Ah, salads. Fresh. Fun. Full of vegetables and nutrients. What could be healthier? Well, that actually depends on the salad in question. Salads have earned a unique reputation that's inseparable from the idea of health. They seem to have endured the scrutiny so often applied to other "healthy" foods, and have more or less been universally considered "healthy" for decades. In true MYOMIND fashion, let's investigate this assumption to see if it's true, shall we?
For our purposes here, we'll define "healthy" as a meal that imparts micronutrients (vitamins, minerals) without putting you into a large caloric surplus. Don't get me wrong - salads can be healthy, and a lot of them are. But many people fall into the trap of thinking that all salads must be healthy. Salads are often eaten in fat loss efforts, but opting for a salad at a restaurant can easily and immediately undo any efforts to keep calories on the lower side. And yes, regardless of what you eat, calories do matter in the end. This isn't the time to get into CICO (calories in, calories out), but just know that you can't eat an unlimited amount of calories and expect to maintain or lose weight, regardless of where the calories are coming from.
Ok, so first let's talk about what sort of salads are actually sabotaging your attempts to lose fat and increase well-being. As a general rule, if you want to order an entree-sized salad at a sit-down restaurant, prepare to consume around 1000 calories or more. That's right, a staggering number of seemingly innocuous restaurant salads contain just as many calories as a burger you'd see somewhere else on the menu. It's often difficult for people to wrap their heads around this fact, but think about what restaurants are doing - they don't have your health in mind. They want you to eat their food, and keep coming back for more. They cook for taste, and guess what tastes delicious? High-calorie dressings, cheeses, and fried foods, all of which are par for the salad course, so to speak (pun intended). When you add these up, you can get salads that are upwards of 1300 calories.
Here are some examples:
(Taken from Applebee's website)
It's just a chicken salad! It sounds so healthy! How bad can it be? Actually, it can be very bad. 1400 calories of bad, to be exact.
(Taken from Applebee's website)
Another "super healthy" chicken salad! Only there's 1420 calories in this one. I mean, are you kidding me?
And yes, you might accuse me of cherry-picking particularly terrible offenders, but to really hammer my point home, check out how many of the full-size salads from California Pizza Kitchen contain 700-1000+ calories. In fact, there's only one salad that has less than 700 calories.
(Taken from CPK's website)
If you're trying to make a calorie-conscious choice you can definitely opt for a salad, but just make sure it's actually low-calorie. Restaurants are starting to include calorie counts on their menus en masse, so if you're trying to make a conscious decision to go easy on the calories, make sure you check to see if calories are listed.
Now, not all restaurant salads are so bad, but you have to be wary of the ones that are. The important thing is that you don't just assume that all salads are healthy, low-calorie choices. Unfortunately, some people assume that the very fact that a salad has vegetables means it's definitely healthy. Luckily, this misconception is dying out as more and more people realize that - although eating vegetables is important - yes, calories do still matter. If you're trying to be calorie-conscious and you still want to get one of these salads, you can always ask for the dressing on the side so you have at least some control over the calorie content.
Now let's talk about what a truly healthy salad would look like. In general, pretty much any salad you prepare at home will be lower in calories than the restaurant equivalent because you know exactly what's going into it. Remember, "healthy" means that it must impart micronutrients (vitamins, minerals) without consistently putting you into a large caloric surplus, especially if you're eating salads frequently in an attempt to lose fat (on a side note, I suppose you could have a "cheat" salad that was a huge calorie-bomb, but who wants to do that?).
So a healthy homemade salad would consist of plenty of leafy greens and other fruits/vegetables (beets, tomatoes, bell peppers) dressed moderately with a homemade vinaigrette. Keep it simple with some oil, vinegar, and spices - and remember, calories from higher fat toppings like cheese and avocado add up quickly. Add some optional protein - maybe grilled chicken or an egg. As long as you dress your salad conservatively and are mindful of the type and amount of toppings you're using, your homemade salads should be the healthy meals and sides they're meant to be.
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