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What’s the real story about salads?

People often describe the All Mighty Salad as the quintessential healthful meal.

It makes sense.

You are filling your plate to the brim with a selection of fresh greens, veggies and plant-based proteins. Really—what could be better?

But there is another point of view.

Frequently, you hear people talking about salad’s secret sins and how salads are really nothing more than ‘healthy’ excuse for unhealthful eating. Between the oil-based dressings and other high fat, high calorie dense ingredients, excess calories in a salad can stack up at breathtaking speed. If you’re not careful, you can easily be ingesting 1000+ calories in your supposed ‘low calorie’ salad meal.

So who is right and who is wrong? Are salads health promoting? Or are they really just a ‘green’ excuse for unhealthful eating?

As in so many food issues, the truth is somewhere in the middle. A green salad, packed with a variety of veggies, can be the best of meals—wholly satisfying to eat and extremely nourishing for your body.

But (and there IS a but), if you don’t pay attention to what you put on it, your nutritious salad can quickly morph into a not-so-healthful choice loaded with extra calories and fat.

What’s Really In a Salad?

Let’s start with the basics.

A typical head of iceberg lettuce is pretty incredible. It has 1.1 grams of fat, (yes, lettuce has fat), 7 grams of protein (yes, protein!), and only 105 calories. It also contains more than one-third the recommended daily amount of fiber (9 grams) of which only 3 percent of Americans actually meet. Pile on fresh fruits, veggies and legumes and you can build a nutrient-rich powerhouse of a meal.

Lettuce really is wonderful for you and your health.

But rarely does a salad stop with ‘just’ lettuce and a few additional veggies.

Herein lies the problem.

With just a few ‘innocent’ additions to your greens, you can triple your calorie intake with scant additional nutritional benefits.

The devil is in the details: dressing and toppings.

Dressing—Want a Bit of Ben & Jerry’s With Your Salad?

Usually the biggest culprit in transforming your salad from healthful to harmful is your Salad Dressing.

Most salad dressings are made up of oil. And oil can literally ruin all the benefits of your delicious, nutrition-packed bowl of greens.

Did you know…?

  • Oil is the most calorie-dense food there is, so even small amounts can have a big impact on your diet.
  • Most oils contain 100 calories or more per tablespoon. That extra virgin olive oil you thought was so healthful weighs in at 120 empty calories per tablespoon and 14 grams of fat.
  • If you eat salads 5 days a week, with just 2 tablespoons of an olive oil-based dressing, that adds up to more than 1,000 extra calories and 50 grams of fat!

Whether Your Salad Is Superb or Sinful Boils Down to One Issue

In the end, the issue of whether or not a salad is good for you, really comes down to one issue–the concept of energy density.

Let’s review energy density once again.

We all eat a certain ‘weight’ in food every day (this weight doesn’t normally shift very much). That weight is made up of low-, medium- and high-energy density foods. If you shift the combination of density, you will either consume more or less calories (and gain or lose weight accordingly).

Let’s now look at the energy density of a salad. If you are currently eating salads that are filled with ‘low energy-dense foods’ (i.e. lettuce, tomatoes, carrots, etc.), then your salad remains in the low energy density category and you get all those delicious nutrients with no risk.

The problem begins when you start splashing copious amounts of dressing (oils) on your healthful concoction; you are in effect shifting the balance into an energy-dense nightmare.

How You Can Have the Healthiest Salad Imaginable

Let’s figure out how you can create the healthiest salad imaginable:

  • Get rid of the oil-based dressings. Instead of using oil-based dressings, keep extra fat and empty calories at bay by choosing nutrition-packed fruit, veggies or legumes. Why not top your salad with 1/2 cup of black beans which contain only 110 calories, but also delivers 6 grams of fiber and 8 grams of protein?
  • Substitute nuts for oil. You also might want to consider using nuts rather than oil. A small sprinkling of nuts, like almonds or walnuts, in moderation of course, is far superior to plain olive oil. As we discussed in our recent article on the topic, while nuts are energy dense, they are still not as energy dense as oils. They also boast a much higher nutritional content than oils. However, remember that nuts are very high in calories so a little goes a long way.
  • Experiment with oil-free dressing alternatives. If you can’t stand the thought of eating dry greens, try oil-free vinaigrettes and alternatives like balsamic or wine vinegars, Citrus juices like lemon, lime or orange, which can also add moisture and flavor.

In the end, the best thing to remember when it comes to salads is lose the oil while leaving as many different low-calorie dense veggies in that bowl as possible. Bon appétit!


Rosane Oliveira, DVM, PhD

President & CEO, Plant-Based Life Foundation | Dr. Rosane Oliveira combines a lifelong passion for nutrition with 25 years of genetics research to create programs that help people develop healthy habits on their journey towards a more plant-based lifestyle. She is a Visiting Clinical Professor in Public Health Sciences and was the founding director of the first Integrative Medicine program at the UC Davis School of Medicine. She completed her postgraduate studies in Brazil and did her postdoctoral training in immunogenetics and functional genomics at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.