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Ranking Salad Toppers by How Healthy They Are

Cheese? Shredded carrots? Croutons? Which will maintain the integrity of my salad?

More than a month has passed since we started the new year, and as a side effect of your resolution to be healthier, you and your local salad bar have developed something of a love-hate relationship. You’ve sure learned how to make a good salad, though, loading up on greens, including an assortment of vegetables and even opting for a smidge of balsamic vinaigrette, when you could easily douse the whole thing in ranch and give up on life entirely. You have, however, been known to go a little bit overboard with the extra toppers — the ones at the very end of a salad bar, which are clearly the devil in disguise — and you suspect that they might be stunting your weight loss.

But not all of those toppers are bad, per se, so to help you make the right choices, I asked nutritionist David Friedman, author of Food Sanity: How to Eat in a World of Fads and Fiction, to assist me in ranking some of the more common ones (at least, at my local Ralphs) by how healthy they are — from salad-improver to salad-destroyer. 

Before jumping into the ranking, though, Friedman has a few words of warning about salad dressing, which he deems the “most calorie-heavy and fattening part of a salad.” He says, “Most salad dressings are full of saturated fat, calories, sodium and sugar. Creamy salad dressings, like ranch dressing, contain more calories and fat per tablespoon than a chocolate chip cookie. Some Italian dressings have more sodium content than a small bag of potato chips.” That being the case, be sure to read our ranking of salad dressings so you can make good choices.

Or, as Friedman says, “If you absolutely must have your fattening Caesar, ranch or thousand island dressing, instead of pouring it on top of your salad, dip the tip of your fork into the dressing before diving in. This technique helps you still enjoy the flavor of these dressings, while consuming considerably less.” 


Now, before we create too much of a traffic jam at the salad bar, we present to you our ranking…

1) Avocados: Avocados are, perhaps unsurprisingly, great additions to any salad. “This fruit — yes, avocado is a fruit — is one of the best sources of potassium, an essential mineral that helps regulate muscle contractions, maintain healthy nerve function and regulate fluid balance,” says Friedman. “And approximately 98 percent of Americans don’t consume the recommended potassium intake.”

Furthermore, while you might have heard that avocados are awfully fatty, as Friedman explains, “It’s the healthy kind, called oleic acid — a monounsaturated fatty acid that’s also a major component of olive oil. Oleic acid has been shown to help in the prevention of cancer.” Friedman adds that avocados are also “great sources of soluble fiber, which benefits the friendly gut bacteria in the intestines.” Plus, he points out that avocados contain “compounds that support cardiovascular health, blood glucose regulation and have anti-inflammatory benefits.”

On a final note about avocados, Friedman says, “Avocados help with weight loss, because they keep you fuller for longer, which means eating fewer calories.” So go ahead and slap one on your salad, avaca-bro.

2) Hard-Boiled Eggs: Friedman refers to hard-boiled eggs as “perfect nutritional powerhouses,” because as he explains, “They’re low in calories and loaded with a plethora of vital vitamins, minerals and nutrients.” In addition to eggs being high in protein, he says, “They contain all nine essential amino acids, which are involved in important processes, such as energy production, tissue growth, immune function and nutrient absorption.”

Eggs, though, as we discussed in a previous ranking, have a complicated reputation because of their high cholesterol content. But Friedman says this is overblown. “Research shows that dietary cholesterol from eggs doesn’t have a negative effect on blood cholesterol,” he emphasizes. “In fact, egg consumption may improve ‘good’ HDL cholesterol.” As a result, Friedman suggests, “Eggs may help in the prevention of metabolic syndrome, the risk of heart disease, stroke and diabetes.”

Similar to avocados, Friedman adds that eggs can help with weight loss, because “the protein in eggs have been shown to increase a person’s metabolic rate by 15 to 30 percent.” 

Egg it up!

3) Beans: Chickpeas, kidney beans, black beans — chances are, you might run into at least one of these at the end of your salad bar, and Friedman says all of them are good additions to a salad. “Beans are considered to be one of the most healthful foods on the planet,” he says. “They’re chock-full of fiber, protein, complex carbs, antioxidants and vitamins. Beans help with weight loss, increase our lifespan, lower our risk of heart attack, diabetes and cancer.” Yeah, beans rule.

4) Nuts: Walnuts, almonds, peanuts — all of them are good additions to a salad, as far as Friedman is concerned. “Nuts are loaded with antioxidants, fiber, protein, vitamins, minerals and unsaturated fats,” he explains. “The health benefits of eating nuts include lowering cholesterol, weight control and reducing the risk of cancer.”

“The most common nuts found at most salad bars are almonds and pecans,” Friedman continues. “Almonds contain more fiber than any other nut — about three grams per ounce — and are also the highest in Vitamin E.” In the body, vitamin E acts as an antioxidant, protecting cells from damage caused by free radicals, and Friedman adds that almonds can help regulate blood sugar, making them great for diabetics, too.

Pecans, meanwhile, “contain monounsaturated fats, which may help improve cholesterol levels,” says Friedman. “Pecans give you more flavonoids than any other nut, too: Flavonoids are among the most anti-inflammatory of all antioxidants, helping to combat cardiovascular disease and the negative effects of aging.” 

All in all, never hesitate to nut all over your salad.

