The 10 Worst Things to Eat at a Salad Bar and the 10 Best

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If you thought the salad bar was a safe haven for healthy eating, you will be disappointed by how quickly things can go south. The truth is it only takes a few missteps to turn a balanced, nutrient-packed salad into a bowl full of salt, sugar, saturated fat and carcinogens — not to mention a calorie overload. We asked registered dietitian nutritionists to sort through the confusion and reveal the 10 worst things to eat at a salad bar and 10 of the best.

The No. 1 Worst Choice: Croutons

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Croutons are usually on every salad bar, so they must be okay right? “Croutons are generally white bread drenched in fat and salt,” says Abby Langer, RD, owner of Abby Langer Nutrition in Toronto. There’s just nothing there, nutritionally speaking. Langer notes they are “not the most terrible thing on the salad bar,” perhaps in part because of their tiny portion size (two tablespoons is 20 calories). She still cautions to “limit to a few,” since that two-tablespoon serving is “probably a lot less than what most people use in a salad.” It’s not hard to sprinkle half a cup over your salad, adding 80 calories to your meal instantly. If you love croutons, try taking just a few and breaking them up so there’s more crouton per bite.

Nutritional Info: 58 calories and 1 gram of fat per half-ounce.

The No. 2 Worst Choice: White Pasta Salad

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Stick to building a salad from scratch at the salad bar, and steer clear of premade salads, including pasta salads, which Langer describes as “usually white pasta slathered with mayonnaise with a few bits (if any) of vegetables mixed in.” Her advice? Pass on this fatty, nutrition-less, high-calorie choice. Nearly 50 percent of the calories come from unhealthy fats. Langer sums it up in one word: “Ick.”

Nutritional Info: 358 calories and 18 grams of fat per cup.

Listen now: How to Calm Down in Under 3 Minutes

The No. 3 Worst Choice: Fried Noodles

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Salads are about greens and fresh produce, so walk right past anything fried lurking among the offerings. Fried noodles are “just crappy fried dough with pretty much zero nutrition,” according to Langer, who minces no words in her disdain for those tasty wonton strips. To make matters worse, she adds that they’re not a treat worth splurging for. They’re “usually high in oil and rancid-tasting too. Nothing here to see, people. Move on.”

Nutritional Info: 53 calories per ounce, 2 grams of fat.

The No. 4 Worst Choice: Deli Meat

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Making a balanced meal from a salad bar means finding healthy sources of protein. Deli meat definitely has protein, but at a high sodium cost and an increased risk of colorectal cancer, according to the World Health Organization. Just four slices of turkey can push you close to the Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) of 2,300 mg or about 1 teaspoon. Calories can vary widely, from lean turkey breast on the lower end to salami on the higher end (the dead giveaway is all that visible solid fat). But the sodium and other additives like nitrates, which can increase the risk for listeria, is another reason deli meat is on the salad bar “worst” list.

Turkey Breast Nutritional Info: 60 calories; 510 milligrams of sodium per 2 oz (3-4 slices).

Pork Salami Nutritional Info : 240 calories; 1,080 milligrams of sodium per 2 oz (3-4 slices).

Read more: 14 Healthy and Out-of-the-Ordinary Salad Ingredients

The No. 5 Worst Choice: Ranch Dressing

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Just so we don't single out one unhealthy dressings from the others, the warning against drowning your salad in Ranch also applies to Thousand Island, Caesar and blue cheese dressings. What do they all have in common? They add a surprising amount of saturated fat and calories to your bowl. “Yes, it’s delicious,” says Langer, who offers a tip: “If you must, take a small to-go cup and dip your fork into the dressing before spearing the salad.” Her logic? That way you’ll get all the flavor without the intense calorie bomb. A meager two-tablespoon serving (about one eighth of a cup) of any of these dressings will cost you more than 100 calories — and even more if you don’t watch that small serving size.

Ranch Dressing Nutritional Info: 146 calories and 16 grams of fat per two tablespoons.

Thousand Island Dressing Nutritional Info: 111 calories and 11 grams of fat per two tablespoons.

