How many times have you been in a restaurant with a friend and heard her say, "Oh, I'll just have a salad," with a satisfied look on her face? When looking for a healthy option, it's not uncommon for people to immediately rely on salad as their go-to meal. Often associated with being low in calories and high in nutrients, salads seem to make sense. The truth is, sometimes opting for a salad can be one of your worst dieting downfalls. On the other hand, salads don't have to equate to a wider waistline. Research shows people who eat salads are more likely to have higher levels of key nutrients that prevent cancer and heart disease, and may consume 12 percent less calories throughout the meal. It's all about preparing them correctly and knowing what to add in and what to take out.
Below are my five top tips on how to slim down your salad, without sacrificing flavor or nutrition.
Throw Some Fat Into the Mix
Salads can fall on complete opposite ends of the spectrum if you're not careful. Eating a bowl full of green leaves and raw veggies with a splash of lemon juice or vinegar is one of the biggest mistakes people make when trying to lose weight. Sure, it's low in calories, but in order for your body to effectively use the abundant nutrients in the vegetables, some type of fat needs to be added. Choose an unsaturated one, and remember, a little goes a long way. Your body only requires a small amount of fat in a meal to absorb the nutrients. Consider using two to three thin slices of avocado to not only add in heart-healthy fats, but also potassium, fiber, and vitamin E. At 50 calories, you can't go wrong!
Remember, It's a Salad, Not a Sandwich
Often, devoted salad eaters choose to add in items like bacon, chicken, or steak to make their salads more fulfilling. While it may do just that, it can potentially add too many calories. If you must, pick one meat or poultry option, but make sure to skip the cheese to avoid calorie overload. Another idea is to garnish your greens with two egg whites instead. This adds approximately 8 grams of protein for less than 50 calories. Or choose a legume, such as navy or kidney beans, to pack in protein as well as fiber. An optimal serving for navy beans is ¼ cup, which contains about 4 grams of both protein and fiber for 65 calories. Just because your sandwich comes with bread doesn't mean your salad has to. Skip the breadsticks or pita typically offered on the side. They only add empty calories.
Swap Croutons for Crunchy Snack Mix
Ever notice that most croutons don't even crunch when you bite into them? That's because they're drenched in either oil or butter to make up for their lack of flavor and freshness. Regardless, a small serving of croutons can contain anywhere from 50 to 90 calories without adding much satisfaction. Instead, sprinkle your salad with Sheffa Zesty Snack Mix. Made with ground chickpeas, the noodles are a great source of vegetable protein that fall low on the glycemic index, which allows for a slower release of sugar in the bloodstream, stabilizing appetite. One serving will give your salad added crunch, taste, fiber, and protein to keep you satiated for a longer period of time. Or crumble a high-fiber cracker like GG Scandinavian Bran Crispbreads on top for some crunchy flavor.
The Darker the Better
When it comes to being savvy about your salad, use your eyes! Swap pale greens such as iceberg lettuce for leaves like kale, arugula, and romaine lettuce. Dark green leafy vegetables rank high on the nutritional scale, and are packed with fiber, phytochemicals, antioxidants, and vitamins. Most people think of dairy foods as the ultimate way to ensure enough calcium in their diet. But leafy veggies such as mustard greens, kale, and bok choy all contain considerable amounts of this bone-building nutrient for fewer calories than dairy products. For example, adding 1 cup of kale to your mix can amp up your salad by providing well over 100 percent of your daily value for nutrients such as vitamins A, C, and K.
Opt for Homemade Dressings
Have you ever looked at how many ingredients are in most store-bought salad dressings? And can you even pronounce half of them? Homemade salad dressings are pretty simple. Start with an oil base (I prefer olive oil), which acts as the emulsifier. Then, add in your favorite type of vinegar. Although balsamic is popular, it's fun to play around with other flavors such as pear, raspberry, or even pomegranate! Next, chop up some fresh herbs, which add flavor but not sodium. The best varieties for salad include basil, thyme, marjoram, and chives. Fresh is always best, but dried herbs can suffice in a pinch. Ground pepper is also a must. Lastly, add in a pinch of sea salt to taste. You can also experiment by adding different types of mustard to provide another depth of flavor. Varieties like Dijon, whole-grain, or sweet mustards all pack in flavor without tons of calories.
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Heather Bauer, RD, CDN, is a nationally-recognized nutrition expert, author, and entrepreneur. She is the author of two top selling books, The Wall Street Diet and Bread is the Devil. She is the founder of Nu-Train, a nutrition consulting company, and Bestowed, a subscription service that offers consumers a personalized way to discover, sample, shop, and learn about the best nutrition and lifestyle products on the market.