How a salad bar can give you a diet hangover

Nutrition team

There you are, lined up at the cafeteria on a sunny summer’s day. A virtual, virtuous glow about you, like a Ready-brek kid. For you, no lasagne and chips, no chicken curry and no barbeque ribs.

You are queuing at the salad bar in the name of health and well-being. You glance around you at the poor souls lined up at the ‘other counter’ and can almost sense their awe at your serenity in the face of such self-control. It’s salad season and you can almost feel the pounds dropping off you body as you reach for a roll…and butter.

Hold on a minute! Weren’t you oozing with angelic ideas about yourself a minute ago? You were doing fine with the bread roll, do you really need that pat of butter? It will add on 8 grams of fat and 74 calories and take a look at all the salad dressings that will moisten your bread anyway.

Oh yeah…

On to the salads. You pile half you plate with mixed green salad before your eyes are drawn to the seafood salad. You love seafood salad. Those juicy prawns dripping with Marie Rose sauce, but you know it’s a no-no. A portion will dent your diet by no less than 174 calories and 13 grams of fat. Try again.

What about that egg mayonnaise? Forget it. A couple of mouthfuls and you take in a massive 147 calories and 15 grams of fat. OK then, coleslaw? You like your mayo don’t you – while it doesn’t seem like a big deal, it’s only carrot and cabbage right? A tablespoon packs on another 116 calories and 12 grams of fat. Yikes!

Well, can I at least have some pasta salad? It looks good and healthy – that firm and flavourful pasta, Italian herbs and crunchy vegetables, the problem is how it’s dressed, just have a look and see whether it is dripping with oil. If it is, it may be better to avoid it.

Oh look, they have rice and bean salad what about that? It’s probably a really good choice, since the beans will provide you with protein and B vitamins while the rice is packed with carbohydrates. Again, just have a good look and check out how it is dressed. Don’t forget, you can always ask the kitchen staff.

Moving swiftly on...the person behind you is getting fed up with all this mumbling to yourself. Cold meats, thank goodness! It’s hard to go wrong with a slice of turkey or two. However, it is better to by pass on any of the sausage-type cold meats, which are loaded with fat and sodium.

And now the grand finale – the dressing. The choice is expanding all the time, which is a good thing, but if you aren’t careful, unfortunately your choice won’t be the only thing on the increase. The ones to watch are the creamy dressings and something like Ranch or Blue Cheese will set you back around 60-70 calories per tablespoon and 6-7 grams of fat.

The oil and vinegar dressings are just a little kinder with around 60 calories and 5 grams of fat. If they have a low fat or fat-free option make a bee-line for it. These can have as little as 10 calories per tablespoon and pack a lot of flavour.

It’s best to avoid anything like croutons or bacon bits that can be loaded with fat. If you want to add bite or a salty, tangy flavour, stick to pickles or a few olives.

I’ve come to the cashier who’s adding it all up – green salad (about 7 calories), two slices of turkey (64 calories and 1 gram of fat), one whole meal bread roll (103 calories and 1 gram of fat), a tablespoon of pasta salad (around 76 calories and 5 grams of fat if dressed with French dressing), a tablespoon of rice salad (around 50 calories if there’s no dressing) with and a big glass of water. The total is just 300 calories.

It could have cost me so much more. A bread roll with butter, a tablespoon of prawn salad, egg mayonnaise, a tablespoon of coleslaw a couple of slices of salami, blue cheese dressing and bacon on my salad and my grand total is 896 calories and 75 grams of fat. That’s just a little more than a Big Mac and fries!

Despite your good intentions there is a lot of scope to make mistakes at the salad bar.

Here are a few tips to make sure your halo stays firmly in place…

· Start by filling your plate with salad vegetables such as lettuce, tomatoes, cucumbers, mushrooms, raw broccoli and carrots. This not only gives you a healthy foundation for dinner, but it will also provide the visual image that you are eating a lot of food.

· Don’t butter your bread.

· To get your daily dose of protein, enjoy plain tuna, cubed turkey or ham, egg and cottage or feta cheese.

· Pass on the creamy dressings containing mayo, sour cream and/or cheese. These usually have additional saturated fat and cholesterol not found in vegetable or olive oil-based vinaigrettes.

· Pickles, three-bean salad, a vinegar-based coleslaw and mixed fruit salad are smart choices. But don’t overdo it. Stick to portions of a tablespoon or less.

· Toss the nuts, seeds, Chinese noodles, croutons and bacon bits. These “salad bar accessories” can quickly sabotage any diet.

· Beware of how you "dress" your salad. A typical salad dressing can cost you a whopping 60-80 calories per level tablespoon. Reduced-calorie dressings have an average 15-30 calories per tablespoon while fat-free dressings average 20 calories per tablespoon.

· Even fat-free or reduced-fat dressings have their cons. The fat count may go down but the sodium and sugar counts usually go up. Give olive oil and vinegar or lemon wedges a try, or dilute a small amount of salad dressing with vinegar or lemon juice.

· Before you even grab a plate, scout out the salad bar. Decide which foods you want and what size portions you’d like. Stick to what you have planned to eat.

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