Salads have long been synonymous with healthy eating, but it's not as simple as just grabbing a head of iceberg lettuce and a bottle of salad dressing. Depending on the size and ingredients, a dinner salad can be unhealthier than a cheeseburger. Even if you know to sprinkle on high-fat, high-calorie ingredients like bacon, croutons, cheese and nuts sparingly, there's still the problem of choosing a dressing.
Many regular salad dressings aren't all that healthy, and the portion sizes aren't realistic. For example, your basic ranch salad dressing has nearly 150 calories and 14 grams of fat. That's for a 2-tablespoon serving, but most of us aren't in the habit of measuring our salad dressing. You could be adding hundreds of calories to your otherwise healthy salad with just a squeeze of the bottle or a ladle from the salad bar.
Before we begin navigating the salad dressing pitfalls, think about your favorite kind. There are generally two types: creamy and vinegar-and-oil. Creamy dressings, such as blue cheese, have a base of sour cream, buttermilk or mayonnaise. Vinegar-and-oil dressings (or vinaigrettes) are just what they sound like -- Italian dressing is a popular example. In general, it's easier to find healthy vinegar-and-oil dressings, but if creamy dressings are your favorite, there's hope for you, too. Let's start with looking at how to choose a heart-healthy salad dressing.
Heart-healthy Salad Dressings
To make sure that your salad dressing is heart-healthy, start with the base. Vinaigrettes are generally made with a mild-tasting vegetable oil such as soybean, canola or corn. (Bonus: these oils are also inexpensive.) They're considered heart-healthy because they're naturally occurring and unhydrogenated, meaning they don't contain trans-fatty acids. They also contain polyunsaturated or monounsaturated fats (the good ones) and may help lower your LDL, or "bad," cholesterol levels.
If you want to step up the heart-healthy effects of your dressing, however, consider one made with olive oil. Besides adding great flavor, olive oil is high in antioxidants called polyphenols. Pick up some virgin or extra-virgin olive oil for the highest levels of polyphenols -- they aren't processed as much as regular olive oil.
Oils such as sesame, walnut or macadamia have many of the same health benefits as olive oil. They're expensive and high in fat, but a little bit goes a long way, so you could mix a small amount of one of these flavored oils with another type of oil.
And what about heart-healthy creamy dressings? Finding them is a bit trickier, as creamy dressings tend to get their texture from dairy products that are high in saturated fats. If you really want to get some heart-healthy benefits from your salad dressing, forget the bottled stuff and make your own. You can find mayonnaise made with olive oil, which would work well as a base.
Choosing a heart-healthy salad dressing when in a restaurant is also difficult; it's best to stick to a basic vinegar-and-oil, which most restaurants stock. If that's unavailable, try Italian or another type of vinaigrette. Unless the salad dressings are made in-house, your server may not be able to provide you with detailed ingredients.
Low-fat Salad Dressing
The food industry has attempted to accommodate low-fat diets by creating low-fat and fat-free versions of all your favorite salad dressings. Picking up a bottle of one of these is one good way to cut down on the overall amount of fat in your diet. Low-fat ranch, for example, can have as much as half the fat of regular ranch dressing and one-third of the calories.
Since these dressings vary widely in quality and flavor; you'll probably have to try several different types to find one that you like, but there are some reasonably good substitutes out there. Keep an eye on the label, though -- when the fat is removed, it's often replaced with other ingredients you don't want. In bottled low-fat and fat-free dressings, that often means high-fructose corn syrup or sugar.
Also, keep in mind that some of the vitamins and minerals found in healthy salads are fat-soluble, so going fat-free may not always be the best idea.
If bottled low-fat or fat-free dressings aren't for you, consider cutting the fat in other ways. If you're making vinaigrette, experiment with the traditional ratio of oil to vinegar (3 to 1), by cutting back on the oil and using different types of vinegars, juices, broths and herbs. Or, maybe you just need a squirt of lemon or a spray of walnut oil if your salad is already full of lots of flavorful ingredients. If you're making creamy dressings at home, try substituting low-fat or fat-free sour cream or mayonnaise for the full-fat versions. You can also use yogurt in place of sour cream in many recipes without sacrificing flavor.
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