Caesar dressing Nutritional Info: 156 calories and 17 grams of fat per two tablespoons.

Blue Cheese Dressing Nutritional Info: 150 calories and 14 grams of fat per two tablespoons.

The No. 6 Worst Choice: Bacon Bits

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The upside of bacon bits? “That perfect salty, smoky flavor burst for your salad,” admits Christy Wilson, RD, nutrition counselor at University of Arizona Campus Health Service and owner of ChristyWilsonNutrition.com. Plus, they have three grams of protein per tablespoon. "But their salt and concentrated calorie content make them a bust,” she says.

Some other things to be aware of: Many bacon bits on salad bars are considered "imitation," made from textured soy flour, so you have to consider the added salt and sugar. "Real” bacon bits, however, are made with processed meat that has either been cured, salted or smoked. Wilson says this is a problem because “there is evidence that frequent intake of highly processed meats like bacon can lead to blood vessel damage and increase risk of stroke and cancer.” Either way, they’re not winning any nutrition prizes.

Real Bacon Bits Nutritional Info: 35 calories and 2 grams of fat per tablespoon.

Imitation Bacon Bits Nutritional Info: 30 calories and 1.5 grams of fat per tablespoon.

Read more: 8 Innovative Salad Recipes, No Lettuce Needed

The No. 7 Worst Choice: Candied Nuts

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Yes, nuts are one of the healthiest foods you can eat. However, “covering heart-healthy nuts in a sugary coating takes away from their nutrient value,” says Mandy Enright, M.S., RDN, RYT, creator of Nutrition Nuptials. Americans are getting too many of their calories from added sugar, which can lead to obesity, Type 2 diabetes and heart disease. That's why the American Health Association recommends no more than six teaspoons, or about 25 grams, of added sugar per day for women, and nine teaspoons, or about 36 grams, for men. Dried cranberries are another common culprit adding sugar at the salad bar for the same reason. Hidden sugar sabotages healthy foods like nuts and dried fruit, making healthy eating harder than it has to be.

Candied Pecans Nutritional Info: 159 calories and 7 grams of sugar per ounce.

Dried Cranberries Nutritional Info: 123 calories and 26 grams of sugar per 1/3 cup.

The No. 8 Worst Choice: Potato Salad

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Freshly made mayonnaise is a beautiful thing, but that’s likely not what’s coating the potato salad at your local salad bar. It’s pre-dressed in added fat and calories, which will cost you 200 calories per half-cup. What’s more, many salad bars charge by weight, so you’ll also be spending more at the cash register.

Potato Salad Nutritional Info: 179 calories and 10 grams of fat per half-cup.

The No. 9 Worst Choice: Roasted Eggplant or Cauliflower

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When you see cooked vegetables on the salad bar, they’re not a true “worst” food. That’s because you’re mostly doing a good thing by choosing vegetables. But because you can't be sure whether the veggies have been roasted in a healthy fat (like olive) versus an unhealthy fat (like processed partially hydrogenated oils), it's not a foolproof choice. This could be bad news for your diet, particularly, if you choose eggplant or cauliflower, which tend to soak up more oil and fat than other veggies. Bottomline: When you’re letting someone else do the food prep, stick to fresh, simple foods.

Cooked Eggplant Nutritional Info: 140 calories (20 calories, plus 120 calories per tablespoon of olive oil) per half-cup.

Cooked Cauliflower Nutritional Info: 150 calories (30 calories, plus 120 calories per tablespoon of olive oil) per half-cup.

Read more: 23 Healthy Salads Nutrition Experts Eat

The No. 10 Worst Choice: Cheese

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Cheese is delicious, but, sadly, it is one of the most efficient ways to rack up saturated fat and sodium on your plate. Harder aged cheeses are higher in both because saturated fat and sodium get concentrated over time. Conversely, fresher, softer cheeses tend to be lower in both. On the good side, cheese also contributes some protein to the mix. If you’re going for quantity and more cheese per bite, go for softer cheeses. If you’re looking at cheese as more of a garnish, just sprinkle a pinch of shredded Parmesan for maximum flavor in a small portion.

