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10 Ways You Could Be Ruining Your “Healthy” Salad

The wrong choices can sabotage an otherwise healthy bowl of salad greens. Our resident nutritionist breaks it down.

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Profile view of a beautiful brunette choosing the ingredients for her salad at a restaurantPhoto: Shutterstock/antoniodiaz

Salads have always been synonymous with diet food. They’re the kind of thing you eat when you’ve got a class reunion coming up. Or, maybe you bring healthy main dish salads for lunch on Mondays for a nutritional “reset” after a weekend of indulgences. But, salads aren’t always as healthy as they seem. There are sneaky ways that we unknowingly sabotage an otherwise nutritious bowl of veggie goodness.

Up next: Try these 28 healthy salad recipes.

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Grated cheese for cooking on a cutting board on a dark background.Shutterstock / 13Smile

1. Cheese

I live in the dairy state so, as a Wisconsinite, I truly understand our collective obsession with cheese. It’s creamy, rich, flavorful and just plain delicious, so there’s good reason why it adorns most leafy greens. But cheese is also high in calories, saturated fat and sodium. If you can’t live without it (I know the struggle is real), use just a tablespoon of really flavorful cheese like blue cheese, sharp cheddar or feta.

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Fresh Homemade French Croutons with Seasoning and ParsleyPhoto: Shutterstock/Brent Hofacker
Photo: Shutterstock/Brent Hofacker

2. Croutons

Is there such a thing as a salad without croutons? How about homemade garlic croutons? They can really take a salad from ho-hum to over-the-top spectacular. But you’re basically topping off your salad with buttered bread. You’re not even getting the benefit of whole grains. Add crunch with a topping that’s nutritionally redeeming like toasted walnuts or sunflower seeds (just don’t overdo it, they’re calorie-dense too). These healthy salad toppings won’t topple your diet!

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Dried berries red cranberries on a wooden tablePhoto: Shutterstock/Dream79
Photo: Shutterstock/Dream79

3. Dried Fruit

There are some legitimately healthy dried fruits out there, but most that you’ll find on a salad bar are the sweetened kind, like dried cranberries. Even if the dried fruit didn’t have added sugar, it’s easy to overdo it with dried fruit because they are a concentrated source of calories. Before you know it, you will have sprinkled on a cookie’s worth of calories just in dried fruit.

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Cut pieces of iceberg lettuce with kitchen knife on cutting boardPhoto: Shutterstock/Svetlana Lukienko
Photo: Shutterstock/Svetlana Lukienko

4. Iceberg Lettuce

I’ve been known to judge a restaurant by the type of lettuce in their dinner salad. If thy only use iceberg, I scale down my expectations for the main dish. Not only is plain iceberg boring, it’s not nearly as nutritious as darker greens like spinach, kale or arugula. If you love the crunch, use a mix that includes iceberg and darker greens that will give you more nutrients per bite. If you don’t know much about types of lettuce, check out this guide.

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Cooked bacon pieces on woodPhoto: Shutterstock/rattham
Photo: Shutterstock/rattham

5. Processed Meat

At the top of the list would be bacon; it’s high in calories, saturated fat and sodium. Other salad bar classics like cubed ham and deli turkey are lower in calories and fat, but they’re still packed with sodium. If you’re looking for a hit of protein for a main dish salad, you’d be better off topping your greens with shredded leftover chicken or turkey.

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Fried chicken breast on a platePhoto: Shutterstock/Cristi Lucaci
Photo: Shutterstock/Cristi Lucaci

6. Fried Chicken or Shrimp

These saboteurs aren’t super common on homemade salads, but they are in restaurants. Sometimes, you don’t even realize the salad will be topped with something that came from the deep-fryer. Look for clues like the words “crunchy”, “crispy” or “battered” used to describe the chicken or shrimp. Ask for grilled instead.

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Set of organic healthy dietary dressings for salad: sauce vinaigrette, mustard, mayonnaise with spices or ranch, balsamic or soy, basil with yogurt. On a dark stone table. copy spacePhoto: Shutterstock/Rimma Bondarenko
Photo: Shutterstock/Rimma Bondarenko

7. Salad Dressing

I’m not going to go so far as to recommend skipping the salad dressing (I’m not that kind of dietitian), but make the best choice. Stay away from creamy and sweet dressings like ranch, 1000 Island and blue cheese. Instead, reach for a vinaigrette or add a simple shake of olive oil and balsamic vinegar for a dressing that’s rich in healthy fat, but not added sugar or sodium. (Making a simple vinaigrette is easier than you think.)

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Closeup of a bowl of salad with chicken and tropical fruitsPhoto: Shutterstock/MSPhotographic
Photo: Shutterstock/MSPhotographic

8. Other “Crunchies”

Croutons are a “crunchy” in their own category since they are so ubiquitous in the salad genre. The other “crunchies” that I’m talking about are what’s trying to edge out croutons as the king of salad crunchies: fried tortilla strips, candied nuts, crispy onions, crunchy wonton strips and more. Just like with croutons, they’re basically adding empty calories. Add a crunch that’s more nutritious and lower in calories like jicama.

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Tuna and Sweetcorn PastaPhoto: Shutterstock/PhotoEd
Photo: Shutterstock/PhotoEd

9. Topping Your Salad with Salad

Would you like some salad with your salad? I’m talking about the pasta salad, potato salad, tuna salad and more that you’ll find on salad bars. When you top your otherwise lean and healthy plate of greens with a fat-laden salad topper (or two or three), it turns your nutritious starter into an indulgent main dish (before your actual main dish arrives).

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Colorful, fresh Cobb SaladPhoto: Shutterstock/Yobab
Photo: Shutterstock/Yobab

10. Portion Size

Volumetrics is an approach to weight loss that focuses on foods that have fewer calories per bite, so you can eat more without feeling hungry or deprived. A big bowl of greens would be a fit for this strategy if it wasn’t for all the high-calorie toppings we add. Go ahead and eat the ginormous bowl of salad, but only if you’ve kept the toppings in check. If you order a restaurant salad, ask for a doggie bag and make two meals out of it.

Peggy Woodward, RDN
Peggy is a Senior Food Editor for Taste of Home. In addition to curating recipes, she writes articles, develops recipes and is our in-house nutrition expert. She studied dietetics at the University of Illinois and completed post-graduate studies at the Medical University of South Carolina to become a registered dietitian nutritionist. Peggy has nearly 20 years of experience in the industry. She’s a mom, a foodie and enjoys being active in her rural Wisconsin community.

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