How Healthy Are Fast-Food Salads?

Salads-to-go can be good news -- just watch the extras

By Elaine Magee, MPH, RD
WebMD Weight Loss Clinic - Expert Column

The good health news is, it's now in vogue for fast-food chains to offer several salads on their menus. The bad news is that dressings and other accoutrements can send these salads into calorie and fat-gram overload. But the other good news is that several chains have tasty, reduced-fat salad dressings. All you have to do is know which salads -- and which extras -- to order.

10 Tips for Healthy Fast-Food Salads

Here are some ways to make sure your fast-food salad is a healthy one:

  • Go to chains that offer reduced fat dressings, or bring your own. For example, McDonald's has low-fat Balsamic Vinaigrette, and Wendy's has reduced-fat Creamy Ranch, fat-free French and low-fat Honey Mustard.
    EXAMPLE: Half a packet of McDonald's regular Ranch dressing adds 145 calories and 15 grams of fat to your salad. Half a packet of McDonald's low-fat Balsamic Vinaigrette adds 20 calories and 1.5 grams of fat.

  • Don't use the whole packet of dressing! Half a pack is plenty.
    EXAMPLE: Using just half a packet of Jack In The Box's Lite Ranch dressing will save 95 calories, 9 grams of fat, and 350 mg of sodium.

  • Choose salads with dark green lettuce, which offers more vitamins, minerals, and phytochemicals.
    EXAMPLE: Wendy's Caesar Side Salad includes a darker green lettuce.

  • Choose salads with colorful vegetables like tomatoes, peppers, shredded carrots, or cabbage.
    EXAMPLE: Wendy's Side Salad, with shredded carrots and cherry tomatoes, has 3 grams of fiber.

  • Add beans, nuts, and seeds for a filling salad with extra protein and fiber.
    EXAMPLE: 1/8 cup of kidney beans adds 26 calories, 2 g protein, 2 g fiber, and .1 gram fat; 1.8 cup of sunflower seeds adds 98 calories, 4 g protein, 1 g fiber, and 8 g fat.

  • Make your salad more of a meal by adding lean meat or seafood.
    EXAMPLE: Subway has seven salads with less than 6 grams of fat, and most feature lean meat. Their Roasted Chicken Breast Salad (not including dressing) has 140 calories, 16 grams of protein, 3 grams of fat, and 3 grams of fiber.

  • Make sure any meat you add is roasted or grilled, not fried. Ordering "crispy" will cost you -- about 100 calories and 9 grams of fat per serving.
    EXAMPLE: The grilled version of McDonald's Chicken Bacon Ranch Salad (not including dressing) has 270 calories and 13 grams of fat, while the crispy version has 370 calories and 21 grams of fat.

  • Check out the nutritional analysis to help you make the best salad choices. Remember that the tallies on restaurants' websites or brochures usually don't include dressing -- that's listed separately.

  • Before you toss the Crispy Noodles and Crunchy Croutons, find out what those additions are worth -- some add minimal calories and fat. You can also use just half the pack.
    EXAMPLE: Half a pack of the Crispy Rice Noodles that come with Wendy's Mandarin Chicken Salad adds 30 calories and 1 gram of fat.

  • Keep in mind that following these tips can make a HUGE difference nutritionally.
    EXAMPLE: A McDonald's Crispy Chicken Bacon Ranch Salad with regular Ranch adds up to 660 calories and 51 grams of fat, while a Grilled Chicken Caesar Salad with half a pack of low-fat Balsamic Vinaigrette has just 230 calories and 9 grams of fat. Do this every day for a week and save over 3,000 calories and almost 300 fat grams!

Best Fast-Food Salad Entrees

Side salads are almost always low in fat and calories -- as long as you don't overdo the dressing and avoid fatty extras, like cheese. Here are some picks for healthy main-dish salads:

McDonald's
Calories
Fat (g)
Fiber (g)
Sodium (mgs)
Grilled Chicken Caesar Salad with 1/2 pack low-fat Vinaigrette
230
9
3
1045
NOTE: A pack of Butter Garlic Croutons adds 50 calories, 1.5 g fat, and 140 mg sodium.

Wendy's
Calories
Fat (g)
Fiber (g)
Sodium (mgs)
Mandarin Chicken Salad With 1/2 pack low-fat Honey Mustard Dressing
205
3
3
820
NOTE: Crispy Rice Noodles add 60 calories, 2 g fat, and 180 mg sodium per pack.