7 Of The Worst Fast-Food Salads, According To Nutritionists

Honestly, sometimes it's a better idea to order the Egg McMuffin.

TV exposés, investigative magazine articles, healthy lifestyle websites and books like Eat This, Not That! have been alerting the American public to a real bummer of a fact for the past decade: Just because it’s a salad doesn’t mean it’s good for you.

Before nutritionists and Dr. Oz revealed that Chili’s Quesadilla Explosion Salad is the nutritional equivalent of eating two bags of potato chips, many of us believed in earnest that we were making a smart choice by choosing a salad at our favorite chain restaurants and fast-food joints. If we can’t trust our go-to meal spots to keep us feeling healthy with something that comes in a bowl of lettuce, what are we supposed to eat when we’re in a rush and/or on a budget?

The FDA has taken note. As of May of 2018, restaurants with over 20 locations had to start listing calories so customers can make informed decisions. Taco Bell has become a leader in the healthy menu item expansion that many chains are making, and many of the country’s heavy-hitters now have feel-good options.

That doesn’t mean these menus don’t require a bit of navigating. There are healthy salads and unhealthy salads, and sometimes there are better menu picks altogether.

That’s why we’ve turned to the experts to shine a light on fast-food chain salads. By looking at the biggest offenders at top chains in terms of calories and fat as well as what ingredients they include, we can start to make sense of which salads to avoid, which salads are actually full of good fat, which modifications to make to take a salad from empty calories to nutritionally economical, and in some cases, what to order instead of a salad.

“Someone paying attention to weight management may not necessarily look at calories, but ingredients. A salad may have fewer calories but may leave you hungry and wanting more later.”

- Registered dietitian Maya Feller

The first necessity in making smart food choices is knowing what’s good for you and you alone, according to registered dietitian Maya Feller.

“What’s good for Patient X may not be good for Patient Y,” Feller told HuffPost. “We need to have an idea of our own individual health. If someone has high blood pressure, they’re going to need to pay attention to the amount of sodium. Someone with a history of heart disease will want to look at trans fat and saturated fat. Someone paying attention to weight management may not necessarily look at calories, but ingredients. A salad may have fewer calories but may leave you hungry and wanting more later.”

Mitzi Dulan, a registered dietician and certified specialist in sports dietetics, also recommends looking at each separate ingredient. Some salads might be high in fat, but it could be good fat that keeps you full longer. It’s important to differentiate between empty calories and calories your body needs so you know what to leave in your salad and what to cut out.

“When a salad is high in fat, I look to see if that is coming from nuts or avocados or dressing,” Dulan told HuffPost, noting that nuts or avocados would be “good” fats — natural fats that keep us satisfied longer — and dressing would be not such a good fat. “You can always use less dressing and ask for it on the side.”

Protein is a key factor, too. Every nutritionist we spoke to stressed protein as a priority because of its ability to keep you fuller longer. Dulan advises that getting at least 20 grams in a salad is the goal, and she recommends getting there with salmon, tuna or chicken in your salad. Feller says hard-boiled eggs are another smart add.

Keeping ingredients in mind, here are seven popular fast-food chain salads that can do more harm than good if you don’t make some major swaps.

Try subbing grilled chicken or even a burger patty for fried chicken to get healthier protein.
Try subbing grilled chicken or even a burger patty for fried chicken to get healthier protein.
  • Calories: 827

  • Calories from fat: 500

  • Fat: 56 grams

  • Saturated fat: 13 grams

  • Trans fat: 1 gram

  • Carbohydrates: 49 grams

  • Sodium: 1789 milligrams

Ingredients: crispy chicken, iceberg lettuce, romaine lettuce, spring lettuce, shredded cheddar cheese, grape tomatoes, cucumbers, crumbled bacon pieces, croutons, ranch dressing

Containing more calories (827) than any other salad on this list, this Jack in the Box salad is a good place to start the conversation about the good, the bad and the helpful-to-know-about calories. Basically, we should be focusing less on the number of calories in a meal and more on where they’re coming from. As Feller notes, “10 calories from an orange is different from 10 calories in a piece of candy.”

