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Nutrition Articles  ›  Meals and Food

Best and Worst Salad Toppings

Not Every Salad is a Healthy One

-- By Liza Barnes, Health Educator
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A few years back I typed up a list of New Year’s resolutions on a small piece of cardstock, laminated it, and put it in my wallet. On that list was the resolution to eat a salad every day, simply because eating salad always made me feel like I was doing something good for myself. After all, salad provides several vitamins and can fill you up while reducing your caloric intake. What could be healthier than a big, fresh salad?

Unfortunately, many things, as I later found out. Salads can run the gamut of healthiness, depending on what is in them. Although that big bowl of greens may be packed full of antioxidants and fiber, it can also be laden with fat, cholesterol, and sodium—not to mention an overabundance of calories. Some restaurant salads can even contain more calories than a cheeseburger!

Luckily, like most things in life, a salad is the outcome of several small decisions. To make sure you don't sabotage your healthy diet unintentionally, choose wisely the next time you order a salad from a restaurant or visit the salad bar. When dining out, don't be afraid to ask questions, make special requests (extra veggies, dressing on the side, light cheese) and ask about substitutions (like grilled chicken for breaded). Most restaurants will be happy to accommodate you as long as their kitchen is stocked with the ingredients you want. Here’s how to choose wisely next time you're making a salad at home or choosing one from a menu.

The foundation of most salads, lettuce adds substance, crunch, water, and fiber for very few calories—only about 10 per cup. But if you want all that and vitamins, too, toss out the iceberg and toss in the romaine, mixed baby greens and spinach. While iceberg lettuce is lower in nutrients (and still makes a decent choice if it's the only thing available), these other greens are rich in vitamins A, C and K, manganese, and folate.

Adding protein, such as lean meat, tofu, eggs or beans, will help bulk up your salad and keep you full longer. Unfortunately, many protein toppings are deep-fried, breaded and greasy, which adds unnecessary calories plus cholesterol, sodium and fat to your salad. Skimp on fattier toppings such as bacon and fried (breaded) chicken strips, and go for lean proteins instead. Grilled chicken, canned beans of all kinds, chickpeas, tofu, hardboiled eggs (especially whites), or water-packed tuna are leaner choices. Nuts and seeds are popular in salads, too, and while they’re a healthy source of good fats and some protein, they’re not exactly low-cal. If you choose to add them, watch your portions (1/2 ounce contains more than 80 calories).
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About The Author

Liza Barnes Liza Barnes
Liza has two bachelor's degrees: one in health promotion and education and a second in nursing. A registered nurse and mother, regular exercise and cooking are top priorities for her. See all of Liza's articles.

Member Comments

    For those of you complaining about the sugar in fruits and can eat them. Granted, you don't want to eat a pineapple everyday. You can eat these item because they have natural sugars. Your body processes them as such. You need to stay away from processed sugars such as granulated, corn and maple syrups, brown sugar and limit use of honey. When you eat fruits and vegetables, it will actually help to maintain your sugar levels because your body processes them more slowly. - 3/5/2014 4:59:04 PM
  • Discovered that once you hit submit there is no opportunity to edit a sentence you discovered you started one way and changed in mid, but forgot to fix the adverb.

    I've NEVER seen a leaf of romaine that wasn't limp on the shelf or limp the next day. - 1/11/2014 3:02:18 PM
  • I eat out so seldom that making a salad my main meal at a restaurant is not my goal.
    I make a 6qt container of salad to last ~6 days, so the ingredients need to last at least that long.
    I've seen a leaf of romaine that wasn't limp on the shelf or limp the next day.
    I don't like limp lettuce and it won't be found in my salad.
    I use fresh iceburg lettuce, tomatoes, radishes and carrots.
    These are items that are the least trouble to chop (important when your bad back limits your time to lean over the kitchen counter, .. i'm tall)
    These are also items that I have used in the past with success .
    Fancy fixins don't guarantee success, follow thru does and if the salad contents goe bad in two days, then it doesn't do any good.
    I will sometimes chop up my last pc of boneless chicken and put it in last remains of the large salad container, but typically they are kept separate. - 1/11/2014 2:53:33 PM
  • Great article. It's always good to learn something that you don't kbow to help you along the way. - 1/9/2014 8:21:28 AM
    But red bell peppers have significantly less sugar than apple slivers and more K than other sugar sources. Salsa makes a good choice but even tomatoes have sugar but significantly less than fruits. That's the key to me as a diabetic. Along with your 4 grams of sugar (because the red pepper is ripe) you get 127 mg Vit C, 211 mg K, 1 mg preformed Niacin, 46 micrograms folate, 3131 Vit A, 5 micrograms Vitamin K. By my standards, that's a lot of nutrition for the 4 grams of sugar. But everyone has a different viewpoint. I use both red and the dark green Poblano pepper sliced in my salads. It has only 2 grams sugar and a very mild spicy taste. So I like it and use it a lot in my cooking as well as my salads. - 1/8/2014 2:58:43 PM
    It seems more are worried about fat and calories and rightly so (moderation!). I am more worried about my sugar intake. If topping your salad with red bell peppers just one has over 6 grams of sugar, that's almost 2 teaspoons of sugar in one serving (4 grams = 1 teaspoon). While that may not be granulated sugar studies are showing that ANY sugars are bad for you and I tend to concur since I know when I've got a 'sugar' belly. Fruit is very high in sugars so I tend to limit even these foods. 'Hidden' sugars are in most everything. Moderation is my key word.
    I've never been on this site before so thought I would share my thoughts :)
    Have a wonderful day! - 1/8/2014 7:12:29 AM
  • I purchase a light ranch dressing that I like so much. - 9/30/2013 6:23:54 AM
  • My NEW favorite salad topping is salsa. Don't know why I never thought of it before. I now make salsa every week to top my salad with a half serving of litehouse sesame ginger dressing. Great combo, very low calories and sodium. - 9/24/2013 10:40:19 AM
    Semantics! I'm surprised that an article titled with the words "salad toppings", doesn't include anything about salad dressings. Dressings are the thing most of us put on TOP of the salads we build.

    I realize that repetition is necessary for most people to acquire a new idea or concept. Many of us grew up with parents that had no clue about healthy eating, but it's beginning to feel more & more like constant regurgitation of long understood and pervasive facts (like stay away from fried anything), is NOT the path to good writing skills. THINKING is. - 9/24/2013 10:26:12 AM
  • it just goes to show that we need to watch what we eat...even when it comes to the healty stuff - 9/24/2013 10:03:13 AM
  • I do eat full fat dressings and cheese on my salad. They make me more satisfied with eating a salad. I watch my amounts and track track track everything to stay within my range. Full fat things tend to be lower in sugar and carbs in general

    One of my favorite desserts this time of year is really veiny blue cheese and fresh sweet strawberries. - 8/20/2013 12:00:28 AM
  • Forgive me if someone already said it, but I choose whatever dressing I like and dip my empty fork in it just a little and then get a big forkful of salad.

    Totally does the trick and I can still eat my favorites - bacon ranch & caesar! - 8/19/2013 5:03:52 PM
  • Great article! I think it's okay to add those crunchy, salty and creamy things IF you limit yourself to one or two, and in great moderation. - 8/19/2013 3:19:21 PM
  • I enjoyed reading this article, it helps a lot!
    - 8/19/2013 1:39:19 PM
    Very good information in the article. I read every comment and they contain some great ideas for keeping salads low-cal. Thank you! - 10/6/2012 8:41:25 AM