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The Top 8 Unhealthy Things People Love to Ruin Their Salads With

Salads may never be as popular in America as burgers and fries, but it's safe to say that they're an adored and integral part of many people's daily diets -- particularly those trying to eat healthy.

In fact, some 6 million bags of ready-to-eat salad are sold in the United States every day, and even McDonald's says it sold 80 million pounds of spring mix for its premium salads in 2005 to satisfy their salad-loving customers.

salad toppings

What makes a salad healthy? To start, choose red leaf lettuce, romaine or spinach instead of iceberg lettuce (which has few nutrients).

However, all salads are not equal when it comes to nutrition, and just because it has a little lettuce and is served in a bowl does not make it inherently healthy. So if you're eating salads in the interest of healthy eating, make sure you're not piling on these nutrition no-no's (and then check out the healthy and tasty alternatives that are A-OK to pile on).

1. Processed Salad Dressings

Most salad dressing sold in grocery stores contain lots of health-harming ingredients, such as:

They are high in bad fats and low in most things healthy, plus most people put on a lot more than one serving, making the bad fat content even higher.

Healthy Alternative: We said processed salad dressings because not all salad dressing is inherently bad. In fact, you can make your own very healthy salad dressing quickly just by combining some olive oil, lemon juice and garlic, or a little olive oil, balsamic vinegar and Dijon mustard. Tomato salsas also make great salad toppers.

If you can't bear to part with a bottled dressing, there are healthier versions on the market that contain mostly whole ingredients and healthier oils and fats. You can find these in your local health food store (even these will still not be as healthy as your own home-made variety, though).

2. Bacon Bits

Real bacon bits contain harmful preservatives called sodium nitrites, along with lots of bad fats and sodium. Imitation bacon bits, though lower in fat and typically made of vegetable protein, are still highly processed and not nutritious.

Healthy Alternative: For a little bit of crunch in your salad, try a tablespoon or two of raw almonds, pistachios, cashews or walnuts (though they're high in fat, it's the healthy kind). Chopped celery, jicama or radishes -- even raw green beans or pea pods -- also work well.

3. Cheese

Cheese is high in fat and calories (1/4 cup of shredded cheese will add over 100 calories), but most of it used on salads is also highly processed. This means that it's probably got added salt, artificial flavors and artificial colors.

Healthy Alternative: It's OK to use a little cheese on your salad, just use it sparingly. Ideally, choose natural cheeses like feta, blue cheese, or Parmesan over processed cheeses with added flavors and colors (like yellow American cheese).

4. Croutons

salad toppings

Beware of restaurant salads that advertise "crispy" ingredients like chicken, noodles, tortilla strips or even calamari -- "crispy" is another way of saying "fried."

Croutons are usually made from white, processed bread, and add nothing but empty carbs to your salad. They're high in calories, can be high in bad fats, and, if you've ever read the label on a package in the grocery store you'll see, most are loaded with artificial ingredients like preservatives, hydrogenated oils and artificial flavors.

Healthy Alternative: Skip the croutons entirely. You can replace their flavor and crunch with lemon or lime juice and fresh veggies (raw broccoli and cauliflower, baby carrots, etc.) or nuts.

5. Salami/Ham

Salami, ham and most processed meats contain harmful sodium nitrites as preservatives, and will add a hefty dose of saturated fat to your salad.

Healthy Alternative: Instead of salami or ham, opt for lower fat meats like chicken and turkey. If possible, choose free-range, organic varieties that will not contain additives, harmful preservatives or pesticides (from feed).

6. Fried Meats

You've surely seen salads that contain "crispy" or "breaded" chicken. This is another way of saying "fried," and is definitely not a good choice for your salad. Fried foods contain harmful fats, and lots of them, along with a lot of empty calories.

Healthy Alternative: Baked or grilled chicken or turkey breast is a fine addition to a salad, and will give you the added protein you'll need to get through the day. If you miss the flavor that comes from the fried meat, try getting creative and adding some unique, but healthy, flavors to your salad, such as artichoke hearts, hearts of palm, garbanzo beans or black beans.

7. Iceberg Lettuce

Although iceberg lettuce isn't actually unhealthy, it's not particularly healthy, either, because it doesn't contain many nutrients.

Healthy Alternative: Trading in your iceberg lettuce for some romaine, red leaf or green leaf lettuce, or using spinach, is an easy way to add lots of nutrients to your day.

8. Candied/Flavored Nuts

Some salads come with candied nuts that add a lot of unnecessary sugar. There are also flavored packaged nuts sold specifically as salad toppers, which contain sugar, artificial flavors and even hydrogenated oils.

Healthy Alternative: Choose a small amount of plain, raw nuts to add crunch to your salad. For some healthy sweetness, try raisins, dried cranberries, grapes or chopped pear, apple or strawberries.

Recommended Reading

The 8 Top Dietary Mistakes Healthy Eaters Make

The World's 8 Most Deceptive Foods: We Think They're Healthy, but Should Think Again


MSNBC April 30, 2006

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