If you are looking for a healthy option for lunch or dinner at a restaurant, especially if you are trying to lose weight, chances are you will consider a salad. It turns out that at most fast-food and casual dining restaurants, salads may not be the low-calorie or low-fat choice you were expecting. However, ordering a salad can still be a healthy option, as I explain in my Health & Fitness column in the Aiken Standard this week.
We think of salads as being a healthy choice because they contain lots of vegetables which are low in calories and high in vitamins, minerals, and fiber. But most restaurant salads are more than just vegetables. At a minimum, you would add salad dressing and many salads also include nuts, fruit, chicken, bacon, or cheese, all of which add fat and calories.
Salad dressing alone can add hundreds of calories. Creamy dressings like ranch and blue cheese tend to be higher in both calories and fat than vinaigrettes. In many cases the salad has more calories than the sandwich or entree you would have ordered instead.
As an example, consider the Premium Bacon Ranch Salad with Crispy Chicken at McDonald’s. This popular salad contains 490 calories and 29 grams of fat. Compared to a Big Mac, which has 540 calories and 29 grams of fat, this salad doesn’t seem like such a healthy option. You could improve the salad by switching from fried chicken to grilled chicken and save 180 calories and 15 grams of fat.
The real problem is the ranch dressing—one packet contains 200 calories and 17 grams of fat. You could skip the dressing altogether, but a more reasonable approach is to switch to the Low-Fat Balsamic Vinaigrette, with only 35 calories and 1.5 grams of fat. Want to really cut calories? The salad with the vinaigrette dressing and no chicken has only 230 calories, almost 300 fewer than the version with crispy chicken with ranch dressing or the Big Mac!
Despite the fact that many restaurant salads have calorie and fat content similar to burgers and other entrees, it doesn’t make them a bad choice. The salad does contain several cups of vegetables, which means it is higher in vitamins, minerals, and fiber than a burger. The salads at McDonalds have about twice as much fiber as most sandwiches.
Think of it this way: the salad may be equivalent to a burger as far as fat and calories go, but it comes with a serving (or more) of vegetables. And the salad is even healthier when you consider that the sandwich would undoubtedly come with fries! One more point: I use McDonald’s as an example here, but the same holds true for salads at other fast food and casual dining chain restaurants.
What if you are at a restaurant and want to order a salad? What can you do to make it healthier? You could order a side salad. Given the huge portions at most restaurants, this smaller serving might be enough. You can also limit the toppings, especially meat and cheese, and choose a lower-calorie dressing. Another tried and true option is to ask for the dressing on the side so you can add just as much as you want. And don’t forget, you can always share one of the large salads with a friend or save half for another meal.
The bottom line is that salads at restaurants can be as high in calories and fat as other “unhealthy” menu items, but they do provide a serving of vegetables you might otherwise miss. And by making a few choices, you can create a salad that is a healthy, low-calorie option.
Nutrition, exercise, and health information can be confusing. But it doesn't have to be that way. What can I help you with? firstname.lastname@example.org | http://twitter.com/drbrianparr