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What’s More Nutritious — a McDonald’s Side Salad or a Bloody Mary?

A stalk of celery, two mini pickles and tomato juice has to get me somewhere

Let’s propose a ludicrous scenario with an outcome that seems equally as absurd on its surface, but which is actually scientifically rational: You and your friend are headed home from a sweaty round of distracted elliptical striding, and your buddy is suddenly overcome by a bout of unyielding hunger pangs. “I can’t take it anymore!” he wails, showing not one trace of any dietary discipline. “I’ve got to eat something!”

Luckily, your car is quickly approaching a rather odd intersection in your city with a McDonald’s on one side of the road, and an Applebee’s on the opposing corner. “I can eat at either of these two restaurants!” your friend exclaims. “You pick! But if we go to Applebee’s, I’m going to eat at the bar!”

The thing is, if you sit at the Applebee’s bar, you know you’re going to want a drink. On the flip side, you presume that the McDonald’s food option most conducive to preserving the benefits of your workout will be the side salad with dressing. But is your presumption correct?

Obviously. The side salad at McDonald’s is easily the more nutritious choice.

It’s that simple, is it? What makes you so sure?

Well, it’s a salad! Vegetables are automatically healthy! And it’s a side salad, so there’s basically nothing to it!

I can understand why you might assume so, but let’s put these two choices under the microscope with the caveat that if you opt to take a seat at the Applebee’s bar, you’re going to be ordering the seasoned drinker’s version of a salad: the Bloody Mary.

I’m still placing my bet that the salad is the most nutritious option.

That’s fine. But here we go: For starters, we need to acknowledge that all of this is taking place in a post-pandemic future when McDonald’s has restored salads to their U.S. menu. In such a world, you purchase the side salad — a rather unimpressive bed of lettuce with a couple slices of cucumber and tomato resting upon it — and dowse it with the included salad dressing. What’s the total damage?

Well, the dressing is a two-ounce packet of Newman’s Salad Dressing, and you will add roughly 170 calories to the salad through its inclusion. So now your McDonald’s side salad is roughly 187 calories in total. There isn’t a thing wrong with that sum, but if your goal is to minimize caloric intake during this brief respite, the Bloody Mary is in the same ballpark calorically speaking. 

That’s preposterous! Surely the side salad has a nutritional advantage?

Oh, do you really think so? 

In terms of vitamin content, the McDonald’s side salad with dressing will provide you with 15 percent of your recommended vitamin C, 6 percent of your advised calcium and 4 percent of your prescribed potassium. It will also chip in 22 percent of your daily sodium intake, entirely from the salad dressing.

By comparison, the Bloody Mary will administer a whopping 226 percent of your vitamin C intake, 17 percent of your vitamin A and nearly 5 percent of your iron. It will also provide you with three times the potassium of the side salad, and less than half the salt.

How is such a thing possible?!?!

Because the McDonald’s side salad is incredibly light in terms of micronutrients, and the salad dressing adds nothing other than a concentrated dose of dietary fat. It’s not that the fat is inherently bad for you, per se, but it doesn’t add much else of value aside from improving the flavor of the salad with fat, herbs, spices and salt, and multiplying its caloric content by a factor of 10.

In the meantime, the two major ingredients included in a Bloody Mary — other than the vodka, of course — are tomato juice and lemon/lime juice, which are both packed with vitamin C. And if the bartender happens to drop half a stalk of celery into that Bloody Mary, and you opt to eat it, the nutrient content of the drink improves all the more, to the point where the dietary fiber of the two selections completely evens out. 

Well, that settles it! I’m headed to the bar!

Don’t get carried away. In this isolated scenario where you’re sitting down, enjoying one drink and then speeding straight home, the Bloody Mary may have arguably been the optimal choice. However, If you decide to sit at the bar, order one Bloody Mary and then request an accompanying platter of spinach and artichoke dip followed by two more Bloody Marys, your 165-calorie best-alternative-to-a-boring-salad just metamorphosed into a 1,400-calorie bender. 

What I’m saying is, don’t leverage this information as an excuse to drink the day away. It’s simply intended to keep you from spending a mundane evening munching on a depressing fast-food side salad when there are far more entertaining alternatives that will imbue you with even more nutrients, while simultaneously easing your cares for the remainder of the evening.