Friday, April 29, 2005

Friday Mythbustin': I'll Just Have The Salad

Myth: It's good to order "just" a salad if you're trying to eat healthy or lose weight.

Truth: Salads are sometimes the most fattening thing on the menu.

I had to throw this in here today after listening to an office full of people discussing lunches, and hearing how often the phrase "just a salad" or even the word "salad" came up.

The idea behind salads is a decent one. Since vegetables are high-fiber and low-calorie, a nice little mix of them adds fiber and some minerals without adding very many unwanted calories. Hence the "salad" portion of the meal. Some lettuce and tomatoes and things to balance the straight carbs and protein, like bread and steak.

But when you make the salad the center of attention, it seems kind of dull. It needs spruced up a little, badly, to become a complete meal. In fact, it needs carbs and protein--all the stuff you used to eat on the plate next to the salad plate.

So that's what restaurants did. They started adding bells and whistles to the salads to the point where all those fiber-filled vegetables have become a bed, a nest, a holding center for lots and lots of calorie filled stuff.

Think about the stuff people put on salads:

Dressing: By far, the worst offender. Two tablespoons of bleu cheese dressing contain 118 calories. That glob of dressing on top of that tomato slice has more calories than the whole tomato (which had about 22 calories whole).

Ah, but!, you say. Bleu cheese is 100% fat! I will go with the fat-free dressing! Well you're on the right track--you've probably gone from 118 calories per two tablespoons to around 50. Still more than twice the original tomato, and chances are the restaurant's globbed more than two tablespoons on your lettuce.

Your best bet is to go with as low-cal a dressing as you enjoy the taste of, and then try to spread it as thinly as you can throughout the salad. Some people say to get the dressing on the side, then dip your fork in the dressing, then take a forkfull of salad. If that works for you, great, but I've never really dug it.

Croutons, Chips-strips, Noodles, etc.: Would you eat straight white bread or chips if you were dieting? So then why is it suddenly a "diet" food when it's on a salad?

It's not, plain and simple. Lots of that stuff is fried, lots of that stuff is stuffed with calories, and lots of that stuff has zero nutritional value.

Unfortunately, it's also my favorite part of most salads.

(Okay, little confession. There was a time where I'd use Lucky Charms on my salads. Yes, the breakfast cereal. The crunchy part acted like croutons, and the marshmallows gave a nice sweet flavor, like raisins.)

It's probably the realization that I can't have croutons with it that turns me most off to salads now.

(To give you an idea of the difference the above two make--the Caesar side salad at Wendy's, without the dressing and croutons, is 90 calories. That's including the cheese and the "bacon pieces." With the dressing and croutons, it shoots up to 290 calories. Those two have twice the calories of the rest of the salad.)

Meats: "Ah, that's a fine cut of meat. Put it in the salad."

Not high up on the list of things you're going to hear at most of the restaurants you and I can afford. Chances are that's not the leanest stuff in the house.

Plus, lots of salads feature "hard" meats, full of saturated fats and other calorie-laden stuff that's really yummy but not all that healthy. Even if it's chicken, it's often the same fried "finger" chicken they serve in appetizers, with all the added calories of deep-frying.

Cheese: Cheese is another make-or-break. Piles of shredded cheese add on saturated fat calories. A a lot less of a flavorful hard cheese, like Parmesan, can do the same thing for fewer calories.

How big a difference in calories can we find in what constitutes a "salad?"

Well, at Jack In The Box, if you get a Chicken Caesar Salad, you're looking at around 220 calories, without the dressing. But if you get the Chicken Club Salad, that's a plate of 825 calories, before the dressing. The Bacon Bacon Cheeseburger has less than that. That's about the same as a Jumbo Jack and medium fries.

Over at Wendy's, that Mandarin Chicken Salad might seem tempting, with only 170 calories. But that's only before the noodles, almonds, and dressing. Those kick you up to 610 calories, giving you more calories than the Big Bacon Classic sandwich.

So "salad" might be a good starting word, but it's not enough to guarantee healthy eating. Some good words to tack on there would be "grilled" (as in the meat), "low-cal" (as in the dressing), "sensible" (as in the portion size), and fresh (as in the ingredients, because fresh vegetables are quite the opposite of bland).


Rebecca said...

I've actually heard that it's best not to get dressing or sauces on the side because restaurants usually a formula for how much dressing / sauce to give you to still save money. However, when you order it on the side, you usually end up with more than what they would have put on you salad /dinner anyway. When they bring that tub of dressing, it's probably quite a bit more than two tablespoons, right?

Erik said...

Actually, at a lot of places I've been to (particularly the "Mom And Pop" type fast-food places, I think the mathematical equation they use ensuring salad dressing profitablility involves water.

The fork thing only works if you do NOT eat all the salad dressing in the bowl--you use just enough of it to get you through the salad. (I mean, no scraping around trying to get as much as you can on the fork. I honestly am not implying I think anybody drinks the leftovers out of the bowl when they finish their salad.)

When I do order a salad, I usually do as you suggest, and let them put it on. I do this mostly because I am a calorie counter, and the closer I leave it to the actual preparation, the closer the posted calorie count comes to being accurate.