Is Your Salad Healthy? 7 Ways You Might Be Sabotaging It, According to Registered Dietitians
Learn about crouton overload, dressing malfunctions, and other common mistakes that can make your bowl less than nutritious.
Salads may not be as American as apple pie, but plenty of people report eating them regularly: four times a week, on average, according to a poll commissioned last year by Fresh Express and conducted by OnePoll. More than half of the 2,000 U.S. adults polled — 62 percent — said that salads are part of their regular diet.
It’s a little puzzling to reconcile those numbers with the staggering rates of obesity in this country, but then, the health value of a salad really depends on quality rather than quantity. While salad — usually conceived as a big bowl of fresh, raw vegetables and leafy greens — has all the makings of a terrific health food, it's easier than you might imagine to go astray. Pouring on the dressing, overdoing the carbs, forgetting about protein, and other common missteps can turn this nutritious meal into a calorie bomb.
Whether you’re ordering out or tossing your own, here are seven common mistakes to avoid.
Mistake 1: Forgetting Protein
When you’re making a meal out of a salad, you need more than just produce. “I have a motto: ‘No wimpy salads,’” says Samantha Cassetty, RD, a registered dietitian who practices in New York City and is a coauthor of Sugar Shock. “People think of salad as this wimpy meal that’s not very filling or exciting.” To remedy that, she advises including some protein and fat to make it more satiating. Poultry, fish, avocado, cheese, egg, nuts, or beans are all good options.
“People who just have a veggie salad for lunch to cut back on calories are looking for a snack by four o’clock because they’re hungry,” says Bonnie Taub-Dix, RDN, the creator of BetterThanDieting.com and author of Read It Before You Eat It: Taking You from Label to Table. “People are afraid to put nuts or avocado in their salad, thinking it will be too high in calories, but it makes your salad a lot more enjoyable.”
Those plant-based sources of protein and fat tend to be healthier than meats and cheeses, which contain saturated fat. Take a chef’s salad, which might have three different kinds of meat and two different kinds of cheese. In comparison, you might be better off with a sandwich, with fewer calories and less saturated fat and sodium.
Mistake 2: Drowning in Dressing
You want to hit that sweet spot with your salad — not too light, but not too heavy, either. The dressing can be one of those factors that destroys your calorie budget, but don’t feel like you have to skip it. A salad without dressing is sad and boring.
“Dressing makes salad taste good,” Cassetty says. And when your salad tastes good, you’re more likely to eat more of those good-for-you veggies. Just don't let the dressing turn your balanced meal into a 2,000-calorie extravaganza.
Taub-Dix shares one of her favorite tips: “If you have a salad dressing you love, combine it with an equal amount of balsamic vinegar, or any kind of vinegar.” This way, you’re effectively cutting the dressing's calories almost in half.
And there are proven health benefits to including some oil in your salad dressing. Past research found that oil helps you better absorb fat-soluble nutrients such as vitamins E and K and carotenoids, plant pigments that have been shown to have health benefits, according to the National Institutes of Health.
Mistake 3: Packaged Dressings
Prepackaged salad dressings can be a convenient way to eliminate some of the work of preparing salad, but you’ll want to check the ingredients list on bottled dressings to make sure you’re not pouring on things you wouldn’t include in homemade dressing, like saturated fat, high amounts of sodium, and artificial additives. Cassetty says a lot of store-bought dressings can be sneaky sources of added sugar, too.
Some store-bought dressings use lower-quality oils than you’d use in your homemade versions. “If you’re making a salad dressing at home, you’re probably going to use extra-virgin olive oil, which has health-promoting antioxidants and bioactive substances,” Cassetty says. “In store-bought dressing, that is not the predominant oil.”
Store-bought salad dressings often contain soybean oil, which was linked to heart disease in research published in the BMJ journal Open Heart in 2018. Olive oil, on the other hand, may help protect against heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, and metabolic syndrome, according to a study published in October 2019 in Nutrients.
Mistake 4: Going Crazy on the Croutons
Croutons can be high in refined carbohydrates, sodium, and saturated fat: The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) reports that just a half-ounce of croutons contains 10 grams (g) of carbs and 99 milligrams (mg) of sodium. But Taub-Dix points out there are healthier versions of croutons on the market, so if you don’t feel like your salad is complete without them, read the labels. For example, low-carb croutons from Linda’s Diet Delites have 4 g of carbs and 77 mg of sodium per serving.
There are lots of other nutritious choices if you want to add a satisfying crunch to your salad. Get creative with:
- Nuts or seeds These are sources of healthy fats, protein, and fiber. An ounce of almonds has 3.5 g of fiber, 6 g of protein, and almost 9 g of monounsaturated fatty acids, according to the USDA.
- Garbanzo beans (chickpeas) are another good source of fiber and protein. Two tablespoons (tbsp) contain more than 5 g of protein and 3 g of fiber for less than 100 calories, according to USDA data. Roast chickpeas to give them more crunch; a brand called Biena lists 6 g each of fiber and protein per 1 ounce (oz) serving of its sea salt flavor, for a total of 120 calories. (Flavored varieties may have added sodium and sugar, so check labels!)