“All dietitians and nutritionists have different outlooks, but most agree that calories aren’t really what it’s all about; it’s more what’s in your food,” said dietitian and personal trainer Courtney Ferreira. Ferreira, Feller and Dulan all underline that it’s more important for a salad to make you feel full with quality ingredients.

In the case of this Jack in the Box salad, the high calorie count isn’t coming from anything nutritious. Lacking anything your body can naturally use for fuel, the meal defines “empty calories.”

“Clients tell me they eat this big leafy bowl for lunch but are starving by 2 p.m., and it’s because they didn’t get enough calories,” Ferreira said. “If the calories are too low, the salad doesn’t keep you full, and then you get the afternoon munchies.”

That doesn’t mean you want a “calorie bomb,” though, as registered dietitian and certified personal trainer Alix Turoff pointed out. Ferreira says it’s helpful to think of calories proportionally: If the average person should have about 2,000 calories per day (1,600 is a good place if you’re more sedentary), we don’t want to get more than 1,000 calories from one meal.

For that reason, Ferreira advises skipping this Jack in the Box salad, since there’s not much in it to play with or modify, and you’ll just be getting the wrong kind of fat from the dressing and the crispy chicken.

  • Calories: 610

  • Calories from fat: 297

  • Fat: 41 grams

  • Saturated fat: 12 grams

  • Trans fat: 0 grams

  • Carbohydrates: 18 grams

  • Sodium: 1,660 milligrams

Note: Dressing is not included in this nutrition info.

Ingredients: romaine lettuce and radicchio, thick-cut smoked bacon, shredded cheddar cheese, tomatoes, breaded chicken, “buttery” garlic croutons

This Burger King salad is another example of not having much else going on aside from cheese, breaded chicken, croutons and bacon. If you find yourself at a Burger King and you’re set on a salad, think about which ingredients you wouldn’t mind going without.

“Sometimes the shredded cheddar cheese on a Burger King Salad is something you don’t even taste, so it’s easy to ditch,” Turoff said. To be healthier, you’ll want to swap the breaded chicken for grilled, but when it comes to the croutons and bacon, it’s OK to treat yourself just a little.

“People are scared of croutons, but I was looking at this Burger King salad and one packet of croutons is only 60 calories,” Turoff continued. “That’s not a lot and it adds flavor and crunch. It’s the same with bacon — the amount is just enough to add a ton of flavor but not a ton of calories. Part of losing weight is staying sane and enjoying food, so if croutons will make the salad, keep them. Just think, ‘What ingredient will I get the most out of?’”

“Part of losing weight is staying sane and enjoying food, so if croutons will make the salad, keep them.”

- Registered dietitian and certified personal trainer Alix Turoff
  • Calories: 540

  • Calories from fat: 360

  • Fat: 40 grams

  • Saturated fat: 12 grams

  • Trans fat: 1 gram

  • Carbohydrates: 15 grams

  • Sodium: 1,290 milligrams

Ingredients: grilled all-white-meat chicken, Monterey cheddar cheese, bacon, greens, choice of dressing

This brings us to one topic that all the experts highlighted: dressing.

“Dressing makes or breaks a salad,” Turoff said. “This Subway salad wasn’t so bad as it was, and you can add unlimited veggies for fiber and volume. But if you get the exact same salad and get honey mustard dressing (instead of the ranch dressing for which the salad is named), it’s around 390 calories and 32 grams of protein, keeping carbs and fat pretty low, whereas this ranch dressing probably has 200 more calories.”

Feller, Ferreira and Dulan all stressed dressing as the culprit for ruining a salad’s health appeal, and advised getting it on the side and using about half.

  • Calories: 720

  • Calories from fat: 380

  • Fat: 42 grams

  • Saturated fat: 12 grams

  • Trans fat: 1 gram

  • Carbohydrates: 44 grams

  • Sodium: 1,680 milligrams

Ingredients: romaine lettuce, cherry tomatoes, three-cheese Italian blend, Caesar dressing, breaded spicy chicken breast, croutons

This Wendy’s salad also doesn’t offer too much in the way of ingredients that would satisfy you if you modified it to be healthier. It’s a better idea to pass on this one altogether, according to Ferreira.

