Why Size Matters...For Your Salad

This popular health food can be chock full of calories

By JJ Virgin—Stop judging your best friend who just ordered a bacon cheeseburger with sweet potato fries. I’ve got some bad news: your gargantuan entrée salad packs more calories than that greasy carb-fat fiasco.

“Bigger is better” seems the operative word in restaurants, and nowhere does size matter more than with those giant kitchen-sink salads.

Even though restaurants might put them in the “healthy” section of the menu, many mega-salads come loaded with sugar, damaged fats, and 4-digit calorie counts that would require some serious gym time to burn off.

I’ve done my research here, and the numbers are shocking. Of course Cheesecake Factory, always a winner in the excess-calorie category, would score with its Caesar Salad with Chicken, which packs a massive 1,513 calories.

Not to be outdone, California Pizza Kitchen’s Waldorf Chicken Salad with Blue Cheese Dressing delivers about 1,570 calories.

But wait, we have a winner. Chevy’s Fresh Mex Tostada Salad carries a whopping 1,720 calories.

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Toppings That Can Quickly Change a Salad From a Healthy Dream to a Nutrition Nightmare

What racks up so much damage on these restaurant salads? You know the Romaine or spinach leaves don’t have many calories. Tomato, cucumber, onions, and green veggies like broccoli are also low-calorie, nutrient-rich contenders.

Forbidden Sweets

What if I told you restaurants pour candy on your entrée salads, which knock them into caloric purgatory? I’m not kidding: loading them with dried fruit, candied walnuts, and other sugar bombs is 1 step short of dumping M & M’s on your salad.

The Blue Cheese Blues

And cheese. Restaurants love cheese, and some salads pack enough to fill a large pizza. I’m not talking a sprinkle of Parmesan here. No, these salads come loaded with bleu cheese boulders or mozzarella piles.

Never mind that cheese is a major food intolerance that can give you bloating, gas, and other post-meal misery. Cheese also seriously spikes your salad’s caloric count.

Kick the Crunch

“Crunchy” is another red flag with restaurant salads. Fried wontons, tortilla strips, and croutons add crunch appeal with major calories and zero nutrients. That taco salad you see on the menu at Mexican restaurants is like eating a bunch of greens on a deep-fried pastry shell.

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Drowning in Dressings

Dressing, however, might prove the biggest restaurant-salad violator. Despite how innocuous many of them sound (raspberry vinaigrette, for instance, or zesty lemon pepper), most salad dressings come loaded with fat and sugar.

Drowning even a healthy salad with sugary, creamy dressing is akin to breading and deep-frying broccoli: you kill most of its nutritional value.

How to Order a Smart Salad

If you haven’t guessed, restaurant salads can be healthy or fattening depending on how you top them. Do a salad right and you’ll get a filling, fat-burning combination of protein, fiber, nutrients, and good fats. Do one incorrectly and you’ll have a high-calorie, nutrient-empty fat nightmare.

Don’t Be Scared to Take it Off!

Remember nothing on that menu is set in stone. I always customize my salad. I ask my server to leave off the sugary, calorie-laden ingredients (be specific here) and substitute healthier ones.

Fresh is Best

I request green vegetables or fresh berries rather than dried fruit. Avocado? Love it: high in fiber, potassium, and good fats. I don’t do dairy, but if you want cheese ask for goat or sheep’s milk cheese. Put the croutons and crunchy stuff on permanent vacation. Ask for walnuts instead.

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Keep Your Dressing Simple

For dressing, ask for an olive oil and vinegar. Restaurants often have imported extra-virgin olive oil. (Ask for it.) If you must try the restaurant’s world-famous paprika-ginger dressing, ask for it on the side and sparingly dip your salad in it.

Who says fast food can’t be healthy? Chipotle is one of my favorite places to customize a healthy salad. I load mine with grilled chicken, avocado, black beans, and salsa.

Do it At Home

I also keep salad ingredients at home to throw together something filling. For instance, I’ll throw some leftover roasted vegetables, black beans, and lentils onto spinach leaves. Sometimes I’ll even sprinkle organic bacon crumbles. And if I really want to mix it up, I’ll throw on some fresh salsa or guacamole.

If only most things in life could be so fast, easy, and satisfying!

This story originally appeared on Inspiyr.