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Why The Salad Is Queen Of The 'Unhealthy Healthy Foods'

Just because something is called a salad does NOT make it the best choice.

07/12/2017 10:56 EDT | Updated 07/25/2017 20:24 EDT
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Last year I wrote a blog post on what I call "unhealthy healthy foods".

The main take-away was that we need to become aware of sneaky foods that seem healthy but that end up stealthily sabotaging progress. Actually cutting out sweets and fried food is hard work, but knowing they need to be eliminated (or at least reduced) is usually a no-brainer. The less obvious culprits -- what I call "unhealthy health foods" -- tend to slide under the radar and inadvertently sabotage progress. It is one thing to not reach your fitness and health goals if you are consciously making unhealthy choices, but it is really frustrating to feel like you are making all the right choices and giving it "your all" and still not reach your goals.

Last night I was talking to a client about her restaurant order -- a choice she thought was healthy -- and I realized I have never highlighted maybe the worst "unhealthy healthy" culprit: the restaurant salad.

Queen of "unhealthy healthy" food -- the worst of the worst -- the restaurant salad

Do NOT be fooled -- just because something is called a salad does NOT make it the best choice.

So many people see "salad" and think "healthy" and "good for weight loss." Wrong. Dressings are usually laden with sugar and filled with preservatives and unhealthy fat, and too often salads have additives like noodles, fried ingredients, taco chips or dried fruits. Often in restaurants salads are just a bunch of unhealthy ingredients assembled together -- think taco salad. The other day my friend ordered a "squash salad." What was it? A large piece of squash with a rich sauce and fried cheese.

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I am not saying never order salads. Just know what you are eating. If you order an unhealthy salad because you love it, great. Have a small portion and enjoy it. I live by my "love it" rule: eat and enjoy small portions of the things you love. I just don't want you to think you are making the healthy choice only to end up feeling bloated and unenergetic. KNOW what you are eating! Make an informed choice.

A few things to keep in mind

-Be wary of dressings. They have hidden sugar and unhealthy fat. Either ask for dressing on the side or ask for olive oil, mustard and balsamic so you can make your own dressing

-Watch for salads full of grains. I am not saying that grains are bad. Just know when you are ordering a grain bowl, not a mainly vegetable-filled salad. Own your choices.

-Read the ingredients carefully and ask your server questions. Watch for filler non-vegetable ingredients; set your antenna for sugar (candied nuts, dried fruit), fried foods (crispy nuts, tortilla chips), large portions of cheeses, unhealthy fats (sour cream), processed foods, vegetables drenched in oils (grilled vegetables), empty complex carbs (noodles) and salty foods (salted nuts, meats).

-Watch portion sizes. Salads can often be big enough to feed three people. Portion sizes count.

Salads are just one example of the copious number of unhealthy healthy foods that trick us daily. I divide unhealthy healthy foods into two categories: foods that masquerade as "health food" and foods that are healthy in moderation. Salads -- depending on the salad of course -- can exist in either category, but they often exist in both.

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Category 1. Foods playing dress-up

These are foods high in sugar, salt, or fat that masquerade as a "health food." They are wolves dressed in sheep's clothing! Think store-bought salad dressings and muffins (just cake in the shape of a muffin), juice (liquid sugar), most store bought granola (sugar and fat), frozen "healthy" dinners (preservatives and salt), most gluten-free desserts (just because they don't have gluten doesn't mean they are healthy), many ingredients in restaurant-style salads (processed and dressing-laden meats) and "fat free" snacks (usually devoid of nutrients and full of artificial crap).

Category 2. Moderation needed

These foods are very healthy in moderation (as in, if you eat one or two portions), but they are not healthy when consumed willy-nilly. Think avocado, almonds, peanut butter, crackers, high-GI fruits (mangos, pineapple) and hummus.

Too often, when one knows something is healthy, one is less mindful and doesn't worry about portion control.

So many restaurant salads are humungous and too often contain not one but many of these "category 2" foods. Foods like cranberries, nuts, hummus or other dips, meats, etc are often "assembled" on a plate in different iterations and described as a "salad." Be particularly wary of salads with multiple portions of multiple "category two" foods. A salad with vegetables, chicken and avocado is one thing. A salad with grilled vegetables (soaked in oil), chicken (drenched in a processed dressing), multiple servings of avocado, nuts and cranberries is not as okay.

Be particularly mindful of category 2 if you're trying to lose weight. The key to weight loss is not only food selection but portion control. Too often, when one knows something is healthy, one is less mindful and doesn't worry about portion control. Almonds are healthy, but too many of us grab handful after handful in a day. An entire large bag is not part of a nutritionally balanced day -- especially if one of your main goals is to lose weight.

Don't misinterpret my words. Obviously, blatantly unhealthy foods like doughnuts are still unhealthy. All I am trying to say is, don't try to "scam the system." A gluten-free cookie can be made of as much crap as a regular cookie. Plus, no matter what you are eating, portion control is key! Don't stand at a party or at your kitchen counter and snack mindlessly. Sit down and enjoy what you are eating. If you decide to have an amazing piece of cake, great. Enjoy your treat. Just have one small slice, not seven.

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