Salad slip ups - don't get caught out

Emma Brown - Nutritionist | 16 Apr, 2018

We've all been there – in the restaurant wondering what on earth to choose. While everyone else chooses calorie-laden pizza or pasta, you go for a delicious low calorie salad... or so you thought!

But do you really know what you're getting? Is the virtuous salad choice always the best one when you're trying to lose weight?

What makes a salad the healthy option?

In the summer months, salads are an attractive option both at home, and when we eat out. Most salad veggies are low in calories so filling up on these provides a healthy meal packed with important nutrients.

With seasonal salad vegetables available in the shops now, making a healthy, delicious salad has never been easier. Liven up a boring bowl of lettuce with rocket, spinach, watercress or herbs, then add in traditional salad veggies like tomatoes, cucumber, celery or peppers, or maybe something more adventurous like artichokes, asparagus or red onion. Where we tend to go wrong with salads, is the 'other' stuff we put into them to make them taste good.

Dressings are the biggest culprit. Just one tablespoon of a creamy Caesar dressing can add a whopping 67 calories and 6.8g of fat (and that's without the chicken, parmesan and croutons!).

Some common salad additions:

Mayonnaise (15g serving) 108 kcals 11.9g fat
Salad Cream (15g serving) 50 kcal 4g fat
French Dressing (15ml serving) 30 kcal 2.3g fat
Bacon bits (level tbsp) 55 kcal 2g fat
Coleslaw (30g serving) 67 kcal 6.3g fat
Blue cheese (30g serving) 123kcal 10.5g fat

It's important to think about what you're adding to your salad and how that impacts on your overall calorie and fat intake. Don't just assume because you're having a salad you can eat as much as you like. If you are trying to lose weight, it is a good exercise to weigh and record everything in the same way as any other meal – although most veggies are low in calories, no foods are 'free'.

What about eating out?

Restaurants are definitely getting better at offering lower calorie options and showing nutrition information on menus, but it's still not always as easy to make the healthy choice. We decided to do some detective work into the salads offered by three popular restaurant chains. A few comparisons with other dishes on the menu surprised us.

Pizza Express Pollo Salad


Chicken, goat's cheese, red Roquito pearls, fresh tomatoes, black olives and croutons, with seasonal mixed leaves, house dressing and dough sticks: 1,014 kcals

You might be surprised to discover that all of the Classic based pizzas on offer at the moment come in at 910 kcals or less – so are all LOWER in calories than this salad.

It's the 'extras' that all add up. Each is innocent enough on its own, but it's when you tot them up:

  • Chicken – approx. 45 kcals
  • Dressing – approx. 220 kcals
  • Dough sticks – approx. 250 kcals

Choose the basic salad without these 3 items and it comes in at a very diet-friendly 500 kcals.

Zizzi Super Zucca Salad with Chicken


Roasted butternut squash, goat's cheese, mint, courgette, lentils, green beans & salad leaves in a white balsamic dressing & served with 'little soul' bread & chicken skewers, with chicken: 693 kcal and 25g fat. Without chicken: 572 kcal and 21g fat.

By comparison, Ravioli di Capra with 494 kcals has LESS than the salad!

ASK Italian Chicken Caesar Salad contains 815 kcals


A delicious Fettuccine Bolognese contains 692 kcals – again coming in lower in calories than the Caesar Salad!

However – lose the dressing on the Caesar Salad and you'll save approximately 300 kcals – so around a third of the calories in the dish! At 600 kcals, the salad is more diet-friendly – this is a great example of why it's always best to ask for dressings 'on the side'.

And the moral of the story is?

Firstly, our apologies if we've trashed your preconceived ideas that salads are always the lowest cal choice. But knowledge is power and all of that! So where does that leave us?

It's all about making informed choices. As long as you understand the calorie content of what you are eating, you can factor it into your daily allowance. It's when you think you've made a good choice only to find out later that it wasn't so good that it's frustrating – hence the reason for this article!

Although salads are generally a healthier option, remember that you need to think about what is in it and what extra toppings have been added, to assess whether it really is the lowest calorie option. Always ask for dressing to be served separately – that way you can add just a little. And if a restaurant offers nutritional information, ask to see it when you're choosing, or do your research online at before you go, so you know in advance the best option to choose.

Get creative with your salads.


Back at home of course it's much easier to control what goes into your meal. Instead of buying the same type of salad ingredients, why not experiment and mix it up?

Here are some delicious but perhaps lesser used salad ingredients – why not give them a try?

Beetroot, chicory, mange tout, butternut squash, radishes, baby corn, sweet peppers, watercress, wild rocket, kidney beans, adzuki beans, chickpeas, courgettes, olives, edamame beans, green beans, fresh herbs such as chives, dill or parsley... the list could go on!

Dressings don't have to be calorie laden either. Try using one of these products for a healthier dressing without the guilt!

Sweet Chilli dipping sauce (15ml serving) 34kcal 0.1g fat
Pizza Express Light Dressing (15 ml serving) 44kcal 4.5g fat
Extra Light Salad Cream (15ml serving) 21kcal 1.1g fat

Adding a squeeze of fresh lime, splash of balsamic vinegar, or sprinkle of chilli flakes are all ways to add a little 'zest' to your salad too.

Nutritionist Emma Brown (ANutr), MSc Human Nutrition is passionate about how food science applies to the human body, and how the nutrients in what we eat affect us and ultimately have an impact on our health.