Parmesan Nutritional Info: 122 calories and 8 grams of fat per ounce.

Mozzarella Nutritional Info: 78 calories and 4.8 grams of fat per ounce.

Soft Goat's Cheese Nutritional Info: 75 calories and 6 grams of fat per ounce.

The No. 1 Best Choice: Baby Spinach

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Low in calories and high in nutrition, baby spinach is “a powerhouse of fiber, antioxidants and vitamins A and K,” says Langer. That’s a nutritional bargain for single-digit calories per cup. The body can use those antioxidants all day long to fight off chronic inflammation from external sources, such as pollution, fast food and added sugar. It’s not a shocker that leafy greens are one of the best things you can eat. What’s great about baby greens is that they’re less bitter than their full-grown counterparts. In addition to baby spinach, try baby kale, baby arugula and baby mixed greens.

Nutrition Info: 7 calories and 0 grams of fat per cup.

The No. 2 Best Choice: Edamame

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If you love saying edamame, you’re not alone. Edamame! If they’re new to you, know that the mildly nutty young green soybeans should be one of the first foods you think of for plant protein, not to mention fiber. Make some room in your day for more plant protein and less meat, and you’ll be on your way to a healthier heart and reduced risk of Type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, obesity and certain cancers, according to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics position paper on vegetarian diets. Plant-based foods are also better for the environment because plants use fewer natural resources and take a lesser toll on the environment. No, this does not mean you need to be 100 percent vegetarian (though it is totally fine if you are), but we should all be eating more plants, period. Black beans and chickpeas are also excellent plant-based proteins you can consider at the salad bar.

Nutrition Info: 94 calories and 4 grams of fat per half-cup.

Read more: How to Up Your Salad Game With Whole Grains

The No. 3 Best Choice: Shredded Brussels Sprouts

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Finding shredded Brussels sprouts at the salad bar is always a treat for a couple of reasons. One, someone else has done all the work of trimming and shredding them for you (Score!). And, two, “these cruciferous, cancer-fighting little cabbages,” as Langer refers to them, can become tender and delicious in their shredded form when combined with a dash of dressing and a little time. They are a truly outstanding source of the major antioxidant vitamin C (good for fighting all kinds of harmful free radicals in the body) as well as a source of potassium for healthy muscles and replenishing electrolytes.

Nutrition Info: 20 calories and 0 grams of fat per half-cup.

The No. 4 Best Choice: Carrots

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When you spy grated carrots on the salad bar, get ’em. The bright and vivid orange color of carrots is a dead giveaway that you are in the presence of a great source of vitamin A carotenoids. These vitamins “help to keep you looking younger longer, among other benefits,” says Langer. The crunch and high water content of carrots means that you’ll fill up, not out. Other salad bar options that fit the bill are cucumbers, celery and jicama.

Nutrition Info: 26 calories and 0 grams of fat per half-cup.

Read more: 10 Healthy Lunches for When You Just Can't Handle Another Salad

The No. 5 Best Choice: Tomatoes

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Tomatoes are bursting with color (i.e., antioxidants) and have a juicy, mild sweetness that works great in contrast to earthy greens in a salad. Langer agrees that they’re a “delicious way to add nutrition to your salad.” She likes that they are “packed with vitamin C and lycopene, a cancer-fighting antioxidant.” In fact, her advice is to “pile them on,” since each cherry tomato is just a few calories a pop. That sounds like advice to remember for life.

Nutrition Info: 25 calories and 0 grams of fat per half-cup.

The No. 6 Best Choice: Pistachios and Almonds

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Yes, nuts in general are good for you, but as Wilson explains, “pistachios and almonds are healthy options at the salad bar, not only because they provide heart-healthy and satisfying unsaturated fats, but they also have six grams of plant-based protein.” Pistachios and almonds are the highest-protein and filled with fiber, so you can stay fuller longer. Wilson adds that they “naturally contain blood pressure-lowering minerals, including magnesium and potassium.” If your salad bar doesn’t carry these, sunflower seeds are a pretty good stand-in, with healthy fats and some protein and fiber.

