Think you're making a healthy choice by opting for a salad? Not with these toppings.
How Healthy Is Your Salad?
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You make the healthy choice to have a salad for lunch—great! But then you start piling on your favorite toppings and pretty soon that spinach salad turns into the nutritional equivalent of the Chinese delivery you really wanted. Fail. (Some salad options mask themselves as healthy, but can be even worse for you than a Big Mac!) So we spoke with registered dietitian Laura Geraty, M.S., L.D.N., to figure out what mistakes you're probably making at the salad bar and what you should be tossing into your leafy greens instead.
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Fun fact: Fried food is still fried food when you put it on a bed of lettuce. You can clock in as much as half a day's worth of calories and fat if you make it mega-sized with ranch dressing.
Smart swap: Try a filling protein that won't cost you a ton of unsatisfying calories, such as 4 ounces of grilled chicken breast, a hard-boiled egg, 1/3 cup beans or lentils, or 4 ounces of salmon, suggests Geraty.
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While cheese can certainly be part of a healthy diet (in fact, some cheese can even prevent weight gain and protect your heart), not all cheese is created equal. If you're heavy handed with high-calorie cheeses like cheddar, mozzarella, or Brie, you can sabotage your salad really fast with all that sodium and cholesterol.
Smart swap: Opt for healthier cheeses like feta or provolone, but remember to still keep portions in check. To go dairy-free, Geraty suggests swapping out cheese for some creamy avocados. Sprinkle a bit of salt (and pepper!) on your salad if you missing the saltiness from the cheese.
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One of the easiest ways to add excess calories to your salad? Dressing. Plus, creamy dressings are typically loaded with sodium, trans fats, and even high-fructose corn syrup. But that doesn't mean your go-to vinaigrette can be poured on without hesitation. Use any dressing sparingly, Geraty says, as you can quickly go overboard.
Smart swap: If you are stuck on the creamy texture of your favorite dressing, Geraty suggests blending avocado for the same smooth consistency and some added healthy fats. (Try this creamy avocado dressing to get your fix.) You can also try adding some lemon juice and herbs such as basil, mint, or parsley for extra flavor.
Croutons or Tortilla Strips
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Store-bought croutons are pretty much full of refined carbohydrates, which add basically nothing for you nutritionally, and have been linked to weight gain. Most tortilla strips are fried, but even if they're baked, they are likely covered with salt.
Smart swap: For an alternative way to get your salty fix, with some added crunch, toss in a couple tablespoons of chopped nuts or seeds, says Geraty.
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Dried fruit may seem like a healthy way to add a little sweetness to your meal, but you may be surprised at just how much sugar those dried cranberries or apricots have—and it's way more than fresh fruit. For example, a roughly 1-ounce serving of dried papaya can have 30 grams of sugar. Conversely, an ounce of fresh blueberries yields only a little more than 6 grams of natural sugar.
Smart swap: "Always choose fresh versus dried because all that's removed when making dried fruit is the water, which helps provide filling volume and hydration," says Geraty.
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Pasta can be healthy in moderation, but we suggest sticking to less processed grains if you want to stay fuller, longer.
Smart swap: Geraty suggests adding some whole grains into the mix with grains like quinoa. You'll get the same chewiness with added protein and fiber.
Cubed Deli Meat
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Deli meat might seem like a convenient way to add some extra protein to your salad, but many cubed or sliced varieties you find at the deli or café will likely be processed. So instead of a healthy dose of protein, you'll be filling your to-go box with preservatives and sodium, says Geraty.
Smart swap: Make your own salad at home to bring to work. That's the only way you'll know exactly what you're eating. At your favorite lunch spot by the office, choosing grilled chicken, hard-boiled eggs, or plain beans is a safe and smart bet for an on-the-go protein option.
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Although iceberg lettuce offers crunch without a strong flavor (if that's what you're going for), iceberg lettuce offers pretty much nothing else nutritionally.
Smart swap: Geraty suggests choosing a variety of greens to keep things interesting and healthy. (You can't go wrong with these 10 best leafy greens.) Kale, spinach, and arugula are some of the most nutrient packed, and many come in "baby" or younger, smaller versions if you're looking for a smaller bite or toned-down flavor.