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College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences


Chow Line: Make your salad as healthful as possible (for 5/17/09)

May 8, 2009

My sister makes what she calls "junk food salad," with lots of toppings and dressing. Is that kind of salad healthful?

Salads are great, but your instincts are correct: Just because something is called a "salad" and rests on a bed of lettuce doesn't mean it's the healthiest choice around. In fact, some restaurant salad entrees can have more than 1,000 to 1,500 calories and more fat than you should eat in a day -- a surprise to many people who think they're choosing a healthful option. But making your own healthy salad isn't hard, and it can be fun.

First, start with greens. Iceberg lettuce might be the biggest seller, but it's hardly a nutrient powerhouse. Make the switch to romaine lettuce and you'll automatically boost your intake of vitamins K, A and C, as well as folate, potassium and other nutrients. Throw in some fresh spinach for a bit of variety and similar benefits.

Whatever the basis of the salad, though, it's the toppings that will make or break where the dish falls on the health-o-meter. Here are some considerations to keep in mind:

  • Be mindful of high-fat, high-calorie toppings, especially those that don't add much nutritionally, such as bacon bits and croutons. They can pack a wallop. If you can't imagine making a salad without them, just limit how much you use so you don't completely undermine the nutrient-to-calorie ratio you're looking for (that would be a salad higher in nutrients and lower in calories). A tablespoon of walnuts, sliced almonds or cheese crumbles would be a better choice as a garnish -- they also are high in calories but offer vitamins and minerals you don't get with the other toppings. Just remember, a little goes a long way.
  • Similarly, watch out for the dressings. Fat-free and low-fat dressings are always options, but you don't have to completely forego dressings higher in fat. In fact, studies show that a bit of oil -- or even the fat in avocados -- helps your body absorb nutrients in the salad. But it doesn't take much fat to do the job. If you're the type who likes to drown your lettuce with dressing, consider combining a bit of oil-based dressing with a lower- or non-fat complementary dressing. That way you get the flavor and moistness you're looking for without all of the calories.
  • Be generous with other vegetables. Besides the standard tomato, consider adding chopped broccoli and cauliflower, shredded carrots, sliced bell peppers and cucumber, whole sugar-snap peas, and a bit of avocado.
  • Don't forget fruit. It can do wonders to add flavor and interest to the standard salad. For a real treat, try adding grapes, mandarin oranges, kiwi, strawberries, blueberries or raspberries. A low-calorie raspberry vinaigrette dressing would be just the right finishing touch.

Chow Line is a service of Ohio State University Extension and the Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center. Send questions to Chow Line, c/o Martha Filipic, 2021 Coffey Road, Columbus, OH, 43210-1044, or

Editor: May is National Salad Month. This column was reviewed by Julie Shertzer, registered dietitian and program specialist for Ohio State University Extension in the Department of Human Nutrition, in the College of Education and Human Ecology.

Martha Filipic
Julie Shertzer