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Is Your Salad Making You Fat?

It could be, if you glop on high-fat salad toppings. Learn how to make healthy choices at the salad bar — or get tips on making your own — with help from Keri Gans, MS, RD, CDN, author of The Small Change Diet: 10 Steps to a Thinner, Healthier You.

There are two basic types of dressings. The creamy kind (Thousand Island, Caesar, Russian, blue cheese, creamy Italian) has a base of high-fat ingredients like mayonnaise, sour cream, buttermilk, or heavy cream. The oil and vinegar type (balsamic vinaigrette, Italian) has a base of vegetable oil — olive, canola, and so forth.

If you buy bottled dressing, read the Nutrition Facts label closely before you choose a brand. Fat-free and low-fat dressings can be packed with sugar and other sweeteners, which will raise their calorie count, and some regular brands are high in unhealthy saturated fats. A healthier choice in bottled dressings is an oil-based brand made with canola or olive oil. You’ll get the healthy monounsaturated fat and, in the case of canola oil, omega-3 fatty acids. While not etched in stone, a good guideline is to choose a brand that contains, per serving, no more than 40 calories, 6 grams of fat, and 1 gram of saturated fat.

Once you’ve found your dressing, pay attention to the amount you use. Note the serving size information on the Nutrition Facts label (in most cases, two tablespoons). If you regularly eat salad at work, keep a second bottle in the office. This way, you’ll know exactly what your dressing contains, and you won’t have to guess as you stand at the local salad bar.

If you have time, homemade dressings can be just as tasty — or tastier — than bottled varieties, and you have control over the ingredients. The key: Reduce the oils and other fats, and pump up ingredients that add flavor.

You can even make your own creamy dressings with low-fat mayo, nonfat milk, low-fat buttermilk, and low-fat cottage cheese (which makes a good base for a blue-cheese dressing). If you prefer oil-based dressings, experiment with different types of oils. Extra-virgin olive oil and canola oil are excellent choices. So are flax and walnut. These specialty oils’ subtle flavors can complement your veggies. Add Dijon mustard to vinaigrettes, or horseradish to creamy dressings. Experiment with herbs and spices, too. Use fresh herbs, if you can — their flavor is more intense than dried — and grind your own pepper and other spices.

As with bottled dressings, watch your serving size of homemade varieties. Stick to two tablespoons, so you won’t rack up the calories. (I know you’re using two tablespoons of high-fat dressings, too, but it’s my hope that in time, you’ll “graduate” to one that’s lower in fat.)

Many people prefer a simple oil-and-vinegar dressing, my patients included. But I found that some of them used more oil than they needed. This tip helped them (I use it myself) and it can help you: Buy a plant mister, wash and dry it, then add your favorite oil. When you’re ready for your salad, give your greens a quick spritz of oil (spray up to four times), and then add vinegar. If you feel you need extra flavor, top your salad with a tablespoon of Parmesan or feta cheese. You’ll be surprised at how little oil a salad really needs.

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