Whether you’re going for a slimmer waistline or simply a more nutritious meal, salads can be a solid standby — as long as you choose ingredients wisely. When visiting a salad bar or a create-your-own-salad restaurant, loading your bowl with fattening add-ins or even too many healthy options can quickly turn a diet-friendly mix into a calorie bomb.
“People don’t realize how quickly it adds up,” says Karin Hosenfeld, a Dallas-based dietitian. “If you have a quarter cup each of croutons, cheese, sunflower seeds, raisins, and bacon bits, you’re already up to 400 calories. Three tablespoons of ranch dressing adds another 215.”
To keep your weight in check, cap your calories at 500 (600 if you’re less weight conscious). Here are seven simple ways to do it without skimping on taste.
When it comes to leaf color, the darker the better. Deep-green leaves provide more antioxidants and phytochemicals, as well as lots of iron and other vitamins and minerals, says LeeAnn Weintraub, a Los Angeles-based dietitian.
If you’re not a fan of dry salads, carefully monitoring dressing is crucial. Beware creamy and high-sodium dressings, which often hoard about 15 grams of fat in each 2-tablespoon serving, and avoid generously pre-drizzled dressing at restaurants; one tablespoon of Italian dressing has 43 calories, while the same amount of ranch dressing contains about 73.
When choosing veggies, re-create the rainbow for a healthy helping of phytochemicals, antioxidants, and vitamins. “Shoot for different colors of vegetables like bell peppers, carrots, cauliflower, or even purple cabbage, which has plenty of cancer-fighting antioxidants,” Weintraub says. While it’s hard to go wrong with vegetables, be aware that high-sugar, starch-packed picks such as beets and artichoke hearts won’t have as big of an impact on your health as they will on your plate’s calorie count.
Fruit adds sweetness to salads along with extra vitamins and nutrients, but watch for dried or canned versions, which quickly crank up your meal’s sugar and calorie content. A quarter cup of raisins clocks in at 100 calories, and half cup of dried cranberries has the same amount of sugar as a can of Coke, Hosenfeld says. Fruit drenched in syrup also adds high-fructose corn syrup to the mix.
This savory add-on is a good source of protein and calcium, but will easily increase fat and calorie counts, so proceed with caution.
Stacking your salad with lean protein will make it a more satisfying dish, but be sure to avoid fat and sodium bombs such as chunks of processed ham or turkey, breaded chicken, and bacon bits. Also keep in mind that red meat and dark white meat are higher in calories than their paler counterparts.
Nuts and seeds
Nuts and seeds are a great source of healthy fats and protein, but don’t go overboard. “All nuts and seeds have in the neighborhood of 200 calories per ounce,” Hosenfeld says.
Croutons and carbs
Most croutons are little pieces of enriched wheat flour bread coated in butter or oil and sprinkled with salt. Aside from extra fat and calories, they don’t have much to offer. Just 15 croutons add 80 empty calories to your bowl. “It’s like having a well-buttered piece of white bread,” Hosenfeld says.