The composition of a salad is limited only by the imagination of the person preparing it and can include foods from every food group. By itself, a salad can satisfy many nutritional requirements, but salads are not necessarily low in calories and fat. The goal is to choose ingredients high in nutrients, fiber and taste, but low in calories and fat.
Lettuce and Other Salad Greens
Lettuce contains vitamins A, C and folate, calcium, fiber, beta-carotene and phytonutrients, substances the Colorado State University Extension says act as antioxidants. It has seven calories per cup. Iceberg is a commonly used variety, but lower in nutrients than green leaf, red leaf and romaine. For example, 100 grams of iceberg contains 502 IU of vitamin A, while green leaf has 7,405, red leaf 7,492 and romaine 5,807. Spinach is a good source of vitamins A, C, K and E, iron and potassium. Mustard, beet and other greens can be mixed with lettuce as the basis for a healthy salad.
Clemson University’s Cooperative Extension advises that a person consuming 2,000 calories daily should eat two and 1/2 cups of vegetables. Almost any raw vegetable can be used in a salad. Add cooled, cooked ones to salad greens or to whole-grain pasta for pasta salad. Skip greens for a salad centered around one type of vegetable, such as bean or broccoli salads. Vegetables are low in calories and good sources of vitamins, minerals, fiber and antioxidants. Beans are excellent sources of protein.
Fruit salad makes a nutritious dessert or side dish, but fruit can also be added to a tossed salad. Dried cranberries, chopped apples, mandarin orange sections and sliced strawberries all go well with salad greens. Or squeeze the juice of an orange over salad greens and vegetables for a low-calorie, no-fat dressing. Fruit is a good source of many vitamins and minerals, as well as fiber.
Chicken, Salmon and Eggs
Grilled chicken breast or salmon and hard boiled eggs are good additions to salads. Three ounces of chicken breast contains 142 calories; three ounces of salmon contains 127, according to the UK Cooperative Extension Service. One hard boiled egg contains 78 calories. Meat, fish and eggs are excellent sources of protein, B vitamins, iron, zinc and phosphorus.
Nuts are high in fat, but it is unsaturated, healthy fat. Walnuts are a good source of heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids. Almonds are another good choice for salads. According to the University of Nebraska Cooperative Extension, almonds are a good source of vitamin E. Add dry roasted, unsalted nuts to salads for crunch, flavor and nutrition.
A high-fat, high-calorie dressing can be the downfall of what would have been a healthy salad. Read labels carefully for calorie, sodium and fat content. Just two tablespoons of dressing can have as much as 150 calories and a fifth of the recommended daily allowance of sodium. Choose light, low-sodium dressings or make your own with oil, vinegar and herbs.