If you’re trying to lose a few pounds and unsheathe your abs, you eat a salad. It’s just what you do.
But if you aren’t careful, that salad could end up making you a couple pounds heavier.
Case in point: A hamburger and order of small fries at McDonald’s contains 480 calories and 19 grams of fat, but a Premium Southwest Salad with grilled chicken and ranch dressing will set you back 530 calories and 28 grams of fat.
OK, well hopefully you aren’t eating all of your salads from the drive-thru, but you get the point. What’s in your salad can more than negate that extra serving of veggies on your plate and pile on the pounds.
Read on to discover 10 ways you may be fattening yourself up on salads.
OK, everyone knows creamy dressings like ranch and bleu cheese aren’t exactly health foods, but if they help you get down a salad, they can’t be all that bad, right? Wrong. Order one of these dressings in a restaurant and you could wind up topping your greens with more than 340 calories and 5 grams of saturated fat, says Sharon Palmer, R.D.N., author of Plant-Powered for Life. Vinaigrettes are generally a safer choice, but if you absolutely cannot stomach a salad sans ranch, try this trick: Order your dressing on the side, dip your fork spears into the dressing, and then stab up some leaves. You’ll end up using less dressing than you would if you dipped your salad into the side dish and way less than if you poured the whole thing on top of your salad.
Even if your dressing is fat-free, it doesn’t mean you will be. Fat-free dressings actually tend to be more processed, and higher in sodium, high-fructose sugars, and carbohydrates compared to their full-fat counterparts. That’s because when food manufacturers remove fat from their products, they have to replace it with something to keep it from tasting atrocious, explains Jim White, R.D., spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition & Dietetics and owner of Jim White Fitness & Nutrition Studios. For instance, fat-free Hidden Valley Ranch contains three times more carbs and sugar than the full-fat version. What’s more, even with all of that extra sugar, many low-fat dressings still taste pretty “meh” and leave you unsatisfied, so you end up following up your salad with a second lunch, he says.
From taco shell bowls and tortilla strips to shredded cheese and sour cream, Mexican-inspired salads can be caloric bombs. Just a half a cup of cheese (how much is on your salad) can contain 250 calories and almost 20 grams of fat, says Rebecca Lewis, R.D., nutritionist for HelloFresh healthy grocery delivery service. The next time you opt for a taco salad, keep the beans, cilantro, tomatoes, avocado, and nix just about everything else.
Bacon bits are just as bad—actually, they can be even more processed, calorically dense, and packed full of sodium than fresh-off-the-grill bacon, says Lewis. One tablespoon of bacon bits contains about 50 calories, not to mention 500 milligrams of water-retaining sodium and a not-so-healthy dose of trans fat, adds Palmer. Trans fats have been linked to a higher risk of weight gain, obesity, and type 2 diabetes.
Nuts are a great source of naturally occurring healthy fats and protein, and can add staying power to any salad, Sharon says. But when they're candied, they're just about as much sugar as they are anything else. Stay away at all costs.
Craisins, raisins, and pretty much any dried fruits contain all the calories of fruit but in a puckered-up package, Palmer says. For instance, raisins contain about 250 calories in half a cup. If you like them in your salad, use them sparingly, she says.
They taste good—but they're so bad for anyone trying to keep their salad healthy. “Those delicious croutons can be about 75 to 100 calories in just a half a cup,” says Sharon. And that’s like, what, five croutons?
Order your salad in a wrap and it might be easier to eat on the go, but it won’t be easier on your physique. The wrap alone could contain 200 to 300 calories, White says. Plus, even seemingly healthy “spinach wraps” are often made with refined grains (and a little bit of veggie powder), threatening to spike your blood sugar, store your calories at fat, and make you feel hungry 30 minutes later.
Too much of a good thing is still a bad thing. “Even healthy foods, like walnuts, avocados, and olive oil can rack up the calories if the portions are out of whack,” Palmer says. After all, a half-cup of walnuts contains nearly 400 calories, a whole avocado contains 322 calories, and three tablespoons of olive oil contains 357 calories and 63 percent of your daily fat needs. Yikes. Use them all, but use them in much smaller portions.
Lean meats like chicken, turkey, and fish are great for giving your salad an extra kick of filling, muscle-building protein, but the second you order that chicken breaded or fried, you’ve committed yourself to building way more fat than muscle, White says. No other meats on the menu? If it’s between fried meat and no meat, always go vegetarian. Just make sure you have other protein sources like beans, chickpeas, or egg on your salad.