5) Olives: Another healthy salad topper, “Olives are low in cholesterol and good sources of dietary fiber, which the body needs for good gut health,” explains Friedman. “They’re also rich in antioxidants, including oleuropein (anti-inflammatory, anti-cancer), hydroxytyrosol (anti-bacterial, anti-fungal), tyrosol (combats heart disease), oleanolic acid (improves liver function) and quercetin (lowers blood pressure).”

Olives can help your body deal with all the stress you’ve been feeling as a result of your resolution to eat healthy, too. “The powerful polyphenols in olives can protect against oxidative stress and chronic inflammation, a key initiating factor of heart disease,” Friedman confirms.

6) Shredded Carrots: They make your salad look all nice and colorful, but do they actually help your body do better? Big time, says Friedman. “Adding shredded carrots to your salad can help you with weight loss, because carrots help to increase fullness and decrease caloric intake during subsequent meals,” he explains. “The soluble fiber in carrots may curb belly fat, too.” Plus, as he points out, “Half a cup of shredded carrots contains just 25 calories.” 

Besides helping with weight loss, carrots also contain a decent amount of good stuff for your body. “Carrots contain carotenoids, powerful antioxidants that have been shown to improve immune function and reduce the risk of many illnesses, including colon, prostate, breast and stomach cancer,” Friedman says. So, feel free to make it rain carrots on your salad.

7) Cheese: Ah, we finally enter the realm of not-so-great salad toppers. “Cheese is a calorie-dense food,” Friedman says. “Cheese is also loaded with sodium, which makes it easy to overeat and can be an issue for people with high blood pressure.”

“One of the reasons cheese falls so low on my list of salad toppers is because it contains lactose, a sugar that 70 percent of the population can’t break down,” Friedman continues. “This can cause symptoms of lactose intolerance, like sinus issues, abdominal pain, bloating, flatulence, diarrhea and general malaise.”

Moreover, Friedman explains that most all cheeses contain casein (as Dana Hunnes, senior dietitian at the Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center, has told me probably a million times), a protein found in milk that “creates a histamine inflammatory reaction inside the body, which can lead to arthritis, gut dysfunction, coughing, itchy skin and hives. Casein is also considered a potential dangerous carcinogen.” 

I know, blue cheese is the only thing that makes your salad even somewhat enjoyable, but I don’t make the rules here.

8) Edamame: This one was a bit of a shocker, but Friedman has a good explanation for putting it so low on our list. “There’s a lot of controversy when it comes to soy, so much so that in my book, Food Sanity, I devote an entire chapter to the topic,” he explains. “Soy is the number one genetically modified (GMO) crop in the world. Research published in the New England Journal of Medicine shows that eating GMO soy causes an increase in nut allergies. But there are still health experts that praise soy as being healthy. Edamame does offer some healthful fiber, vitamins and minerals; however, after carefully reviewing over a thousand studies published on soy, I strongly believe that the risks of consuming unfermented soy products far outweigh any benefits. Only fermented soy is good for us.” That includes the likes of natto, tempeh and even soy sauce.

To back up these claims, Friedman says, “Hundreds of studies link soy to malnutrition, digestive distress, immune system breakdown, thyroid dysfunction, cognitive decline, reproductive disorders and infertility — even cancer and heart disease.” 


9) Corn: Another topper that adds a nice dose of color to your salad, Friedman explains, “Corn is a starchy cereal grain that contains a high sugar content. If you’re concerned about your weight, you may want to leave corn off your salad. Consider this: When factory farms want to fatten up cows and pigs quickly, they feed them corn.” 

Moreover, he says that corn is second to soy as “being the most genetically modified crops in the world,” and that “research has linked consumption of genetically modified corn with toxic effects on the liver and kidneys.”

10) Croutons: Ugh, I can’t say I didn’t see this coming. “Made from white bread, croutons are cooked with oil or butter, which adds saturated fat and calories to your salad,” Friedman says. “In fact, just 12 croutons can add up to 70 calories to your salad.”

“These crunchy toppings can also have high sodium levels, depending on how they’re prepared,” Friedman continues. “Plus, while croutons may provide a satisfying crunch, they’re basically empty calories with no nutritional value or health benefit.” Instead of using croutons, he suggests, “If you crave a bit of crunch on your salad, try adding a tablespoon of Grape-Nuts cereal or granola. This gives you the crunch texture and healthful benefits of whole grain fiber. Or toast a piece of 100-percent whole-grain bread, crumble it into small pieces and add it to your salad for a crunchy, toasty, fiber-rich option.”

11) Bacon Bits: “Americans love their bacon, so much so, the average American eats 18 pounds of it per year — please, don’t shoot the messenger,” Friedman says. “I wish I could put bacon in the top ten, but from a health standpoint, I can’t. Bacon bits contain harmful preservatives called sodium nitrates, which research shows are linked to colon cancer, heart disease and Non-Hodgkin Lymphoma. The World Health Organization also classifies bacon as a group-1 carcinogen, meaning scientists are certain that there is ‘sufficient’ evidence that consuming it causes cancer.”

“As good as it tastes,” Friedman continues, “68 percent of bacon is fat — the bad kind. Just one ounce of bacon contains 30 milligrams of cholesterol. When you combine saturated fat with high dietary cholesterol, this can increase your risk of heart disease and stroke tenfold. So it’s probably best to stay clear of bacon bits at the salad bar, unless you want to hear your doctor shout, ‘CLEAR!’”

Welp, you can always revisit the salad bar next year.