Here’s how to make this summer staple work for, not against you.
First, start with a good foundation, as in choose your lettuce wisely. “Lettuce provides fiber, vitamins, minerals, and phytochemicals for few calories,” says Sharon Richter, R.D., a registered dietitian in New York City. “It’s also a source of folate, and vitamin B, needed for the growth and repair of DNA in cells; plus, vitamin K, a nutrient linked to healthy bones; and potassium, a mineral important for healthy blood pressure, as well as a little calcium.” But not all leaves are created equal. Richter dubs iceberg as “loser leaves — it’s just a vehicle to get other foods in your mouth because it has hardly any nutrients,” she says. The simple rule to stick by: “The darker the leaf, the more vitamins it contains,” she explains. Your top picks should be spinach, romaine, arugula, kale, and chicory. “These contain the most folate and beta-carotene — an antioxidant that helps rid your body of disease-causing chemicals in addition to protecting your eyes and skin,” she says.
Next, add some color — from green, red, yellow, orange, and purple. Raw veggies are not only super low in calories (so you don’t have to pay crazy attention to quantity), they also offer a ton of nutrients such as fiber and antioxidants. Grilled vegetables are just as healthy, right? Not if you aren’t the one firing them up and know exactly how they’re prepared. At the salad bar they could be soaked in oil — literally — which can skyrocket the calorie count.
What’s non-negotiable according to Richter? Protein. “It will keep you feeling satisfied and prevents cravings long after you’ve finished eating,” she says. Ask for plain tuna (not mayo-heavy salad!), salmon, tofu, beans, chickpeas, or skinless chicken or turkey. “And try to get any protein as close to their natural state as possible for the greatest nutritional value,” says Richter. For instance, a half cup of grilled chicken has only 61 calories while a half cup of fried chicken has 194 calories. Just watch your portion sizes with protein as well as legumes. “Legumes, such as lentils, while full of fiber, are also caloric,” says Richter. “Three ounces, about the size of the palm of your hand is more than enough to have in your salad.”
Some other yummy and good for you add-ons: a hardboiled egg or raw nuts. “Hard-boiled eggs are terrific, yolk included — it contains one hundred percent of the carotenoids, essential fatty acids, vitamins A, E, D, and K you need every day,” says Richter. “And raw nuts are full of fiber, protein, and the healthy fats that keep you satiated.” But be aware that both of these count as part protein and part good fat. “So you want to pay attention to servings size as they are calorie dense,” she says.
What you absolutely want to steer clear of? Surprisingly somewhat standard salad go-to’s such as croutons (aka fried bread, says Richter) and cheese. Well, kind of: “One ounce of cheese contains up to 120 calories and 9 grams of fat,” says Richter, "but if it’s a source of your daily dairy, then use lower-fat soft cheese, such as goat or feta, or sprinkle one tablespoon of grated parmesan, which is only 25 calories."
Finish off with one healthy fat and a healthy dressing. “Limit yourself to one or two healthy mono-unsaturated fat per salad (aside from the dressing), such as nuts, seeds, olives, or avocado,” says Richter. “Ten olives or 1/4 cup of nuts (the size of a golf ball) add flavor and tons of nutrients.” Oh, and think candied walnuts count? No chance. “You might as well add Skittles to your salad,” says Richter.
Whenever you can, reach for a DIY dressing over the store-bought bottles. “Make your own with vinegar, mustard, oil, and herbs or lemon,” she says. And again, watch how many times that ladle goes into that honey mustard: “Honey-mustard dressing can be more than 200 calories per ¼ cup, which is only about one ladle,” says Richer. “Even worse, ¼ cup of ranch or Caesar packs about 300 calories.” And even though the fat-free label is tempting, Richter says there are other hidden unhealthy culprits such as a ton of salt and sugar.