A great salad has everything your body needs to burn fat, build muscle, and pump up energy levels. And in a perfect world, we would eat one at every meal. Also in an ideal world: We would never put calorie-dense, fatty foods on top of a beautiful bed of veggies and greens. Click through to see if your favorite salad toppers are ruining your attempt at eating clean.
Pick ranch, Caesar, or French and you could be converting your initially healthy entrée into something that's no better for your body than a fast-food meal. Also, don't assume low-fat or no-fat dressings are that much better for you—sugar and sodium are often added to make up for the flavor that's lost when calories or fat are scaled back.
The best way to dress your salad: Do it yourself. Stick to things like balsamic vinegar, olive oil, lemon juice, mashed avocado, or apple cider vinegar—the olive oil and avocado are especially important to include because they're rich in monounsaturated fats. Research published in the journal Molecular Nutrition & Food Research found that dressings rich in monounsaturated fats help your body to better absorb the nutrients in vegetables.
In moderation, fruit delivers vital nutrients to your body. Problem is, when the stuff comes dried, it's hard to stick to a single serving. For example, 1 cup of grapes shrinks down to ¼ cup of raisins, yet still contains the same amount of sugar and calories. Dried cranberries are one of the salad bar's biggest offenders. Their sweetness comes from around 40% (or more) added sugar! Stay away. Far away. For a little extra sweetness (if that’s what you’re looking for), slice up fresh fruit, like strawberries or pears, and toss with your greens.
Buttery, processed, crunchy bread? If you think this belongs anywhere in a fresh salad, you are mistaken. If you want carbs, get them elsewhere—preferably via complex carbs like sweet potatoes or quinoa (which you can toss in your salad, too). All croutons offer your body is extra calories and a short-lived spike in energy that's bound to dip lower than it began. If you're looking for a crunch, go for a tablespoon of raw, sliced almonds or even crumble up some kale chips for more green power.
It’s hard to mess up the easiest part of the salad—the greens. All greens offer some level of phytochemicals, fiber, and essential nutrients, but iceberg lettuce is the one exception. It’s not that it doesn’t offer any nutrients, but the amount is so much lower compared to all other types of lettuce. The healthiest greens you can get year-round: spinach, kale, and romaine. And keep in mind that to get the biggest range of nutrients, it's best to constantly rotate your greens.
While string cheese may be a great on-the-go snack, you won’t be chopping one of those guys up and throwing it on your veggies. More likely you will reach for shredded cheddar or cheese crumbles. So it’s best to pass on cheese—at least for this meal. Most cheeses are high in saturated fat, salt, and calories—all things you want to avoid when creating a healthy salad.
Crushed or sliced walnuts and almonds are great complements to your veggie-rich salad. The biggest mistake you can make here (besides going overboard with the portion) is choosing candied nuts over the natural thing. You can guess that sugarcoated nuts are not necessarily the healthiest things to be chewing on. Nuts can help you live longer, according to a 30-year Harvard study, but keep them as raw as possible.