Salads are healthy carb-smart options for lunch or a light dinner, right? You’d think! Salads can be terrific – but only if you’re careful about what goes into the salad, whether you’re making it at home, digging into a salad bar, or enjoying a salad in a restaurant. Here’s what to watch out for to keep your salads diabetes-friendlier and delicious.
Stay out of the dressing danger zone
The biggest problem with salads is often the dressing. If you’re making a salad at home, measure the dressing, drizzle it on in the kitchen, and don’t add any more at the table. A trick that works for me is to toss salad in a big bowl with a measured amount of dressing before I put it on my plate. That way, every ingredient in the salad is flavored with a light coating of dressing, and I don’t have the urge to add more dressing halfway through eating the salad.
Ladles in salad dressing containers at salad bars typically hold two tablespoons – or more – of dressing. Limit yourself to one ladleful, and use less if you estimate that the ladle is larger than two tablespoons. Here’s some advice you might find surprising: Go for the reduced-fat salad dressing, not the fat-free. Your body needs to have some fat along with all those veggies to help you absorb the fat-soluble vitamins in your salad. Learn more about fats here.
At a restaurant, always ask for the dressing on the side. This is an old idea, but a good one I use every time I eat a salad in a restaurant: dip the tips of the tines of your fork into the dressing on the side before spearing your salad onto the fork. You’ll minimize the dressing, yet get great flavor in every bite.
Fried is still fried – even on a salad
Restaurants know how to appeal to our split personalities. They know we want to eat healthy and that we also want to feel like we’ve had a treat when we go out to eat. As a result, they offer huge “healthy” salads topped with fried chicken breast, fried chicken wings, fried shrimp, or fried onion rings on the menu. These “signature” salads can have as many as 1,000 calories! Ask to substitute grilled chicken or shrimp for the fried options.
Another surprising source of fat is from croutons. Be wary of restaurants that tout “homemade” or “freshly made” croutons. Ask if these are fried, as some restaurants cut day-old bread or rolls into squares and deep-fry them to make their croutons.
You can’t escape fried foods at the salad bar, either. Many offer fried chicken nuggets, fried vegetables, and fried fish. Avoid these and look for foods with no breading, such as grilled chicken, roast turkey breast, lean ham, steamed shrimp, hard-boiled eggs, and plain vegetables.
Keep the cheese in check
Think of cheese as a garnish on a salad – just a sprinkle on top to add a flourish of flavor. I choose cheeses that give a big punch of flavor with a small amount of cheese, such as feta, sharp cheddar, Parmesan, and blue cheese.
At home, finely shredded cheeses to make a little go a long way. For cheeses that you crumble, like blue, goat, and feta, crumble them when they are cold and you’ll be able to break them into smaller pieces.
At salad bars, have just a small amount of cheese – a couple tablespoons – as a topping for your salad. At a restaurant, request that they go light on the cheese, or ask for the cheese on the side and add only a small sprinkle to your salad.
Take it easy with high calorie temptations
Avocadoes, nuts, sunflower seeds, and olives are all delicious and healthful ingredients – and all contain unsaturated fats – but they’re still high in calories, so add them sparingly. If a restaurant salad arrives with too much of any of these foods, do what I’ve learned to do and transfer all but a small amount to a bread plate and ask the waiter to take it away so you won’t be tempted. (Or take it home to make a meal the next day!)
Limit the amount of bacon and processed meats such as salami or pepperoni, since they are not only high in calories, but also high in saturated fat and sodium.
At salad bars, steer clear of creamy-looking salads that contain mayonnaise, such as coleslaw, potato salad, or egg salad. Instead, pile on the plain veggies like cucumbers, tomatoes, broccoli, radishes, and bell peppers. If you opt for a prepared vegetable salad, choose one with a vinaigrette dressing (rather than a creamy style), and use a slotted spoon to let most of the dressing drain off before putting it on your plate.
Look for lurking carbs
Salads are not typically high in carbs, but they can be if you make several sweet or starchy choices for a single salad. Croutons are the obvious carb-containing ingredients in salads, but other crunchy toppings like chow mein noodles and tortilla strips are high in carbs, too (not to mention that they are usually fried). If you enjoy sweet dressings like raspberry vinaigrette, honey mustard, or Catalina, be aware that these can have up to five grams of carbs in one tablespoon.
Depending on your meal plan, fresh fruit may be good to include in your salad; most often though, you’re likely to encounter canned fruit in sugary syrup at most salad bars. If this is the only option, skip it! You’ll often see dried fruit on salad bars and in restaurant salads. Dried fruit is a more concentrated source of carbohydrate – one-quarter cup of dried cranberries or an ounce of dried apricots have about twenty-two grams of carbs.
When making selections at the salad bar, take just a small portion of salads made with carb-rich potatoes, pasta, corn, or dried beans.
And I’ll leave you with two final tips: First, restaurants have recently created a sugar-glazed nut craze, sprinkling these addictive sweet and crunchy toppings on their signature salads. It’s okay to have a few, but be aware that just half a cup of these sweet treats adds twenty-four grams of carbs to your meal!
Lastly, breadsticks, rolls, and crackers may feel like a natural accompaniment to a salad. If you want to partake, choose a small serving, and take into account the other carbs in the salad when you make your choice.
Don’t forget to run any changes in your meal plan past your diabetes care team; the team may also help you keep some of your favorite toppings on the menu, without overdoing. Enjoy!
Jackie Mills is the author of The Big Book of Diabetic Desserts. She is also a food writer and registered dietitian who develops recipes for such national magazines as Cooking Light and Family Circle, as well as for books such as the American Medical Association Type 2 Diabetes Cookbook. She was formerly the food editor at Redbook magazine. Mills is a paid contributor for The DX. All opinions contained in this article reflect those of the contributor, and not of Sanofi US, its employees, agencies, or affiliates.
© 2013 The DX: The Diabetes Experience