A salad often seems like a healthy choice, but many are loaded with high calorie ingredients.

When I think of a salad, I picture a beautiful bowl of leafy greens tossed with other colorful veggies like orange carrots, purple onions, bright red tomatoes and yellow bell peppers. A salad like that is the picture of health. But there’s an unhealthy side to salad, too. We use the term salad so loosely now that we call almost anything tossed together in a bowl a salad, as long as there’s something coating it, flavoring it or holding it together.

I’ve seen entrée salads on restaurant menus without a veggie in sight—just an overload of meat, cheese and heavy dressing. Some salads start out with good intentions, in the form of leafy greens and mixed veggies. But then they’re loaded down with crispy noodles, fried chicken strips, cheese or bacon. And if you were to eat at my grandmother’s house, a “salad” invariably consisted of a square of neon-red gelatin nestled in a single lettuce leaf (which was usually not eaten), topped with a dollop of mayonnaise.

Salads Can Have More Calories and Fat than a Cheeseburger

The problem with many entrée salads is that they’re loaded down with fat, so it helps to know where all that fat is coming from. Next time you’re in a restaurant and decide to have just a salad, here are a few things to consider.

  • Ditch the fatty proteins. When you see the word “crispy,” as in crispy chicken strips, it’s just a nicer way of saying “fried.” So, if you’re having an entrée salad with protein in it, look for salads containing chicken, shrimp or fish that’s grilled rather than fried. And watch out for other high calorie proteins, too. Foods like sausages or fatty cold cuts often make their way into main-dish salads.
  • Avoid high fat extras. Many restaurant salads are overloaded with lots of extras that can make the calorie count soar. These fatty calorie bombs include cheese, bacon, fried tortilla strips, crispy fried noodles, onion rings, sour cream and oily croutons.
  • Choose dressings carefully and use sparingly. Dressings are one of the quickest ways to undo the nutritional value of a healthy salad. Creamy or cheesy dressings can cost you 75 calories per tablespoon, and many restaurants serve as much as 8 times that amount. And since that’s what we’re given, many of us assume that’s a normal portion. But few of us can, or should, afford the additional 600 calories and 60 grams of fat that a half-cup of ranch dressing adds to the mix. Always order your dressing on the side, and choose lighter vinaigrettes over creamy dressings. Also, try the fork-dip method: dip your fork into your dressing, take a stab at your salad and repeat. You’ll get a little taste of dressing with each bite, but you’ll be surprised at how little you actually use.

Choosing Salads Wisely

When you choose a restaurant salad, be on the lookout for these high-fat ingredients, and make adjustments accordingly. Most of the time, it’s as simple as asking that an ingredient or two be left out. And maybe swap out a creamy dressing for oil-based vinaigrette and having it served on the side. Just a few simple changes can make a huge difference.

A Southwestern-style salad with lettuce, grilled chicken, a few spoons of black beans, a dab of guacamole and some salsa can be a healthy choice. And it will probably only cost you about 400 calories. But get your salad fully loaded with cheese, creamy dressing and served in a fried tortilla shell, and the calorie count triples to more than 1200.

Similarly, a Chinese chicken salad might sound healthy, since it usually includes greens or cabbage, grilled chicken, some mandarin oranges and toasted almonds. But it’s the crispy fried noodles and the huge amount of dressing that sends the fat and calorie count soaring. Leave out the fried noodles and keep your dressing portion to around a tablespoon, and you’re looking at a reasonable 450 calories or so. If you eat the salad as the restaurant serves it, you’d be eating more than 1000 calories. That’s the fat equivalent of a huge slice of cheesecake and large fries.

Use the same principles when choosing side salads, too. A mixed green salad is usually a great choice if you use just a dab of vinaigrette dressing. Fruit salad—as long as it’s not loaded down with sugary syrup or a sweet creamy dressing—also makes a great side salad. But watch the side salads that are creamy or starchy. Even a small portion of potato salad, pasta salad or mayonnaise-heavy coleslaw can cost you several hundred calories.

When it comes to choosing a salad, the bottom line is this: just because a dish is called a salad, doesn’t automatically make it healthy. So, don’t let the word salad sway you. When making your choice, pay a little less attention to what it’s called and a lot more attention to what’s in it.

by Susan Bowerman, M.S., RD, CSSD, CSOWM, FAND​

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