Nutrition Info: 160 calories and 13 grams of fat per ounce of pistachios or almonds.

The No. 7 Best Choice: Quinoa

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People don’t always think about whole grains for plant protein, but they’re actually a super healthy and reliable source of it. And every little bit counts, right? If you’re looking for some plant protein and filling high-quality carbohydrates, scoop some quinoa onto your salad. Other viable options are wild rice, farro, barley, sorghum or any other interesting whole grain your local salad bar has on offer. Tip: If your salad container comes with a tight lid, shake it up and the grains will naturally distribute more evenly throughout the salad.

Nutrition Info: 110 calories and 1 gram of fat per half-cup.

Read more: 10 Warm Salads to Keep You Lean

The No. 8 Best Choice: Hard-Boiled Eggs

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Protein-packing eggs are one of the only commonly available foods that provide a good source of vitamin D. This is good news for people who don’t get enough vitamin D from sun exposure — whether it’s due to living too far north, winter daylight hours or, like many of us, from working inside all day. Just remember, you only get the bone-building and inflammation-fighting vitamin D (11 percent of the Daily Value) if you eat the whole egg, as the treasure is in the golden yolk.

Nutrition Info: 80 calories and 5 grams of fat per egg, including yolk.

The No. 9 Best Choice: Olive Oil and Vinegar

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Do you know what’s in the buckets of dressing offered at the salad bar? Not exactly, right? But a solid guess includes added sugars, salt and preservatives. The good news is that most salad bars also offer olive oil and vinegar a la carte. Take advantage! Extra-virgin olive oil is widely praised for its complex array of antioxidant and anti-inflammatory polyphenols as well as its role as a heart-healthy, diabetes-friendly and brain-boosting healthy fat. Olive oil also helps the body absorb all the great fat-soluble vitamins (vitamins A, D, E, K) trapped in the greens and produce in your salad. And vinegar, while not a cure-all magical potion, offers polyphenols and probiotics for minimal calories. Together they add a punch of flavor and can magically bring a salad together.

Olive Oil Nutrition Info: 120 calories and 14 grams of fat per tablespoon.

Red Wine Vinegar Nutrition Info: 3 calories and 0 grams of fat per tablespoon.

Balsamic Vinegar Nutrition Info: 14 calories and 0 grams of fat per tablespoon.

Read more: 10 Mason Jar Salads That Will Make Your Co-Workers Jealous

The No. 10 Best Choice: Fresh Fruit

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We’ve come a long way from the days of basic iceberg, tomato and cucumber salads. There’s no shame in including these in your salad, but we’ve really expanded our ideas and expectations of what can go in a salad, as evidenced by the variety of add-ins seen at modern salad bars. So don’t just think veg, but also consider where fruit plays a role. As a rule, add only fresh fruit and avoid anything in a syrup or other dressing. Fresh fruit delivers natural sweetness (yum!) along with essential nutrients and hydrating water content — without all the added sugar. Some top picks you may see at your salad bar are fresh table grapes, blueberries, strawberries and mandarin orange segments.

Fresh Grapes Nutrition Info: 50 calories and 0 grams fat per half-cup.

Blueberries Nutrition Info: 40 calories and 0 grams fat per half-cup.

Halved Strawberries Nutrition Info: 25 calories and 0 grams fat per half-cup.

Per half-cup of mandarin orange segments: 50 calories

What Do YOU Think?

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How do you like to build a salad? What are your salad bar go-to favorites? Tell us in the comments!

Read more: 7 Salad Dressings That Will Make You Toss the Bottled Stuff

Can You Gain Weight By Eating Too Many Cucumbers?

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Overview

If you thought the salad bar was a safe haven for healthy eating, you will be disappointed by how quickly things can go south. The truth is it only takes a few missteps to turn a balanced, nutrient-packed salad into a bowl full of salt, sugar, saturated fat and carcinogens — not to mention a calorie overload. We asked registered dietitian nutritionists to sort through the confusion and reveal the 10 worst things to eat at a salad bar and 10 of the best.

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