Salads have been the default go-to-food of dieters for as long as I can remember. A healthy mix of greens, various chopped vegetables and maybe a little oil and vinegar sprinkled on top. Tasty, high fiber, low calorie and good for you.
The typical salads served today are very different from the healthy visions that inhabit people's minds. Covered in fried meats, layered with rich cheeses and drowning in dressing, salads have become a way to order unhealthy food, without feeling bad. Here's what I mean.
Fans of crispy chicken can order a 10 Piece Chicken McNugget from McDonald's and it has 470 calories with 30 grams of fat. To make a healthier choice, you might consider the Premium Southwest Salad with Crispy Chicken and the Creamy Southwest Dressing. But it's only healthier in your imagination. That crispy chicken salad and topping has 550 calories and 27 grams of fat.
Make the mistake of ordering it with ranch dressing and you'll be eating 620 calories and 45 grams of fat. That's a 30% increase in calories by choosing the salad over chicken nuggets.
Restaurants have figured out that as we get fatter, we still want to eat the same high calorie, high fat and high sodium meals as before but we don't want to feel guilty about it. So they've changed the presentation. Instead of giving you nuggets in a box, they lay it over a bed of lettuce, and that splash of green makes us feel better.
That doesn't mean salads are bad. You've just got to make smarter decisions on what type you order. Here's how to make healthier choices.
Start with the base. Skip iceberg lettuce. Contrary to myth, it's not unhealthy, but it doesn't have a lot going for it either. Substitute romaine, red leaf, green leaf lettuce or spinach. These have more nutrients and tend to be more flavorful too.
Mix in a half-cup of beans like black beans, garbanzo beans or chickpeas. Half a cup of black beans adds six grams of heart healthy fiber and eight grams of muscle building protein.
Include plenty of other fresh veggies. Cut up some tomatoes, peppers, broccoli, cauliflower, carrots and onion to fill the middle of the salad. Add no more than a tablespoon of foods soaked in oil and high in fat like black olives.
If you want meat on the top, choose ones that are grilled or baked, not battered and fried. Grilled chicken, grilled lean beef, grilled turkey and even tuna from a can are good if you select the low sodium options. Lay those on sparingly. You want them for flavor, not as the primary food.
Speaking of meat, bacon bits are a no-go. They're extremely high in fat, sodium and nitrates. Imitation bacon bits are often made of vegetable protein and lower in fat, but they're still loaded in sodium.
For crunch, mix in a tablespoon of nuts like almonds or walnuts. You can also get crispy with chopped celery, pea pods or radishes. Don't use candied nuts; they add unnecessary sugar and some have trans fats.
Be stingy with the cheese. A typical restaurant salad has more than a quarter cup of shredded cheese poured over the top, adding over 100 calories to the meal. Sprinkle on two tablespoons and you'll still get the flavor, without all the fat and salt.
Ditch the croutons. At around 10 calories apiece, if you top a salad with 10 croutons, you've just added 100 calories of empty carbohydrates.
Finally, be very conservative with the salad dressing. Regular dressings are packed in calories, but even reduced calorie versions can be full of sugar. Try lightly spraying olive oil and drizzling a little vinegar over the top. If traditional dressings are all you like, get them on the side. Each time you take a bit, first dip your fork in the dressing and then spear some salad. You'll get dressing with every bite, but eat less of it.
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