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Sneaky salads

May 11, 2014

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Have you seen how people concoct (yes, that’s the correct term here) their bowl of salad at the salad bar? The salad bowl is piled high with fruits, veggies, pasta, croutons and then some Thousand Island dressing is ladled on it like the world is running out of it. An expert ‘one-trip-salad-bar-piler’ once told me how it is done step-by-step. You line the sides of the bowl with cucumber slices that raise the walls and deepening the bowl. Then you start with heavier stuff like big chunky potatoes, beans and pasta; keep loading till you can’t anymore. Pour as much dressing on it as possible and only stop when it starts to drip on the salad counter. Grab a napkin, then focusing on the bowl, gingerly taking slow steps and walk back to your table. This way you avoid all the eyes looking at you perform this embarrassingly admirable feat. Incredible!

Let’s get one thing straight, this is a binge and not a salad and certainly not a symbol of healthy eating. But then every salad is not healthy or diet-friendly; their healthiness depends on what’s in them. That big bowl of greens may be full of antioxidants and fibre; at the same time it can be laden with fat, cholesterol and sodium, even an overabundance of calories.

It is up to you what you fill it with and how healthy or unhealthy you make it. So the next time you set out to make salad or order at a restaurant choose your ingredients wisely and be specific about what you want: extra veggies, dressing on the side, light cheese.

It is so easy to customise salad, so you can choose the right ingredients and make a huge main-course salad containing very few calories. A salad can be broken down into different essentials and explored for healthiness.

Lettuce eat

Lettuce adds substance, crunch, water and fibre, but has very few calories — only about 10 per cup — and hence makes the foundation of most salads. But if you want your salad to be rich in vitamins, too, leave the iceberg and use the romaine or spinach. These greens are rich in not only vitamins A, C and K, but also manganese and folate.

Pro protein

Adding proteins in the form of lean meat, eggs, or beans will add value to your salad and keep you full longer. But make sure these are not deep-fried as they add unnecessary calories besides cholesterol, sodium and fat. It’s better to chose lean proteins such as grilled chicken, canned beans, chickpeas, tofu, hard boiled eggs (especially whites) or tuna.

Nuts and seeds are popular in salads, but remember that they are not exactly low in calories — 1/2 ounce contains more than 80 calories.

Say cheese

While cheese is tasty and nutritious and adds flavour, calcium and protein to salads, it also has a high fat content. Just half a cup of cheddar contains 18 grams of fat and 225 calories. So go for small quantity and choose low-fat varieties to save on saturated fat and calories. A smaller amount of a strong-flavoured cheese such as Brie, feta, sharp cheddar or blue cheese will help cut down on your portions.

Variety of veggies

While choosing vegetables for your salad go for bell peppers, grated carrots, peas and tomatoes as they provide flavour, fibre and vitamins and are low in calories. For example, grated carrots have only 45 calories in a cup, and there are only about 20 in an entire red bell pepper. Use as many veggies as possible but while choosing starchy vegetables such as corn and potatoes as they are high in calories. Also choose a variety of colours to ensure you are getting several different nutrient and antioxidants.

Don’t forget the fruit

Fresh, canned and dried fruits are not only nutritious but provide colour and texture to your salad; they also add a sweetness that can help tone down the slightly bitter taste of greens and veggies. Chopped apples, pears, grapes or oranges (if using canned they must be canned in juice not syrup and drained) are excellent salad toppers. Chewy dried fruits (dried mango, raisins) are good but are high in calories; avocados are creamy and nutritious due to their heart-healthy fats, but they too are concentrated source of calories. Use these in moderation.

Crunch up

Sesame sticks, crispy noodles and croutons are salty and crunchy but are high in fat. It’s better to replace them with water chestnuts, apple slivers, a small serving of nuts, crumbled whole grain crackers, pita chips and homemade croutons.

To make low-fat croutons at home, just slice a clove of garlic and rub it over both sides of a piece of whole grain bread. Cut the bread into cubes and then brown it in the toaster.

Dressed to kill

Too many shakes of oil or dressing does not leave a salad healthy, due to its high fat and sodium content. Two tablespoons is regarded as appropriate for single serving.

It’s better to use dressing separately and dip your fork into it before picking up your bite of salad. Caesar, ranch and other cream-based dressings are usually calorie packed unless specified as low-fat. You can add flavour for minimal calories by using salsa, vinegar or lemon juice.