(BlackDoctor.org) – If you think that heading to the salad bar is a healthier choice, then you better think again, because when it comes to watching your waistline, all salads are not created equal. Low in calories but loaded with fiber and vitamins, salads are one of the healthiest meals you can have — that is if you make the right choices. Adding too many high-calorie toppings can actually cause you to gain weight.
Here are a few guidelines to help you keep your salad healthy and free of unwanted calories.
1. Start with a strong base. If you haven’t already, ditch that anemic-looking iceberg lettuce. Instead, try the fabulous (and far more nutritious) greens available at local farmers’ markets, produce stands and many supermarkets – a great choice is a spring mix, which includes frisée, oakleaf, red chard and radicchio. Even romaine lettuce is far more tasty and nutrient-rich than iceberg.
2. Load on the veggies. As with greens, the sky’s the limit. Choose a variety of colors and keep them raw or lightly steamed (overcooked vegetables taste bland in salads). Brightly colored veggies also have major health benefits: The rich red in bell peppers, bright orange in carrots and deep green in broccoli are courtesy of phytochemicals, natural plant chemicals that have been shown to reduce the risk of heart disease and macular degeneration, among many other conditions. The best-known phytochemical is beta-carotene, which is found in orange, yellow, red and even some green vegetables. Others include flavonoids (broccoli, onions, celery) and chlorophyll (green beans and sugar snap peas).
3. Don’t forget the protein. This is what makes your salad a meal. Choose lean sources of animal protein, such as skinless chicken or turkey, canned or fresh salmon, chunk light tuna (it has less mercury than white albacore), hard-boiled eggs or egg whites, and sirloin steak or other lean meat. Vegetarian options include tofu, chickpeas, kidney beans, pinto beans and other legumes (canned is fine; just rinse and drain). Choose one (or two if you’re extra-hungry) of the following:
• Chicken breast, skinless, 3 oz: 20 g protein, 100 cal
• Turkey breast, skinless, 3 oz: 26 g protein, 115 cal
• Salmon, grilled, 3 oz: 19 g protein, 175 cal
• Whole egg, 2: 13 g protein, 160 cal (have no more than six egg yolks per week)
• Egg whites, 4: 14 g protein, 65 cal
• Chunk light tuna, water-packed, 3 oz: 22 g protein, 100 cal
• Sirloin steak, broiled, lean only, 3 oz: 26 g protein, 160 cal
• Tofu, ½ cup cubes: 20 g protein, 180 cal
• Chickpeas, ¾ cup: 11 g protein, 200 cal (and 9 g fiber)
4. Add tasty extras. Extras are more caloric than greens, veggies or protein, so use them sparingly. That shouldn’t be an issue, though, because a little goes a long way. Choose one, or smaller portions of two, of the following:
• Cheddar, shredded, 2 Tbsp: 55 cal
• Parmesan, grated, 2 Tbsp: 45 cal
• Feta, crumbled, 2 Tbsp: 50 cal nuts
• Walnuts, chopped, 1 Tbsp: 50 cal
• Almonds, sliced, 2 Tbsp: 65 cal seeds (kernels only)
• Sunflower, 1 Tbsp: 45 cal
• Pumpkin, 1 Tbsp: 45 cal other add-ins
• Avocado, 1 oz: 45 cal
• Croutons, ¼ cup: 45 cal
• Olives, canned in water, 10 small: 40 cal
• Raisins or dried cranberries, 2 Tbsp: 55 cal
5. Dress it up. This is where an otherwise healthy salad can go all wrong. Many restaurants will top salads with 3 to 6 Tbsp worth, which can add up to 500 calories! Order dressing on the side and limit it to about 1½ Tbsp for an entrée salad and 1 Tbsp for a side salad.
If you buy bottled dressings, look for low fat rather than fat-free ones. A little fat is good, because it helps your body absorb the beta-carotene, vitamin E and other fat-soluble nutrients from the veggies. Or make your own light vinaigrette with 1 part oil and 3 parts vinegar, then flavor with mustard, pressed garlic and spices.