From a very young age, everything from magazines to restaurant menus leads us to believe that salads are the healthiest meals we can consume. Of course, that’s not necessarily the reality.
A salad can mean different things to different people, explains The Vitamin Shoppe nutritionist Rebekah Blakely, R.D.N. For instance, some delis might serve a creamy potato salad as an alternative to a green salad, but there’s most likely a significant difference in nutritional value between each. And, even if greens do make up the base of your salad, what they’re topped with can either be nutrient-dense or loaded with empty calories.
Especially at restaurants, salads can be filled with heavy dressings, refined and starchy ingredients, and fatty meats and cheeses, warns California-based dietitian Sharon Palmer, R.D. “Some salads have more calories, sodium, and saturated fat than other common options, like sandwiches or hamburgers,” she says.
For a salad to be a healthy choice, it needs to contain the right base and add-ins. Here, nutrition pros share the best and the worst salad ingredients when you’re looking for an all-around nutritious meal.
Dark, leafy greens
Your best bet for a healthy base: dark, leafy greens like romaine, kale, spinach, and arugula. “Leafy greens are rich in iron and are excellent for slashing inflammation and boosting the immune system,” says functional nutritional therapy practitioner Tansy Rodgers, F.N.T.P. She recommends starting with anywhere from one to three cups.
Delicious salad toppers like avocado or olives offer heart-boosting healthy fats, specifically omega-3 fatty acids and oleic acids, respectively. Omega-3 fatty acids have been linked to everything from healthy blood pressure and eye health to mental wellbeing. Meanwhile, oleic acid has been linked to a number of health benefits, including heart health, thanks to its antioxidant qualities.
“You can slice or dice them onto the salad or even add some guacamole,” Rodgers suggests. If you’re adding avocado, she recommends using up to half of one fruit, depending on its size.
A common mistake that people make with salads is putting together a healthy bed of greens and veggies but skipping out on a protein source. While those veggies are surely healthy, they alone are not enough to sustain your hunger. “Protein helps keep you full and protects muscle mass and bone density,” explains Blakely. Whether it’s a little red meat, poultry, fish, eggs, tofu, or legumes, make sure you include a full serving of protein in your mix.
Read More: 9 Easy Ways To Up Your Protein Intake
One serving of meat is three ounces while a serving of cooked beans is a quarter cup, per the American Heart Association, FYI.
Non-starchy vegetables, like tomatoes, bell peppers, carrots, cucumbers, mushrooms, and broccoli, are must-have salad ingredients, according to The Vitamin Shoppe nutritionist Brittany Michels, R.D.N. “Each of these add-ons is also nutrient-dense, a good source of fiber, and has a low glycemic impact,” she says. This means you’ll get lots of vitamins and minerals and feel satiated—no energy spike and crash! She recommends adding several of these veggies so that your salad is nice and colorful, aiming for half a cup to one full cup in total.
These popular salad ingredients, found on many a restaurant menu, are a quick way to turn your healthy salad into more of a dessert. “The added sugar makes this ingredient more like candy than a healthy protein,” says Michels. Instead, she recommends opting for raw nuts, as these no-added sugar options better support blood sugar management and satiety.
Creamy salad dressings
Popular salad dressings like ranch, blue cheese, and Caesar might be tasty, but they are often high in calories, unhealthy saturated fat, and sodium, warns The Vitamin Shoppe nutritionist, Karen Cooney, M.A., C.N., C.H.H.C. “Sometimes even more fat than a fast-food burger!” she says. If you’re really craving that creaminess, she recommends sticking with a low-calorie balsamic or a vinaigrette and adding avocados or hummus into your salad.
Croutons are crunchy, salty, buttery, and delicious—and anything but nutrient-rich. “Not only are you getting unhealthy processed carbs when you add croutons, but a few of them add up in contributing to the calorie content of the salad,” says Rodgers. “Not to mention, the combo of gluten, salt, and unhealthy fats may cause a lot of digestive problems, like bloating and gas.” If you’re craving something crunchy, she recommends opting for raw nuts instead.
In an effort to add in some protein, you might consider tossing some easy cold cuts into your salad. However, deli meats are often high in nitrates and loaded with a ton of sodium, which are a few of the reasons why they have been linked with cardiovascular disease.
Your move? Go with fresh options like ground turkey, shredded chicken, or strips of steak, instead.