Salads are a healthy option and better for you than a plate of French fries. You can use a salad as a side dish or the main course and there are so many ways to make one. Yes, a tasty salad chock full of greens and other colorful veggies can be a healthy choice, but it’s easy to dilute the health benefits of a salad by adding less than healthful items. When you add some of these foods and crunchies to your salad, the calorie content rises, but the nutritional benefits don’t. Here are some of the worst things you can add to a healthy salad.
Croutons add a bit of crunch, but they rank low on the nutritional scale. Most croutons are made of refined white flour that causes a spike in blood sugar with little nutrition to make them redeemable. Since croutons are often deep-fried, the oil adds additional calories too, and the oils used to make commercial croutons aren’t the healthiest options.
Better Choice: Swap out the croutons for a sprinkle of nuts. Nuts are nutrient-dense and are low enough in carbs that they won’t spike your blood sugar. Plus, some studies show that snacking on nuts lowers inflammatory markers. To top it off, research also finds that nut eaters are leaner than those who don’t munch on nuts. In fact, you only absorb around 80% of the calories from nuts. Avoid sugar-coated nuts though, as the high sugar content negates some of the health benefits of a salad.
You might be tempted to add chunks of processed chicken or turkey to your salad for extra protein. Not so fast! There are better options. Studies link processed meat with a higher risk of some forms of cancer. That’s because processed meats contain nitrates as a preservative. Your body converts nitrates to nitrosamines, a known cancer-causing chemical formed when these components are exposed to heat. Plus, when you eat processed meat, the nitrates land in the acidic environment of your stomach and that boosts the conversion of nitrates to nitrosamines. Studies show a link between nitrosamines and a higher risk of stomach cancer.
Better Choice: There are lots of healthier ways to add protein to a salad. Eggs or unprocessed, roasted turkey or chicken is high in protein but lacks the nitrates. You can also add seafood such as shrimp, salmon, sardines, or anchovies in place of meat. If you prefer plant-based protein, black beans, chickpeas, tempeh (a fermented form of soy), edamame, or quinoa are good options. Why not vary the protein you add to your salads?
Some people like to sprinkle a salad with dried fruit, like cranberry raisins, raisins, or dried blueberries. These fruits are dried and have had much of their water removed. So, they’re a concentrated source of sugar that can trigger blood glucose and insulin spikes. That’s not healthy, especially if you have diabetes.
Better Choice: Ditch the dried fruit and add fresh berries to your salad bowl. Berries are one of the most nutrient-dense foods you can eat, and they have little impact on your blood sugar. In fact, studies show that berries may improve insulin sensitivity and lower the risk of type 2 diabetes. Unlike dried fruit, berries are naturally low in sugar and tasty too!
Romaine lettuce forms the base of many salads, but swap out the lettuce for darker, leafy greens. Dark greens, like kale and spinach, are higher in antioxidants relative to their paler counterparts. Spinach and kale are also more nutrient-dense in contrast to Romaine lettuce, which has a higher water content.
But there’s another reason to abandon the Romaine. It’s one of the salad ingredients most likely to cause food poisoning. You might think food poisoning doesn’t sound that serious, maybe a little nausea and diarrhea, but certain strains of bacteria can lead to a serious condition called hemolytic uremic syndrome that causes kidney damage and death. Why take the chance when you can choose other nutrient-dense greens?
Better Choice: Replace the Romaine with dark, leafy greens, like watercress, arugula, kale, or spinach. These options will give you more nutritional punch and are less likely to give you a case of food poisoning. More nutrition, less risk–that’s an excellent combination!
A Heavy, Cream-Based Salad Dressing
Sometimes, people start with a healthy salad and then blanket it with a creamy salad dressing. You need fat in a salad to help absorb fat-soluble nutrients from the vegetables, but cream-based dressings are deceptively high in calories. For example, a serving of ranch dressing has almost 150 calories and many people use more than a serving. Plus, there’s nothing healthy about mayo-based salad dressings.
Better Choice: Skip the creamy dressing and use flavored vinegar or a mixture of flavored vinegar and extra virgin olive oil. Olive oil has healthy, monounsaturated fats and polyphenols with anti-inflammatory and antioxidant activity. It forms the basis of the Mediterranean diet, one of the healthiest eating styles in the world.
Likewise, avoid bottled salad dressings. Many are made with cheap, unhealthy oils like soybean oil and contain added sugar and fillers. Whip up your own by adding herbs and spices to a mixture of Balsamic vinegar and extra-virgin olive oil. If you have one in your area, visit a specialty shop where they sell only flavored vinegar and flavored olive oil. These shops offer samples so you can find your favorites!
The Bottom Line
Enjoy lots of salads but be careful what you add to one! You can destroy the health benefits of a salad and add extra calories if you’re not careful. The great thing about salads is how customizable they are. You can add unique combinations of greens, veggies, fruits, and healthy crunchies like nuts and create your own salad masterpiece!
- The New York Times. “C.D.C. Reports More E. Coli Illnesses Linked to Romaine Lettuce”
- International Journal of Cancer. Volume119, Issue4. 15 August 2006. Pages 915-919.