4 Ways You May Be Sabotaging Your Salad

Making Caesar salad, adding croutons to mixed leaves and anchovies, bowl of grated cheese nearby
Tony Briscoe (c) Dorling Kindersley/Getty Images

Salads are a wonderful way to increase your intake of whole vegetables and even fruits. And many who struggle with overweight and obesity turn to salads as a low-calorie meal or side option. But to keep them truly low in calories and high in health benefits, you need to be sure you aren’t committing any of these four acts of salad sabotage.

Adding Too Much Dressing

While the creamy dressings often come to mind first as high-calorie offenders, don’t forget about oil-based dressings, which can add literally hundreds of calories to your salad. It helps to know that one single tablespoon of almost any kind of vegetable oil—including olive and canola oils—contains approximately 120 calories. So adding a lot of oil-based dressing to your salad (that includes oil-and-vinegar dressings, and even vinaigrettes, which usually require oil as an ingredient) can add hundreds of calories to your salad! And voilá—instant salad sabotage.

Many of the dressings available on the ordinary salad bar are also sources of added sugars, which in turn have been identified as a major cause of the obesity epidemic.

Also be aware of how much of any kind of dressing you are using (other than straight balsamic vinegar, which is very low in calories). I have witnessed folks requesting that their dressing be served on the side, only to dump the entire side serving of dressing all over their salad. A much better technique is to dip the tines of your fork in the dressing on the side, then load a forkful of salad. You’ll get the taste of the dressing without all the excess calories.

Piling on the Croutons

The average croutons are basically this: pieces of white bread that have been soaked in oil (which adds about 120 calories per tablespoon, remember) and then baked or toasted or even fried. So, in addition to having very little, if any, nutritional benefit, they add empty calories (and, usually, sodium) to your otherwise healthy salad. Best to leave the croutons behind.

Going Heavy on the Cheese

Cheese, particularly full-fat cheese, is fairly high in calories and saturated fat, and both can add up fast when cheese gets sprinkled over a salad. If you like cheese on your salad, seek out lower-fat versions and healthier options such as goat cheese, feta, or part-skim mozzarella.

Not Being Cautious About Added Proteins

Various sources of animal protein are often added to salads to make them entrees. When red meat or processed meat (like ham or pepperoni) is added to salad, though, it turns what could have been a very healthy dish into a heart-healthy disaster. This also includes toppings such as chopped ham, bacon bits, and steak. 

Also, beware of any fried toppings, which, due to the oil and breading, are more sources of unhealthy saturated fat, calories, and sodium.

If you would like a main-meal salad with animal protein, consider grilled salmon, which is a great source of omega-3 fatty acids, not to mention vitamin B12, vitamin D, and selenium.

As noted above with cheese, even non-animal sources of protein can add more calories than one might realize. While there are many health benefits of eating nuts, for instance, this too should be done in moderation, as the calorie content of nuts must be taken into account. When adding nuts to your salad, a good rule of thumb is to stick to no more than a handful.

In addition to nuts, another wonderful source of fiber, protein, and nutrients for your salad are beans. And, unlike most of the toppings mentioned above, beans and other legumes tend to be low in calories, thus packing a powerful nutritional punch for a relatively low caloric price.

So pile on the chickpeas, skip the ham, add feta in moderation, watch the dressing ... and enjoy your salad!