Is Your Salad the Caloric Equivalent of Burger, Fries, and a Shake?

How many of us have chosen a salad when eating out because we thought it was the best choice for our diet. I know that I have, many times. But, just because there is lettuce, doesn’t make it healthy. In fact, most salads are made with iceberg lettuce as the base, which has little nutritional value. Then it is topped with a wide range of ingredients that could add up to the caloric equivalent of a burger, fries, and shake. Pretty sure most of us would have chosen the burger if we knew that the salad was just as bad of a choice, if not worse, than other more appealing items on the menu. Let's discuss some of the worst salad ingredients and then we’ll talk about better options.

 Iceberg lettuce base

 Although I wouldn’t say that iceberg lettuce is bad for you, I would like to stress that there are far better, more nutrient-dense lettuce options. For example, kale is consistently making headlines as a superfood. Packed with health benefits and nutrients, it should be the first choice. Other options include spinach, which is my favorite, dandelion greens, collard greens, watercress, endive, mustard greens, chard, romaine, bok choy, or cabbage. These are just a few, but there are so many great options.


 Cheap, processed, conventional protein

 It’s a tough task to find a salad that has grass-fed, pasture-raised, or organic meat on it. Most restaurants, especially fast food, use very low-quality meats that will do more harm than good to our body. You are what you eat, ate. Meaning, if you eat meat from a cow that was pumped full of growth hormones, fed GMO grains that it can’t digest, and given antibiotics, all of which make it grow big and fat, it makes sense that your body’s response will not be favorable.


Dried Fruit

 Many salads add dried fruits to pump up the flavor and make the salad look more appealing. The problem with this addition to a salad is that dried fruit is simply a concentrated fructose bomb. If you’ve been following me at all, you have heard me rant about the misconception of fructose, the sugar found in fruit. Long story short, fructose makes you fat. Just ¼ cup of raisins has 21 grams of sugar. That is the equivalent of over 5 teaspoons. Yikes! Would you add 5 teaspoons of sugar to a salad? I don’t think so. Now, take into account that in order to dry the fruit it is typically soaked in additional sugar before drying and then preservatives, such as sulfites, are added.



 Like fructose, cheese and other dairy hold a special place on the “list of food misinformation that gets Denise fired up.” Cheese is a concentrated source of the difficult to digest, opioid receptor stimulating protein, casein. I’m not going to get into all the downsides of consuming dairy. That’s an article of its own. But, sticking to the topic of packing on way too many nutrient-deficient calories to a salad, we know that just 1 ounce of cheese will add an extra 110-120 inflammatory calories. Typically, there is more than just 1 ounce added.



 These little crunchy squares of yumminess are extremely deceiving. I like to describe them as deep-fried gluten bombs that have absolutely no nutritional value. They seem fairly harmless, right? I mean how bad could it be? They are so tiny and just add a little crunch. WRONG. These little suckers typically contain toxic trans fat, in the form of hydrogenated oil. Trans fats are known to increase LDL, “bad cholesterol”, while lowering HDL, “good cholesterol”, and can contribute to clogging arteries, type 2 diabetes, and adversely affect brain health. Seems like a no brainer. Hold the croutons, please.


Salad Dressing

Now we’re getting to the ugly stuff. Some of the dressings used in restaurant or fast food salads have a jaw-dropping amount of toxic additives, trans-fats, sugar, and zero nutritional value. I toured a few restaurants when doing research for my book and asked the chefs/cooks if they could show me how much dressing they typically put on a salad that comes already tossed in. HOLY MOLY!!! It was far more than I expected, and I expected a lot. Depending on the type of dressing, and there are many, you could easily pack on an extra 600 calories to a salad, just from the dressing. Yep, you read that right, 600 calories. Now, I know that I am consistently preaching that you shouldn’t obsess over counting calories and that calories aren’t the major issue in fat loss or maintaining healthy weight, but it’s a totally different story when you flood your body in toxic calorie overload that is void of nutrients to fuel your body. Let’s not forget, most of us choose a salad because we are trying to pick the healthier option.

Now, put all those together. That salad isn’t looking like the best option now, huh? But don’t worry, we can modify our salads to increase the nutrient density and decrease the toxic overload of the typical restaurant salad.


Want to take a look under the hood of a restaurant salad? I thought you’d never ask. Hold on to your seats, this might really surprise you.

 Cheesecake Factory Caesar Salad with Chicken

 Unfortunately, The Cheesecake Factory does not list complete nutritional facts, especially sugar content, but we can look at some other important details. This salad, that is comprised of lettuce, grilled chicken, Parmesan cheese, croutons, and Caesar dressing reigns in at a whopping 1510 calories!!!! OMG!?!?!?! For goodness sakes, a burger, fries, and shake from In-N-Out Burger contains less than that!! My first reaction was “How the heck is there that many calories in a salad that is only comprised of lettuce, chicken, parmesan, and croutons?” The chicken isn’t even breaded and fried, its grilled. Typically an ounce of chicken is roughly 50 calories, an ounce of Parmesan is about 120, and ½ cup of croutons approximately 70 calories. Obviously, there are larger serving sizes than that, but as you can see, these ingredients aren’t particular high in calories, so what’s the deal? My vote is that there is an enormous amount of calories in the dressing. Remember what we said dressing consists of? Nothing good!!!  

 The truth is, I couldn’t find any salads on the menu that I could recommend. But don’t fret, we got this! All we have to do is make a few modifications. We can modify restaurant salads to fit into our Perfectly Planned Plate.

 Restaurant Salad Ordering Guidelines

  • ALWAYS order dressing on the side, NEVER accept the restaurant tossing the dressing for you.  Ideally, ask for olive oil and vinegar. Never the creamy stuff, like ranch, Caesar, or blue cheese, as they are loaded with hydrogenated oils, artificial colors, flavors, and preservatives.
  • Substitute grilled meat instead of breaded. Most restaurants will allow you to sub grilled chicken without a problem. If the restaurant has grass-fed beef, than that would be a great substitute also.
  • Avoid croutons, tortilla strips, onion straws, or dried fruits. It’s easy enough to simply say “no croutons please”. Trust me, these seemingly innocent items can take your salad from nutritious to toxic real fast!
  • Add extra veggies, if possible. Many restaurants have side orders of veggies. Best way to pump up the nutrients is to add extra veggies. Also, I almost always add avocado. Great source of quality fat, tastes yummy, and gives added substance to a salad.

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