By Valaer Murray, TheDailyMeal.com(Photo: Getty Images)
More from Guest Bloggers blog
You get a pat on the back for choosing to have a salad, but take two points off for getting breaded chicken over grilled. Of course, it doesn't work that way, but we can help make a good choice even better. The reasoning? Make the salad work harder for you by not filling it with a bunch of pointless, empty calorie ingredients. That means foregoing the croutons and chow mein noodles but getting the same salty, crunchy deliciousness in a healthier way.
On the food chain of command, even fresh, healthy foods have an edge over other fresh, healthy foods -- call them "superfoods." For instance, spinach does double duty as a great source of folic acid, vitamin C, and potassium as well as being a good salad base. Ingredients like toasted sesame seeds are creative salad game-changers and also serve up calcium and iron.
No matter if salads are made at home or at the deli, indulgent toppings defeat the purpose of eating healthy. Ordering the wedge of iceberg with bleu cheese and bacon, while a time-honored favorite, can have as many calories as a small burger, so what's the point? You can congratulate yourself for eating fresh, healthy vegetables and stop there, but if you're looking to maximize the benefits of eating a salad, make informed choices about which ingredients are better for you than others.
If bacon or croutons are a must for you, balance them out with some good-for-you additions. We've done a side-by-side comparison of common salad ingredients' nutrient profiles using the USDA website Nutrition.gov, and came up with a few substitutions for each of the 10 salad fillers that serve the same purpose -- crunch or creaminess -- but also make the meal more balanced.
Croutons: Delicious but unnecessary, a half cup of croutons can add almost 100 calories to your healthy salad.
Better choice: Use slivered almonds or chopped walnuts as a salad topping instead. Nuts contain fat as well but also protein, fiber, and many other health benefits.
Cucumbers: Sure, cucumbers are a smart choice when compared to croutons, but without many vitamins or even fiber, they are a throwaway salad ingredient when there are alternatives that are richer in nutrients.
Better choice: For that satisfying crunch, add celery which is a diuretic and high in potassium and B6, a good energy-starter. Or add grilled or roasted zucchini -- one cup has 35% of your vitamin C, 5% of your fiber, and is a better source of omega-3s.
Iceberg lettuce: Pretty empty from a nutritional point of view and not much taste either.
Better choice: Greener types of lettuce like red leaf have more nutritional value, but to really get your vitamins' worth, opt for raw spinach. You'll get about 20% of your recommended folate plus vitamin C and potassium. Experiment with various greens like chicory, kale, or Swiss chard to vary your salads and round out the nutrient profile.
Salad dressing: It could be a great salad, but not with two tablespoons of blue cheese dressing that add about 160 calories and 17 extra grams of fat -- more calories and fat than grilled chicken breast. Even the Wish-Bone Fat Free version isn't a great choice since a small serving contains 12% of your daily recommended sodium. Remember dressing should be a seasoning for the salad, not an ingredient unto itself.
Better choice: Adding some olive oil and an acid like vinegar or lemon juice allows the fresh ingredients in your salad to shine, rather than drowning them out.
Cheese: Sure, cheese can be a good source of protein and calcium, but the saturated fat and cholesterol add up fast.
Better choice: To get that creamy texture and richness, try sliced avocado. Greens like kale and spinach will give you the same boost of calcium as dairy products.
Green beans: There's nothing unhealthy about green beans but they're no superfood.
Better choice: Compare a cup of green beans (44 calories) with a cup broccoli (20 calories), and you'll get an ingredient that has fewer carbs, a lower glycemic index and good anti-inflammatory properties. Even peas are a better source of fiber and protein.
Alfalfa sprouts: Very low in calories, sprouts are also low in most every type of nutrient.
Better choice: To spice up a green salad or a sandwich, try bean sprouts instead, which by and large have more fiber, vitamins and minerals (though more calories).
Chow mein noodles: Those delicious, crispy noodles are tempting, but a mere half a cup is 130 calories and 5 grams of fat not to mention the lack of vitamins and minerals.
Better choice: For a savory topping, try an ounce of toasted sesame seeds, low in cholesterol and high in calcium, iron and fiber. Same goes for the French's fried onion rings and even SnackSalad's Snapea Crisps. Instead of a topping that looks like snow peas, add in the real thing!
Corn: Even fresh and grilled, starchy corn contains a whole lotta nothing, and the canned kind can be very high in sodium.
Better choice: For the same sweetness, try beets, either canned or raw grated, for a good source of fiber and folic acid. Even dried cranberries are a good substitute with vitamin C and antioxidants.
Bacon: Need we say more? Whether real bacon or those imitation-bacon bits, the sodium and fat content are enough to throw off the scale.
Better choice: You can get salty crunchiness from a handful of pumpkin seeds, high in minerals like zinc, or sunflower seeds, which are a good source of folic acid. And remember, a little indulgence is fine, but adding a handful of these pointless salad ingredients takes away from the healthfulness of your meal.
More from TheDailyMeal.com:
- The 10 Fattiest Meals at Chain Restaurants
- Seven Tips for Reducing Post-Party Bloat
- The Best Fruits and Vegetables for Your Juice Diet
- Eight Pointless Carbs
- Seven Celebrity Fad Diets