People trying to get in beach body shape for the summer often head for the salad bar at restaurants. But many of those salads contain more calories, sodium and fat than consumers may want, says a University of Florida nutrition expert.
As National Salad Week approaches next month, Laura Acosta, a registered dietitian at the UF Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences, said three types of salads often come with lots of calories and are laden with fat and sodium:
- Taco salads, especially the ones that come in a shell: One has 760 calories, 39 grams of fat, 10 grams of saturated fat, which is known to contribute to heart disease and other health problems. It also contains 1 gram of trans fat, another, even less healthy, type of fat.
"One gram doesn't seem like a lot, but when you consider that organizations like the American Heart Association recommend that even 2 grams of trans fat per day is too much, it helps to put it into perspective," said Acosta, a lecturer in the UF/IFAS food science and human nutrition department.
The salad also contains 1,330 milligrams of sodium, which can contribute to high blood pressure and displace other minerals like potassium in the diet, she said. A taco salad from another franchise contains 930 calories, 58 grams of fat, 20 grams of saturated fat and 1,250 milligrams of sodium. The 20 grams of saturated fat constitutes 100 percent of the recommended saturated fat limit for most people, Acosta said, and the 1,250 milligrams of sodium is more than half the recommended daily limit.
- Chef Salads: Often, so-called "chef salads" are loaded with various meats and cheeses. The meats are often processed and contain nitrite preservatives that may increase risk for cancer when consumed consistently. While cheese can be a good source of calcium and high quality protein, it is also high in calories, saturated fat and sodium.
- Caesar Salads: A Caesar salad is typically fairly simple: romaine lettuce tossed with Caesar dressing and topped with parmesan cheese and croutons. The problem is that most varieties of Caesar dressing are heavy and creamy and add a lot of extra calories. "Since Caesar salads are usually pre-dressed, you don't have a lot of control over the amount of dressing, and restaurants are usually pretty heavy-handed," Acosta said.
Acosta offers some solutions:
- Read the description of the salad, or list of ingredients, which can tell a consumer a lot about how healthy the salad may be.
"As a very general rule of thumb, house salads and garden salads tend to be fairly basic – lettuce, tomatoes, cucumbers, onions – and good bets if you're watching your weight or calorie intake," she said. "If cutting calories is a goal, be aware that the main source of calories in many 'house' or 'garden' -type salads is going to be the dressing, so aim for about two tablespoons of dressing."
Most dressings will have somewhere in the neighborhood of 120 to 180 calories per two tablespoons, so using more than that can really add up.
- Another idea to consider: Rather than pouring dressing over the salad, dip your fork in the dressing before taking each bite. The amount of dressing on the fork will be minimal, and likely won't add up to very much by the time you've finished the salad.
It's worth noting that these recommendations depend on one's individual health goals, Acosta said.
"Being lighter-handed with the dressing may be appropriate for those needing to cut calories or watch their weight, but for those at a healthy weight, cutting calories may not be as important," she said. "A simple olive oil and vinegar dressing, for instance, will have roughly the same number of calories as other dressings, but will provide about 10 grams of monounsaturated fat -- one of the 'good' fats that helps to promote cardiovascular health -- per tablespoon of olive oil. So the amount of salad dressing may not be as important as the type in many cases."