Sure it’s a salad, but how healthy is it … really?
By Caroline Shannon-Karasik
I love food.
I love cooking and baking and, naturally, eating. And as someone who likes to try new recipes, the dishes I make can range from kind of complicated to you’re-going-to-need-three-hours-to-pull-this-one-off complicated.
But I also love simple dishes, ones that require no oven, mixing bowls or fancy ingredients. One of my favorites? The salad.
In fact, I love a good salad so much that it’s most often my lunch of choice. My husband, Dan, makes fun of me because my idea of a personal-sized lettuce and veggies nosh is akin to a small trough. I like to fill a giant bowl that would often be considered a big enough serving for more than one person.
But I love my salads.
Still, 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?” (ronalewis.com). “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,” 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 roll.
“That one salad could feed four people, and has calories and fat enough for 10.”
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 a 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, 1/4 cup of potato or tuna salad made with mayonnaise can provide 90-95 calories.”
That lack of knowledge, said Jennifer Neily (jenniferneily.com), 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? While each nutrition expert has his or her favorite ways to throw together a salad, the base is typically the same:
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.
3. Throw on 4 to 5 oz. 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, 2 oz. of cheese (i.e. goat or feta cheese), 7 or 8 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 2 tablespoons.
And, of course, what would a green light list be without a few no-nos? Toppings to nix when building a healthy salad include: Croutons, bacon crumbles, excess cheese, tortilla strips and crunchy noodles.
But that’s not to say those common salad toppings can never make an appearance in a salad again. As Sheth pointed out: “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 that 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 (rawfusionliving.com). “A salad can incorporate some of your favorite foods without the bloated feeling and poor digestion that comes with overeating or bad food combinations.”
Jennifer Shine Dyer, an endocrinologist and founder of EndoGoddess, LLC in Columbus (endogoddess.com), said she likes to try one new, colorful vegetable each time she visits a salad bar.
“This makes eating healthy salads fun and exciting for me,” Dyer said.
So, you never thought eating a salad could be a good time? Think again. It turns out lettuce can be a rather colorful party animal.
Caroline Shannon-Karasik has been a long-distance runner for 15 years and is a certified Pilates instructor. She is the author of the healthy living blog, TheGSpotRevolution.com.
Reach DCP freelance writer Caroline Shannon-Karasik at