The Anatomy of a Healthy Salad

When looking for a healthy option, it's not uncommon for people to immediately rely on salad as their go-to meal. Often associated with being low in calories and carbs and high in nutrients, salads seem to make sense. The truth is, sometimes opting for just any salad can be one of your worst dieting downfalls. But play it smart and salads don't have to mean a wider waistline. Research shows people who eat salads are more likely to have higher levels of key nutrients that prevent cancer and heart disease, and may consume 12% less calories in a meal. It's all about preparing them correctly and knowing what to add in and what to take out. Below are my five top tips on how to slim down your salad, without sacrificing flavor or nutrition.

1. Throw some fat into the mix.

Salads can fall on complete opposite ends of the healthy spectrum if you're not careful. Eating a bowl full of green leaves and raw veggies with a splash of lemon juice or vinegar is one of the  biggest mistakes people make when trying to lose weight. Sure, it's low in calories, but in order for your body to effectively use the abundant nutrients in the vegetables, some type of fat needs to be added. Choose an unsaturated one, and remember, a little goes a long way. Your body only requires a small amount of fat in a meal to absorb the nutrients. Consider using two to three thin slices of avocado to not only add in heart-healthy fats, but also potassium, fiber, and vitamin E. At 50 calories, you can't go wrong!

2. Remember, it's a salad, not a sandwich. 

Often, devoted salad eaters choose to add in items like bacon, chicken, or steak to make their salads more filling. While it may do just that, it can potentially add too many calories. If you must, pick one meat or poultry option, but make sure to skip the cheese to avoid calorie overload. Another idea is to throw in two egg whites instead for your protein source. This adds about 8 grams of protein for less than 50 calories. Looking for non-animal product options? Gardein seven-grain crispy tenders may look like chicken nuggets, but are an awesome vegan option that add 8 grams of protein per serving. Or choose a legume, such as navy or kidney beans, to pack in protein AND fiber. A serving of navy beans (¼ cup) contains about 4 grams of both protein and fiber for just 65 calories. Just because your sandwich comes with bread doesn't mean your salad has to. Skip the breadsticks or pita typically offered on the side. They only add empty calories.

3. Swap croutons for crunchy snack mix.

Ever notice that most croutons don't even crunch when you bite into them? That's because they're drenched in either oil or butter to make up for their lack of flavor and freshness. Regardless, a small serving of  croutons can contain anywhere from 50 to 90 calories without adding much satisfaction. Instead, sprinkle your salad with Sheffa Zesty Snack Mix. Made with ground chickpeas, the noodles are a great source of vegetable  protein that fall low on the glycemic index, which allows for a slower release of sugar in the bloodstream, stabilizing appetite. One serving will give your salad added crunch, taste, fiber, and protein to keep you satiated for a longer period of time. Or crumble a high-fiber cracker like GG Scandinavian Bran Crispbreads on top for some crunchy flavor.

4. The darker the better.

When it comes to being savvy about your salad, use your eyes! Swap pale greens such as iceberg lettuce for leaves like kale, arugula, and romaine lettuce. Dark green leafy vegetables rank high on the nutritional scale, and are packed with fiber, phytochemicals,  antioxidants, and vitamins. Most people think of dairy foods as the ultimate way to ensure enough calcium in their diet, but leafy veggies such as mustard greens, kale, and bok choy all contain considerable amounts of this bone-building nutrient for fewer calories than dairy products. For example, adding 1 cup of kale to your  mix can amp up your salad by providing well over 100% of your daily value for nutrients such as vitamins A, C, and K.

5. Opt for homemade dressings.

Have you ever looked at how many ingredients are in most store-bought salad dressings? And can you even pronounce half of them? Homemade salad dressings are pretty simple. Start with an oil base (I prefer olive oil), which acts as the emulsifier. Then, add in your favorite type of vinegar. Although balsamic is popular, it's fun to play around with other flavors such as pear, raspberry, or even pomegranate! Next, chop up some fresh herbs, which add flavor but not sodium. The best varieties for salad include basil, thyme, marjoram, and chives. Fresh is always best, but dried herbs can suffice in a pinch.  Ground pepper is also a must. Lastly, add in a pinch of sea salt to taste. You can also experiment by adding different types of mustard to provide another depth of flavor. Varieties like Dijon, whole-grain, or sweet mustards all pack in flavor without tons of calories.

A salad can be a good option to pack for lunch, but keep your ingredients separate and the dressing on the side to keep everything from getting soggy and unappealing. A big green salad with veggies, lean protein and healthy dressing is certainly a smart option when looking for a healthy meal, but make sure it's packed with the right things to keep from tipping the scales to the bad-side! 

Heather Bauer, RD CDN
Heather Bauer, RD CDN


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