“I’ll just have a salad,” used to be a way to let your dinner party know you’re not very hungry, watching your weight, or you’re the only vegetarian at Gallaghers. But, not anymore. Restaurant salads have become gargantuan and not just in serving size, but locked and loaded with all sorts of fatty, high-calorie ingredients that are salty enough to make a sailor blush.
We’re all for filling our plates with crisp vegetables, and you should be, too, but muncher beware: some restaurant salads are so unhealthy, you’d be better off ordering the pork chops. Take our word for it or, better yet, read what registered dietitians have to say about the unhealthiest restaurant salads in America. And if you’re compiling a do-not-eat list, check out The Worst Fast-Food Burgers of All Time, Say Dietitians.
“Share this one with two other people,” says Lisa Young, PhD, RDN, author of Finally Full, Finally Slim and member of our Medical Expert Board. Despite the appealing amounts of protein and fiber, this salad contains over 1,000 calories and is too high in sugar and sodium.
The American Heart Association recommends limiting the amount of saturated fat you swallow to 5 or 6% of your daily calories. For most adults, that works out to be around 13 grams per day. “Unfortunately, this Italian salad is loaded with fat and has four more grams of saturated fat than what the AHA recommends most adults get in one full day,” says registered dietitian nutritionist Mary Wirtz, RDN of Mom Loves Best.
If you pay attention to what’s in the salad bowl here, you can see why it’s so fatty: pepperoni, salami, ham, capicola, and provolone cheese. “This salad is overloaded with ‘ultra-processed’ meats,” says Dr. Young. “The pepperoni and salami are high in fat and sodium. So, I’d skip it.”
Sing “goodbye Ruby Tuesdays Crispy Chicken Caesar,” unless it’ll be your only meal for the next few days. “This salad is a calorie overload,” says Dr. Young. “It contains around a days’ worth of fat and sodium, and is also high in saturated fat. When you see the word ‘crispy’ on a menu, that’s generally a sign to stay away.” Crispy is really just another way of saying deep fried.
If you are following a 1,500-calorie daily diet for weight loss, the calorie density of Sbarro’s Pasta Primavera Salad is high. “But it’s low in saturated fat and has no trans fat or cholesterol, so a huge portion of the fat is unsaturated, which is good to reduce bad cholesterol in the body,” says Catherine Gervacio, RD, a registered dietitian and nutrition writer for Living Fit. “But, be aware that the calories come primarily from the fat content, so it can cause weight gain when the calories aren’t burned.”
“For optimal health, we shouldn’t consume any trans fat and [at most] less than a gram a day,” says registered dietitian Amy Shapiro, RDN, founder of Real Nutrition NYC and a member of our Medical Expert Board. “This salad exceeds that amount in one meal, and doesn’t leave much room for error.” Trans fats are known to decrease the “good” HDL cholesterol and increase the “bad” LDL.
Though high in heart-healthy fiber and muscle-building protein, this salad wouldn’t gain your cardiologist’s approval. “There is 1 gram of trans fat, which is not ideal for those who want to reduce bad cholesterol,” explains Gervacio. “Also, 13 grams of saturated fat elevates the bad cholesterol further, especially since the salad already has 60 milligrams of cholesterol, which is 20% of the recommended daily amount of less than 300 mg.” Other cons for those concerned about metabolic health: 16 grams of sugar and a sodium count that nearly hits the 2,300 milligram AHA limit.
It all sounds good until you get to the word “with” on the menu. Everything that comes after raises nutritional red flags. “The crispy chicken used in the salad is deep-fried and adds a significant amount of calories to the dish,” notes Trista Best, RD, a registered dietitian with Balance One.
Adding to the calorie count is the honey mustard dressing, which is typically high in sugars and can further contribute to weight gain. “While the salad includes vegetables, the nutritional value of the meal is still relatively low compared to other meal options that include a wider variety of nutrient-dense foods,” says Best.
Salmon is a fatty fish, but contains mostly omega-3 fatty acids, so it’s considered low in saturated fat. The 20 grams of the unhealthy saturated fat in this salad come from the oil and cheese components of a traditional Caesar salad, along with the blue cheese dressing. In addition, there’s a gram of trans fat, which is known to contribute to cardiovascular disease, as Gervacio points out above.
At 24 grams of saturated fat, this exceeds the recommended daily amount of saturated fat in a day for the average person, plus it provides more than half of the daily value for calories for someone taking in 2,000 calories a day. “It’s likely the quesadilla component of the salad that tacks on all the calories,” says registered dietitian Amy Goodson, MS, RD, CSSD, LD author of The Sports Nutrition Playbook and member of our Medical Expert Board. “If you like this salad, the best recommendation is to put the dressing on the side, eat only one of the quesadilla triangles, and take the rest home for lunch tomorrow.”