Caroline Shannon-Karasik’s Afterglo

The (un)healthy salad

By Caroline Shannon-Karasik

You probably didn’t think it existed, right?

Unhealthy salad? Huh?

The truth is, the term “salad” can be spread a little thin. Pop into a local restaurant and you’ll find “salads” laden with french fries, dressings high in fat, too much cheese, croutons and other common salad toppings that make one wonder, “Where’s the lettuce underneath all of that?”

“I looked up the word ‘salad’ on Wikipedia,” said Rona Lewis, a fitness and lifestyle coach, and author of “Does This Cookbook Make Me Look Fat?” “This is what it says: ‘[…] any of a wide variety of dishes including: green salads, vegetable salads, salads of pasta, legumes or grains, mixed salads incorporating meat, poultry or seafood and fruit salads …’ and it goes on to say, ‘Salads may be served at any point during a meal.’ What the heck is all that about?”

Lewis said definitions like that are where the problem lies when it comes to building a healthy salad – people are under the impression that if it says “salad,” then surely it’s healthy.


“We don’t realize that all the extras add needless calories, carbs, fat and sugar,” Lewis said. “And I’m not even going to mention portion sizes. Wait – I am. Almost every chain, sit-down restaurant will give you a salad with fried food on it, creamy sauces and croutons as big as a kaiser rolls.

“That one salad could feed four people and has calories and fat enough for ten.”

Vandana Sheth, a registered dietitian and spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association, agreed with Lewis, adding that many of her clients wonder why they still aren’t losing weight after they have been working on supplementing their diets with salads.

“Often, people don’t realize that a salad from a salad bar can end up costing them more than 1,000 calories based upon their toppings, choices and portions,” Sheth said. “Mixed salads, such as potato salad and tuna salad, can be quite high in calories, especially from fat. For example, a quarter cup of potato or tuna salad made with mayonnaise can provide 90-95 calories.”

That lack of knowledge, said Jennifer Neily, a registered dietitian and board certified specialist in sports dietetics, can lead to salads that have the calorie and fat content of a rather unhealthy dish.

“Whenever I get the ‘But I’m just eating salads’ schtick, a red flag immediately goes off with me,” Neily said. “Sometimes, they might be better off getting a plate of nachos –if we’re just looking at calories.”

So, what does a healthy salad look like and how do we go about putting one together? Here are the details on how to build one:

1. Start with dark, leafy greens like romaine lettuce, spinach, kale and arugula.

2. Add fresh veggies, like raw bell peppers, cucumbers, carrots, broccoli slaw, onion and tomato (which is really classified as a fruit).

3. Throw on four to five ounces of a protein source, like grilled chicken, steamed fish, garbanzo or black beans, hemp seed, tuna, tofu or even a scoop of cottage cheese.

4. Choose a few “extras,” but only one or two, like a few slices of avocado, two ounces of cheese (i.e. goat or feta cheese), seven or eight black olives, a scoop of sunflower seeds or sprinkling of dried fruit (i.e. cranberries or raisins).

5. Spice it up! Make a salad interesting by topping it with something unexpected, like fresh sliced strawberries or peaches, sprouted beans, flax seeds or jicama.

6. Choose a light salad dressing, such as a vinaigrette or fat free dressing, or simply use seasoned vinegar or lemon juice in place of a traditional salad dressing. No matter your dressing choice, keep it to about two tablespoons.

And, people, please stay away from the croutons, bacon crumbles, excess cheese, tortilla strips and crunchy noodles that like to make an appearance at salad bars. You know I’m all about balance, so it’s OK to indulge in those naughty bites every now and then. But just don’t make them a regular addition. My girl Sheth is on the same page, adding: “All foods can fit in a healthy diet. It is more a matter of portion control.”

Perhaps one of the most exciting aspects of the healthy list above is it proves building a salad does not have to be ho-hum.

“One of the biggest misconceptions people have about salads is that they are boring, unfulfilling or uninspired,” said LindaJoy Rose, author, therapist and wellness chef. “A salad can incorporate some of your favorite foods without the bloated feeling and poor digestion that comes with overeating or bad food combinations.”

Make it a goal to try a new vegetable, fruit or other healthy add-in each time you visit a salad bar or make one at home. Not only will your body thank you for new sources of tasty nutrients, but making fresh choices help spice things up a bit between the lettuce leaves.

Look at you getting all crazy with that salad.

Caroline Shannon-Karasik is the upcoming author of a gluten-free healthy lifestyle book, set to be released in January 2014. She is the author of the popular gluten-free blog, and is currently training to become a certified health coach. Her writing and recipe development has been featured in several publications, including, VegNews, Kiwi and REDBOOK magazines. Caroline lives with her husband Dan and four adopted cats in Pittsburgh, PA. Caroline can be reached at

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