It's not just the fries and chicken nuggets. Many fast-food entrée salads can also send your diet into calorie and fat gram overload. In fact, some deliver more calories, fat and sodium than a Whopper with cheese (710 calories, 43 grams fat, 1,180 milligrams sodium!).
Wendy's Spicy Chicken Caesar salad, for example, serves up 770 calories, 49 grams of fat (17 of them artery-clogging saturated fat) and 1,810 milligrams of sodium. Even Wendy's Baconator sandwich (single) has less – 660 calories, 40 grams of fat and 1,440 milligrams of sodium.
Clearly, eating light isn't always synonymous with salad. To help you order something relatively healthy from a fast-food menu, I took at close look at entrée salads. Since my last entrée salad analysis for The Globe and Mail in 2007, menus have changed and new salad creations have popped on menu boards.
Included in my evaluation were 30 entrée salads from Arby's, Burger King, Harvey's, McDonald's, Quiznos, Subway and Wendy's (side salads were not included). Salads were analyzed with the dressing that accompanied the salad. Nutritional information was provided online by each company.
The average fast-food entrée salad weighed in at 515 calories, 35 grams of fat (including 8 grams of saturated fat) and 1,545 milligrams of sodium. That's half a day's worth of fat and a day's worth of sodium from just one meal.
Of course, some salads strayed from the mean. Tipping the scale in calories and fat was Quiznos's Mediterranean Chicken salad with 770 calories and 19 grams of saturated fat – a full day's worth. The worst sodium offender was Wendy's Baja Salad with Cream Red Jalapeno Dressing at 1,920 milligrams of sodium.
To put these numbers in perspective, on average people should limit their total fat intake to 65 grams, saturated plus trans fat to 20 grams and sodium to 1,500 milligrams.
Fast-food outlets aren't the only place you can find a burger (or two) worth of calories and fat in a plate of greens. Entrée salads served at full-service chain restaurants are often worse, because of bigger portions. I also looked at meal-sized salads from Boston Pizza, Earl's, Jack Astor's, Kelsey's, Milestones and The Keg Steakhouse.
The Keg's Cobb salad serves up 965 calories along with 74 grams of fat and 1,387 milligrams of sodium. Boston Pizza's Greek salad packs in 1,040 calories, 105 grams of fat and more than a day's worth of sodium. Jack Astor's Asian Chicken Salad comes loaded with 3,056 milligrams of sodium – two days worth. Ouch.
A healthier salad should supply at least four grams of fibre and no more than nine grams of saturated fat and 1,000 milligrams of sodium (this includes dressing). That's still a lot of sodium. You'll reduce sodium by roughly 150 to 200 milligrams by using half the portion of dressing.
A salad meal can be a healthier than other menu options, depending on what you order. The following tips will help you trim calories, saturated fat and sodium – and get more nutrition – from your next entrée salad.
Limit bad fats
Extras such as bacon bits, cheese, sour cream, croutons, breaded chicken and crispy fried noodles quickly increase the calorie, saturated fat and sodium counts. Limit toppings high in saturated fat and choose ones that add heart-healthy unsaturated fat such as nuts and avocado.
Add lean protein
Choose salads with grilled or roasted chicken instead of crispy, breaded or fried chicken. Lean steak (e.g. sirloin), fish and seafood are also good choices.
To cut sodium, ask for unseasoned chicken or seafood to top your salad. At Milestones, for instance, the grilled chicken breast adds 650 milligrams of sodium to an entrée Caesar salad. Worse, the garlic prawn skewer has 1,580 milligrams.
Choose dark green lettuce
To increase your intake of vitamins, minerals and phytochemicals, choose salads made with spinach and dark green lettuces such as Romaine and green and red leaf. Iceberg is the least nutritious type of lettuce.
Look for colour
Order salads with plenty of colourful vegetables such as tomato, bell pepper, shredded carrot and purple cabbage. Salads with berries add antioxidants called anthocyanins.
Go easy on the dressing
Don't use the full package of dressing; half is plenty. For instance, a serving of Subway's ranch dressing (two ounces) adds 320 calories and 560 milligrams of sodium to your greens. Order fat-reduced dressings if available.
Don't cut out all fat, though. Fat-free dressings might save calories, but they lack heart-healthy fats. Plus, you need some oil to absorb fat-soluble vitamins and antioxidant nutrients from salad greens and other vegetables.
At full-service restaurants, order dressing on the side so that you can control how much you use.
Read nutrition information
Most large chain restaurants post detailed nutrient breakdowns of menu items on their websites. To know what you're eating – and to make a healthier choice – consult this information before you order.
Rating entrée salads: better (not best) bets
A healthier salad (dressed) should supply at least four grams of fibre and no more than nine grams of saturated fat and 1,000 milligrams of sodium. To cut sodium and calories further, use only a half-portion of dressing. (If a choice of dressing was available, the dressing used is described in brackets). The following salads made the grade:
•McDonald's Cashew Teriyaki Chicken Salad with Grilled Chicken (Renée's Asian Sesame): 430 calories, 5 g fibre, 3 g saturated fat, 840 mg sodium
•McDonald's Spicy Thai Salad with Warm Grilled Chicken (Renée's Asian Sesame): 350 calories, 5 g fibre, 1 g saturated fat, 820 mg sodium
•McDonald's Tuscan Salad with Grilled Chicken (Renée's Yogurt Roasted Garlic): 460 calories, 6 g fibre, 5 g saturated fat, 660 mg sodium
•Subway Oven Roasted Chicken Salad (Ranch): 460 calories, 4 g fibre, 6 g saturated fat, 960 mg sodium
•Subway Veggie Delite Salad (Zesty Italian): 340 calories, 4 g fibre, 3.5 g saturated fat, 505 mg sodium
Full-service chain restaurants
•Boston Pizza Spinach Salad: 430 calories, 4 g fibre, 9 g saturated fat, 690 mg sodium
•Kelsey's Sonoma Valley Salad: 550 calories, 5 g fibre, 7 g saturated fat, 810 mg sodium
•Milestones California Spring Salad: 620 calories, 6 g fibre, 9 g saturated fat, 490 mg sodium
•Milestones Roasted Garlic Caesar Salad with Grilled Salmon: 695 calories, 4 g fibre, 8.8 g saturated fat, 750 mg sodium
Leslie Beck, a Toronto-based dietitian, is the national director of nutrition for Body Science Centers, medical clinics focusing on healthy aging (www.BSC5.com).