Dietitans Zoe Wilson and Larina Robinson went roaming the fast food court and uncovered some surprising health traps at the salad bar. Here, they show you what to look out for to make smarter, healthier choices.
The humble salad has forever been a dieters’ staple. But it’s had a bad rap over the years for being bland and unsatisfying. Recently, though, plenty of takeaway chains have successfully lured us back to the salad bar with fresh choices loaded up with vivid colours, exotic ingredients and tasty dressings.
Sadly, some of these new salads are big on more than just flavour, with large amounts of fat and salt hidden in key ingredients and dressings. So here’s what you need to know to find healthy, great tasting salads.
Foolproof salad bases
Look for salads that are based on leafy greens; think baby spinach, lettuce, cabbage, rocket, broccoli, green beans, bean sprouts, watercress, zucchini, and cucumber. Other colourful goodies are carrot, pumpkin, capsicum or tomatoes. All of these vegies pack a nutrient punch, are high fibre to fill you up and light in kilojoules. Watch out for salads based on roasted or antipasto vegies as these can contain lots of oil which will add a hefty whack of kilojoules.
Perfect protein choices
To keep you feeling satisfied, look out for salads with a good helping of lean protein like tuna, skinless chicken breast or lean beef. Keep away from deep-fried or crumbed meat, as they add excess kilojoules and saturated fat. Good vegetarian choices are chickpeas, lentils, beans and hardboiled eggs – all of which are packed full of protein.
Make sure your salad contains some form of carbohydrate (whole grains, potato, sweet potato or corn), as you need it for a balanced and energy-sustaining lunch. Alternatively, pick up a slice of sourdough bread, or a small grainy bread roll to have alongside the salad.
Whole grains bump up the fibre, help you feel full and provide you with energy to make it through the afternoon. Great choices include brown rice, pasta and quinoa.
Be wary, though, of some potato-based or pasta salads, as they can contain high-fat dressings like mayonnaise or pesto.
While some cheese or a sprinkle of walnuts is great for adding flavour, you can have too much of a good thing. Little extras that add kilojoules include feta, ricotta, goat’s cheese, nuts, seeds, avocado, crunchy noodles or crispy croutons. So, look for a salad that has about half a handful of these add-ons in total.
A salad just isn’t the same without the zing of a yummy dressing. However, it’s often the hiding place of excess kilojoules, salt and saturated fat – particularly if it’s added with great gusto by the chef. Mayonnaise and creamy dressings are major offenders, high in saturated fat and kilojoules, while many Asian dressings are high in salt. So, look for salads with small amounts of ‘heart-healthy’ olive oil, French or Italian dressings, small amounts of pesto or even just lemon juice.
And for extra flavour, go for salads that contain herbs such as coriander, parsley and basil, they not only taste great but are highly nutritious!
Pick and mix!
Why not opt for a combination of two or three different salads? For the perfect balace, fill one third of the container with the pasta, potato or couscous salad (minimising any high-kilojoule dressings, too) and the rest with vegie-based salads containing lean protein.
Just because you’ve chosen a salad doesn’t mean you’re immune to the effects of supersizing. Supersized salads loaded with some innocent-looking (but high-fat) ingredients can end up being the equivalent to a fast food burger and fries! For example, Sumo Salad’s Chicken Basil Penne salad has 5304kJ, compared to a large McDonald’s Big Mac meal with 4900kJ. The salad has even higher fat than the burger meal and a larger unhealthy portion of sodium, too. So while we’re all for having a large hearty salad, try to stick to supersizing only the raw salad vegies.
The perfect balance
Whether you’re buying a pre-made salad or making your own, you can ensure you’re having a healthy meal by applying this simple formula: Half the salad should be low-kilojoule vegies, one quarter lean protein (meat, chicken, legumes) and a quarter wholegrain carbohydrates.
Salad swapping guide
Low-kJ – less than 1700kJ per serve
Low-fat – less than 10g fat per serve
High-fibre – more than 6g fibre per serve
Low-sodium – less than 500mg sodium per serve
Chicken Caesar salad from the Coffee Club
Large grilled chicken Caesar salad from Sumo Salad with 1970kJ and 31.9g fat.
Save 2246kJ, 57.4 g fat, 809mg sodium
Small leafy chicken schnitzel salad from Sumo Salad
Seared chicken classic salad with Italian dressing from McDonald’s with 817kJ, 5.8g fat, 2.9g sat fat. TIP: Add a slice of toast from McCafé for a more balanced meal.
Save 598kJ, 16.8g fat, 4.2g sat fat. Gain 9.3g protein
Coconut, mango and chicken salad from Jamaica Blue
Citrus chicken salad from The Coffee Club with 1323kJ, 15.1g fat, 526mg sodium. TIP: Add a small bread roll for a more balanced meal.
Save 2285kJ, 61.7g fat, 384mg sodium Gain 3.3g protein
Large beef and haloumi salad from Sumo Salad
Large warm Moroccan lamb salad from Sumo Salad with 1310kJ, 12.3g fat, 6.8g fibre.
Save 7.6g fat, 4.4g sat fat Gain 3.8g fibre
1/4 chicken and salad from Red Rooster
Mediterranean salad with chicken from Nando’s with 1154kJ, 28g protein, 15.0g fat, 855mg sodium. TIP: Add a small bread roll to make a more balanced meal.
Save 1266kJ, 13.8g fat, 1085mg sodium
Pumpkin and pine nut salad from Sumo Salad
Roast veg and chickpea salad from IKU Wholefoods with 1721kJ, 20.8g fat, 2.2g sat fat, 262mg sodium