- Kale chips or dried seaweed Both are super low-cal but deliver plenty of nutrients. One ounce of kale chips, for instance, delivers 7 g of protein and 3 g fiber as well as 60 percent of the vitamin A you need daily, according to USDA data. Gimmee Sea Salt Roasted Seaweed Snacks contain 1 g each of fiber and protein for just 30 calories per serving. Both kale chips and seaweed can be high in sodium, so if you are watching your intake you may want to read the package to see if these toppers fit in your diet.
- Whole-grain crackers The brand Mary’s Gone Crackers uses whole-grain brown rice, quinoa, and flax and sesame seeds. The result is an organic, gluten-free crunchy cracker with 3 g of fiber, 4 g of protein, and healthy fats. A serving rings in at only 140 calories, and you’ll probably use fewer than 12 crackers to garnish a salad.
Mistake 5: Boring Bowls
It’s nice to have the ingredients on hand to make something you can rely on. “That’s part of planning, and it’s super-convenient,” Cassetty says. But eating the same salad every day can get boring. Plus, mixing it up is more nutritious. “Variety in your ingredients gives you more variety in the vitamins, minerals, and nutrients you get,” Taub-Dix says. In fact, the American Academy of Family Physicians recommends a variety of foods, especially nutrient-rich fruits and vegetables, so you get different vitamins and minerals in your diet.
You can always keep the base of your salad the same and swap out a few ingredients every time. Taub-Dix likes to add:
- Red or orange bell peppers or tomatoes for color as well as flavor
- Some type of nuts
- Dried apricots, dried cranberries, or white raisins, though you may want to stick with small portions, since an ounce of dried fruit can contain 16 g of sugar, according to the USDA. Varieties with no added sugar are best.
- In-season fresh fruit like peaches, pears, or apples
Seasonings add variety, too. You’ll probably want to add salt and pepper to your salad, and don’t skimp on fresh herbs like oregano, dill, parsley, and basil. They can make your greens pop and add a nice, fresh flavor to your salad.
Mistake 6: Using Light Greens
Iceberg lettuce isn’t exactly the nutritional wasteland you may have heard it is. It has some vitamins and minerals, according to USDA data, and is low in calories. But it pales in comparison to the nutrients in darker greens like spinach and kale. A cup of spinach provides almost 30 mg of calcium and .8 mg of iron, while a cup of iceberg lettuce has just 10.3 mg of calcium and .2 mg of iron, per USDA data.
Dark leafy greens are loaded with good-for-you nutrients like vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and fiber, according to an article in the November 2020 European Academic Research. Those veggies combat diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure, and cancer and can improve your gut health. A daily dose of green leafy vegetables may also slow cognitive decline, according to the American Academy of Neurology.
So, consider replacing some or all of the light-colored lettuce in your salad with darker, richer greens. And if you get bored with greens, leave them out. You can center your salad on things like shredded cabbage or Brussels sprouts, cucumber, watermelon, tomato, citrus, melon, beans, roasted veggies, or corn.
“You can think more expansively than just greens,” Cassetty says. “It’s still a salad. It makes it a little more enticing when you have different flavors, textures, and elements to choose from at different times.”
Mistake 7: Not Cleaning Around Your Greens
Wash your hands and clean and sanitize your kitchen to reduce your risk of spreading icky germs to (or from) the food you eat. A study published by Science News in April 2022 found that 25 percent of participants contaminated their salad with raw chicken.
You’ll also want to check that your packaged produce isn’t expired, make sure your produce looks fresh, and store salad greens in your fridge’s crisper drawer, according to K-State Research and Extension.
Should you wash ready-to-eat salads? Unless you’re running your greens under fast-moving water, you might not be making much difference, per the National Center for Biotechnology Information. Sloshing them around in a colander or running a gentle flow of water over them didn’t remove much bacteria in one study.
The Magic Formula for a Winning Salad
Now that you’ve learned what salad mistakes to avoid, here’s how to do it right! Cassetty shares her formula for building a satisfying, substantial, nutrient-dense salad. Combine the following:
- Two parts veggies, which could be leafy greens; chopped peppers, cucumbers, or tomatoes; or roasted veggies
- One part carbs, such as quinoa, brown rice, sweet potatoes, butternut squash, or dried or fresh fruit
- Protein, such as eggs, beans, legumes, or tofu
- Fat Cassetty encourages plant-based sources of fat such as avocado, olives, or an oil-based dressing. Cheese works well for certain salads — think beets and goat cheese or a Greek salad with feta.
- Crunchy bits Nuts, seeds, or crunched-up whole-grain chips or crackers
- Flavoring Along with dressing you can add enhancements like Italian, Greek, or everything-but-the-bagel seasoning.
How much of the protein, fat, and crunchy bits should you add? “The amount that would feel comfortable and enjoyable,” Cassetty says. “Think about the fat source as an accessory — it gives your salad lots of flair, but you don’t want to overdo it,” she says. “And protein is a filling element, so how hungry are you? When we base our decisions like that, we’re tuning into our bodies, and that helps us eat more in line with what our bodies need.”