What you put on your salad is important. Here's what to look for, what to watch out for and how to eat salads you actually enjoy.

Lisa Valente, MS, RD
May 12, 2020
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You likely don't need a registered dietitian to tell you that salad is good for you. Most Americans fall far short on their recommended veggie intake, and salad is a great way to get your fill. You'll get lots of fiber, vitamins and minerals from all the vegetables. Starting your meal with salad can help you stay satisfied, eat fewer calories and promote weight loss.

You can top your salad however you like—and that's where things start to get tricky for people. Are croutons OK? What about chicken? Or fish? And then there's the dressing. It seems like we've been told salad dressing can make the salad worse than a cheeseburger. Is that true? Here's what you should know about salad dressing, the best ones to choose if you're trying to lose weight and common mistakes people make.

What science says about your salad dressing

1. Fat is filling.

It's hard to lose weight if you're constantly hungry. Fat is a satisfying nutrient because it takes a long time to digest. Choose a dressing made with heart-healthy fats, like olive oil or avocado oil.

2. Too much sugar isn't great.

If your preference is for super-sweet dressings, you're a bit out of luck. Most of us eat too much added sugar (the recommended amount is six teaspoons a day for women, nine for men). Some dressings have two teaspoons of added sugar in one serving. Personally, I'd rather eat my sugar in a brownie or scoop of ice cream than my salad. Too much added sugar over time can potentially lead to weight gain, insulin resistance and heart disease (learn more about what happens in your body when you eat sugar).

3. Does vinegar help with weight loss?

Vinegar is what gives salad dressings their pucker (unless you use another acid, like lemon juice). They're low in calories with less than 5 calories per tablespoon. And while vinegar has been found to help some people lose weight in research studies—it's not a magical weight-loss elixir. (Here's what the science says about apple cider vinegar and weight loss.) Use vinegar in your homemade vinaigrettes and enjoy it on salads, but don't expect magic.

Biggest weight-loss mistakes you could be making with salad dressing

1. Not using any.

Look, it can be tempting to slash calories whenever you can if you're trying to lose weight. But, a bowl of lettuce will not fill you up. Salad dressing helps make your salad tastier (so you're more likely to eat those super-healthy veggies). The fat in salad dressing also makes nutrients more available (vitamins A,D,E and K) and the fat in salad dressing helps you actually feel full. Fat takes longer to digest, so it gives your salad some staying power.

2. Only choosing light dressings.

Speaking of cutting calories and fat, light dressings reigned supreme in the '90s and continue to be the salad dressing of choice for many who lived through that era. The problem? Seeing the word "light" on the bottle, doesn't make the dressing better for you. Many of these dressings replace fat with sugar, leaving you with fewer calories but also just a sweeter, less filling salad. Read labels to choose a dressing that's low in sugar or make your own healthy dressing

3. Using too much or too little.

Too little dressing and you won't be satisfied or get enough calories in your salad. Using too much and not only will your salad be overdressed but you can easily pour on hundreds of calories. Most salads can be fully dressed with about 2 tablespoons of dressing but sometimes you'll need a little more or a little less.

How to build a healthy salad

If a salad is your meal, build one that fills you up and hits all the marks. Veggies, check. Protein, check. Whole grains, check. Healthy fats, check. Fun toppings, check. Our formula for building the perfect salad spells out what to pick from different categories (including dressing!) so you're left with a healthy and well-balanced bowl of greens.

Bottom line

Salads are awesome because they're a blank slate. Try a taco salad or chicken Caesar salad, the options are endless. But if the only salad you allow yourself to eat is something you don't actually want because you think that's the healthiest option—you're never going to enjoy it. Eat just a bowl of dry lettuce, and you'll likely overcompensate later by eating too many cookies or pretzels or whatever you can get your hands on because you're so hungry. That has nothing to do with a lack of willpower and everything to do with not eating what your body needs earlier in the day.

As far as the dressing itself, aim to choose options that are lower in sugar and made with healthy fats (the easiest way to do this is to make your own, but plenty of store bought options fit the bill). I could tell you ranch is the worst choice and balsamic is the best choice, but maybe you hate balsamic and love ranch. Even though it may be higher in saturated fat, use the ranch and eat a salad that satisfies you. You'll still get all the benefits of eating more vegetables. It's important to enjoy what you eat, and that means salads too.

Welcome to The Beet. A weekly column where nutrition editor and registered dietitian Lisa Valente tackles buzzy nutrition topics and tells you what you need to know, with science and a little bit of sass.