“This one has 3/4 of the sodium you’re recommended to have in one day. Not everyone needs to be overly concerned about sodium, but there aren’t many nutritious ingredients in here at all and with all this sodium, plus trans fat…”

Trans fat is one factor to watch out for and always avoid.

“Trans fat is always definitely bad, we have evidence of that, and companies are removing it from their food,” Ferreira said.

When it comes to saturated fat, though? “There’s more and more evidence coming out to show us that saturated fat does not cause heart disease, and it’s important here to bring it back to ‘What is the quality of that fat?’ Dairy and nuts may have saturated fats, but they’re natural saturated fats, compared to the saturated fats in fried food, which everyone should be avoiding.”

  • Calories: 760

  • Calories from fat: 350

  • Fat: 39 grams

  • Saturated fat: 10 grams

  • Trans fat: 1 gram

  • Carbohydrates: 78 grams

  • Sodium: 1,330 milligrams

Ingredients: seasoned beef, salsa, tomatoes, reduced fat sour cream, “red [tortilla chip] strips,” [refried] beans, seasoned rice, lettuce, shredded cheese

Turoff recommends staying away from the Fiesta Taco Salad — the taco shell alone will derail you — but approves of Taco Bell’s otherwise flexible and potentially healthy menu. Order from the Power Menu (high-protein items under 510 calories) and make modifications to other salads by adding vegetables and beans for lean protein.

  • Calories: 520

  • Calories from fat: 230

  • Fat: 25 grams

  • Saturated fat: 6 grams

  • Trans fat: 0 grams

  • Carbohydrates: 46 grams

  • Sodium: 960 milligrams

Ingredients: buttermilk crispy chicken fillet, “salad blend” (greens), “Southwest vegetable blend” (corn and black beans), cilantro lime glaze, shredded Jack and cheddar cheeses, chili lime tortilla strips

Speaking of modifications, if an unhealthy salad has enough ingredients to play with, it can be easy to make healthy changes and still get that tempting flavor. In addition to dressing swaps and reductions, other tips include subbing grilled chicken or even a burger patty for fried chicken to get healthier protein, adding other proteins like hard-boiled eggs or beans, and choosing one or two good fats, like cheese or avocado.

But when the right modifications leave you with a salad that’s not filling enough or too dull to think about eating, remember that there might be other menu items that are actually better for you.

“Egg McMuffins are a great example,” Ferreira said. “I’d choose that over a salad any day. You have to think, ‘Is this going to give me energy?’ A salad can fall short and leave us to make poor choices later. You have protein from the egg, the cheese is for fat and satisfaction, the bun is giving you carbs for energy.”

  • Calories: 670

  • Calories from fat: 306

  • Fat: 34 grams

  • Saturated fat: 7 grams

  • Trans fat: 0 grams

  • Carbohydrates: 56 grams

  • Sodium: 800 milligrams

Ingredient: smoked boneless skinless chicken, romaine lettuce, arugula, corn, quinoa, tomatoes, avocado, feta cheese, masa crisps, chili lime rojo ranch dressing

This Panera salad gets a bad rap for its amount of calories, but Ferreira, Turoff and Dulan would all remove it from this list of healthy-eating saboteurs. Grilled chicken, corn, quinoa, feta, avocado — it’s packed with protein, fiber and good fats. It’s the perfect example of a high amount of calories that are coming from good sources. Turoff says you don’t even need to change the dressing, but it might be smart to remove those masa strips since it saves about 180 calories.

The takeaway? These salads are bad news on paper, but you have two choices when fast food is your only option: Skip the salad altogether in favor of a grilled chicken sandwich or egg sandwich that will keep you fuller longer, or make smart modifications.

It’s even easier if you’re prepared. Turoff’s game-changing tip is to check the websites of fast-food chains you might order from since they list nutritional values for every item and you can play around with the ingredients you want to keep or ditch.

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