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Is Your Salad Making you Gain Weight?

Last week, I got this email from my friend Farah Shouli:

I am trying to enjoy a healthier life by choosing healthier foods. So, I thought I am in need for a salad and thought of the healthy option of chicken Quesadilla salad at Chilli’s. So I bought the salad and went to work happy at my choice. I was curious how many calories would be in the salad so I checked Chilli’s website and found that they had a complete nutrition information on their menu.

You can’t believe my shock, disappointment and frustration when I found how many calories were in this salad. Not only calories (1400cal), but the fat content, carbs and sodium were all very high. I was so sad that I had consumed my daily caloric needs for a whole day. The salad dressing was vinaigrette and they give away a side mayonnaise-based dressing. They also add 4 slices of cheese quesadillas. I sent a message to Chillies and asked what the calorie and fat content would be without the second dressing and cheese quesadilla, and they are still very high:

Cals 600, Total Fat 31g, Sat Fat 9g, Carbs 38g, Protein 45g, Fiber 8g, Sodium 990mg

This is an example of how easily we can be deceived. Can’t believe I thought I was safe using a vinaigrette dressing neglecting other factors.”

I wasn’t too surprised from this email. Many ‘healthy’ promoted salads are worse than you expect. For example, Applebee’s grilled chicken, grilled steak, or crispy shrimp Cesar salads are 800+ calories unless you get them without the dressing or eat half the portion. At Panera Bread, the BBQ chopped chicken, the grilled chicken Cesar, Fuji apple chicken, chopped chicken cob, and orchid harvest chicken are all more than 500 calories for the full serving, without the dressing. Add dressing and a side of bread, and you’ve consumed half of what you need for the whole day.

These are not the only two places with large calorie dense salads. Since I can’t list every salad in every restaurant, but I’m going to give you my tips for choosing salads when eating out.

More than Lettuce

Ok, nothing wrong with lettuce, but you need more! Choose a salad that also has tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, spinach, artichoke, mushrooms, beans, etc. The more vegetables, the better.

Choose your Fats

Nuts, seeds, cheese, olives, guacamole, sour cream, dressing–and protein foods such as chicken, steak, fish, eggs too–all have fat. Some are better than others, but the main point is not to load your salad with all! Other than your protein, choose two source of fat at max.

Watch your Carbs

Some are better than others as well. Croutons, tortilla shell or strips, noodles (in Asian salad), and the side of bread or crackers add to the carb content. So do fruits and beans. But the latter two have more fiber, vitamins, and minerals. Beans will fill you up because they have protein too. Regardless of what you’re in the mood for, carbs add up, so watch out.

Get Some Protein and Fiber

You want your salad to fill you up, not keep you asking for more and grazing afterward. And that’s why you need fiber and protein. Choose lean proteins so you do add too much fat.

Read, Read, and Read

Restaurant nutrition information. Even with the best attempt to make the right decision, your best judgment might miss. Most restaurants have the nutrition information online, or purchase a book such as the Calorie Counting for Dummies and keep it in your car, pocket, purse, etc. Identify one or two healthy options at the places you hit often, so you don’t have to do the research every time. Check the serving size of the salad for which the information is listed, and whether the dressing or any sides are included.

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{ 5 comments… add one }
  • Nagla October 23, 2010, 11:15 am

    This is something I’ve often wondered about. What is an appropriate amount of calories for a good, hearty, filling salad? maybe with some whole grain bread on the side?

  • zeina shennak October 24, 2010, 2:31 am

    so true, i wasnt surprised as well, i have researched about this once as i was in love with mac’s ceasear salad and the fat and calorie content was so depressing so i stopped liking it, instead i would rather have a healthy sandwich if im hungry with less calories and fat!

  • Lauren Slayton October 26, 2010, 10:10 am

    A great post/good point raised regarding salad calories. I fear that people hearing this may shun salads and that’s definitely not what we want. I do think that with some treaty salads the sandwich or soup can be the better option. I went to a lecture once that tracked the rise of salads and related it to increases in heart disease they blamed salad dressings. I would add dressing on the side, 1.5 tbs max to your good tip list.

  • Nour El-Zibdeh, RD October 27, 2010, 10:06 am

    Nagla: you ask a very good question. The amount of calories really depends on your energy needs. If the salad is THE meal, then it should be about a third of your calorie needs (assuming you eat 3 meals a day and your snacks are low in calories). Generally, aim for about 400-500 calories. Many times, the bread is what shoots the calories high up, so you’re on track by choosing whole grains, but cut the portion in half if that’s the case. If the salad has less than 200 calories, it will probably not fill you up long enough.

    Zeina: I agree about the Cesar salad. The only vegetable you get is lettuce, and calories all come from croutons, cheese, and dressing, which are all high in fat. A healthy sandwich is good, but also try a garden salad with tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, and other vegetables.

    Lauren: thanks for stopping by and leaving a comment. Yes, I forgot about dressing on the side, thanks for adding this tip 🙂 You also make a good point. I absolutely don’t mean to discourage people from salads. Getting excess calories from salad (assuming you’re getting vegetables in it) is better than getting excess calories from a meal that has no vegetables at all. The problem with excess calories in a healthy food when people are not aware of it is that they could eat A LOT and TOO OFTEN without realizing the calories they are getting.

  • The Food Hunter October 29, 2010, 4:57 pm

    I think we’ve all fell for the healthy salad idea. If I’m going to have that many calories I want something better than a salad!

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