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How Many Calories Does Your Salad Really Have?

Secretly High-Calorie Salads

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Some takeout or restaurant salads can contain more than 1,000 calories. Yes, really. (And check out these diet-busting restaurant salads to see some examples.)

Read on to see some salad calorie swaps and pile your plate high with healthy choices.

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Build a Healthy Salad Base

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Building a better salad starts with the foundation: the greens. Greens are low in calories and deliver high doses of vitamins. The darker the leaves are, the more vitamins and minerals they have. Try mixing a cup of spinach with a cup of romaine or have two cups of a spring mix to help sneak some more vitamins and minerals into your diet. (Here's a complete guide to healthy leafy greens.)

When choosing your vegetables, make your salad as colorful as possible. Each color represents a different assortment of beneficial nutrients. Also, raw veggies are low in calories, so feel free to load up on them.

From there, follow these tips to pick healthier, lower-calorie salad toppers and keep portions of healthy-but-high-calorie toppings (like nuts and seeds) in check.

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Salad Calorie Swap 1: Try Crackers Instead of Croutons

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High calorie: whole-wheat croutons (80 calories for 8).

Whole-wheat equals healthy, right? Not when it’s been brushed with butter before being toasted.

Lower calorie: crumbled saltines (25 calories for 2).

Other on-the-lighter-side toppings besides crackers that offer a satisfying snap: water chestnuts and jicama. (These giant dinner-worthy salads hit the perfect macro ratio.)

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Salad Calorie Swap 2: Change Up Your Chicken

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Stick with lean proteins (chicken, ham, turkey, or fish) and try to get them as close to their natural state as possible for the greatest nutritional value.

High calorie: crispy chicken (380 calories for 4.5 oz).

“Crispy” is code for “fried.” Also, beware the term “panko-crusted”; it’s just a fancy way of saying the chicken has been breaded.

Lower calorie: grilled chicken (213 calories for 4.5 oz).

With all the hunger-sating protein but about 250 fewer cals, a grilled chicken breast is a much better a salad calorie choice.

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Salad Calorie Swap 3: Choose Cheese Wisely

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Aim for low-fat cheese and try to pick shredded—that way you're getting a greater volume out of a single portion instead of having it in chunks. 

High calorie: blue cheese (100 calories per oz).

Stilton, roquefort, and gorgonzola are good sources of calcium and protein, but they’re also high in calories—not to mention saturated fat.

Lower calorie: feta cheese (75 calories per oz) or goat cheese (50 calories per oz).

Both of these crumbly cheese add a salty, creamy kick, just with a lighter salad calorie load. (Related: How to Assemble an Epic, Instagrammable Cheese Board)

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Salad Calorie Swap 4: Can the Cranberries

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High calorie: dried cranberries (92 calories for 1/4 cup).

Berries are loaded with fiber, but the dried version has seven times more calories than the same amount of fresh fruit.

Lower calorie: tangerine wedges (40 calories for 1 small) or strawberry halves (25 calories for 1/2 cup) 

For a hint of sweetness, choose low-sugar fresh fruit to trim salad calories.

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Salad Calorie Swap 5: Dress Right

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Many times, a healthy salad turns into a not-so-healthy one because of the salad dressing. People often tend to use too much, so stick with the recommended serving size of two tablespoons. Watch out for low-fat dressings—they may still be high in calories and have more fat than you think.

High calorie: vinaigrette (260 calories for 1/4 cup).

A ladleful packs almost as many salad calories as a cup of spaghetti topped with marinara sauce!

Lower calorie: use a tablespoon (65 calories) or dunk your fork in a side and use just what you need.

You can also make your own three-ingredient dressing. Or take it easy and drizzle on a little olive oil and as much red wine vinegar as you’d like.

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Salad Calorie Swap 6: Go Nuts

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High calorie: walnuts (185 calories for 14).

It’s true that the 18 grams of fat in these is the heart-healthy kind, but you have to take calories into account too. (Related: The Healthiest Nuts and Seeds You Can Eat)

Lower calorie: walnuts (93 for 7).

This is one add-on that’s not off-limits. Just sprinkle ’em on in moderation—and make sure they’re the only nut or seed in your salad. 

Photo: Lyudmila Shabalovskaya/Shutterstock

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