Focusing on Dressing: Are We Missing the Point?

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McDonald’s recently updated the standard lettuce mix in all their salads, and instead of applauding a switch from iceberg lettuce to a mix of Romaine, baby kale, and baby spinach, bloggers are howling about the calorie, fat and sodium content of the salads!

Personally, I think that those bloggers are off-track.

Any time we switch from pale "greens" like iceberg lettuce to darker-colored leafy greens like kale, spinach and Romaine, we gain important phytochemicals and antioxidants that are present in larger quantities in darker-colored vegetables. While calories, carbohydrate, protein, fat, and even fiber are similar between iceberg and Romaine lettuce, there are also important differences! Namely, Romaine has 2.5 times the calcium and double the potassium and magnesium of iceberg lettuce. Romaine also has 8 times the vitamin A and almost 4 times the folate of iceberg lettuce. And while it’s true that there is far more romaine than baby kale or baby spinach in the new McDonald’s salad mix, both of these dark leafy greens are excellent sources of vitamins A, C, and K too.

There are thousands of beneficial phytochemicals produced by plants that have an important health effect on our body. Phytochemicals present in dark leafy greens like kale and spinach include:

  • Beta-carotene, which is important in a healthy immune system, vision, and bones, and skin.
  • Lutein, which is essential for a healthy cardiovascular system, key to cancer prevention, and instrumental when it comes to boosting eye health.

Healthy Salad Makeover:

Choosing a healthy, lower-calorie, lower-fat, lower-sodium salad at McDonald’s or any other restaurant, is all about what you leave out.

Let's take a look at an example, making over a hefty salad with crispy chicken (crispy appears to be a code word for deep-fat-fried).

First, compare dressings...

  • Creamy salad dressing contains 120 calories, 8g fat, 3g sugar and 300mg sodium.
  • Ranch dressing contains 200 calories, 17g fat, 4g sugar and 530mg sodium
  • Low-fat Italian dressing contains 50 calories, 1.5g fat, 2g sugar and 380mg sodium
  • Low-fat balsamic vinaigrette contains 35 calories, 1.5g fat, 3g sugar and 400mg sodium

I would recommend skipping dressing all together, but if you really want one, the balsamic vinaigrette is the lowest-calorie option.

Opt for grilled instead of crispy chicken and you''ll save 190 calories, 15.5g fat, 2.5g saturated fat, and 17g carbohydrate (remember, there is no carbohydrate in the grilled chicken). Plus, you'll gain 5 more grams of protein. The only downside is that the grilled chicken contains 120mg more sodium than the crispy chicken, but that’s a small price to pay for more protein and less fat and carbohydrates.

So, in this example, I advise that you order a Premium Southwest Salad with grilled chicken, skip the salad dressing, and get a balanced meal for 330 calories, complete with 33g protein and 6g of fiber.

I had one of these salads for lunch today, and the grilled chicken was tender and flavorful with the texture of real chicken breasts. Plus, the southwest vegetable blend included black beans for added fiber and protein. It provided great taste without salad dressing, and the dark leafy greens were fresh and added more taste and crunch.

If you choose the crispy chicken and creamy Southwest dressing, on the other hand, your reasonable salad that fit into the latest recommendations from the 2015 Dietary Guidelines will go out the window. Instead, you'll get a plate with 630 calories, 34 fat, 8g saturated fat, 54g carbohydrate and 1090mg sodium. Compare that to a Big Mac: 540 calories, 28 fat, 10g saturated fat, 47g carbohydrate and 970mg sodium. Everyone agrees that a Big Mac isn’t a healthy addition to our food choices, and neither is a salad with crispy chicken and creamy salad dressing.

What is a good addition to a healthy diet is a salad with grilled chicken and dark green leafy vegetables. Add your own balsamic vinegar/olive oil salad dressing, and enjoy.

By Lynn Grieger RDN, CDE, CPT, CWC


And, because I love ya, here's a new fast food salad handout that you can use however you'd like!

Salad Nutrients and Fast Food

Healthy salads are a passion of mine. Don't miss these amazing salad and vegetable resources from the Nutrition Education Store...

Salad Secrets Cookbook and Menu Program
I Love Salad Wristbands
Table Tent: Make Your Salad A Rainbow
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