You show up at your favorite lunch spot and bypass the greasy grilled sandwiches and heavy pastas in favor of a salad. If nutritionists handed out gold stars, you'd certainly have earned one... right? Not so fast: Depending on your selections, you've either conjured up a wholesome powerhouse or a less-than-ideal meal that rivals those other options in calories and fat.
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That's why TODAY turned to Torey Armul, a registered dietitian nutritionist and spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, for a little guidance on the art of crafting a healthful, tasty salad. Here's what to keep in mind the next time you're in line:
- Go (dark) green: "When it comes to salad greens, the darker the leaf, the higher the nutrient content," says Armul. Emerald–hued leaves have the most vitamins and minerals, so it makes sense to choose ones like spinach, kale or collards instead of, say, iceberg lettuce.
- Don't fear fat: Veggies contain antioxidants called carotenoids that are fat-soluble, meaning they’re better absorbed when eaten with a fatty food. That's why it's worth adding some heart-healthy unsaturated fat like nuts, avocado or hard-boiled eggs. In fact, according to Armul, a study recently published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that carotenoid absorption increased by up to eight times when three eggs were added to a meal.
- Bring on the bell peppers: Armul explains that these popular, colorful vegetables are an excellent source of vitamin C, which improves the absorption of iron from leafy greens.
- Don't overdo dairy: And it's not necessarily because of the additional calories, though you should steer clear of cheese and other high-fat choices if you're aiming to lose weight. "Too much calcium from dairy foods like cheese and yogurt can interfere with the absorption of plant-based iron, so only use as much as you need to add flavor," suggests Armul.
- Just say no to guac pile-ons: "A standard ice cream scoop of guacamole, which is what many restaurants use, can add an extra 200 calories or more," warns Armul. Instead, ask for only a small dollop of guacamole or one-third of an avocado.
- Befriend the balsamic: Balsamic vinaigrette offers a one-two nutritional punch: The olive oil contains healthy unsaturated fats, which — as mentioned above — improve the antioxidant absorption of vegetables. It's also a flavorful, low-sugar add-on that pairs well with many different salad ingredients. Skip the low-calorie salad dressings, which may contain added sugar to replace the fat.
- Choose fresh fruit over dried: There's a reason why dried fruit tastes so much like candy. "It's been dehydrated, making it nearly five times more calorie-dense than fresh fruit," Armul says.
- Crunch carefully: To reach total salad bliss, the perfect leaf-to-dressing-to-crunch ratio is key. But rather than bacon bits, croutons, crispy noodles or tortilla strips, which Armul says "have empty calories and unhealthy fats," try one to two tablespoons of seeds or nuts (like almonds or walnuts). And of course, feel free to request as much toothsome produce — like cucumbers, carrots and jicama — as you like.