You're a paragon of virtue today. In fact, you don't even glance sideways at the burgers and pizza as you make a beeline for the salad bar. Sure, you know not to drown your single leaf of lettuce in a sea of blue-cheese dressing, but did you know that other nutritional landmines lurk amongst the dark leafy greens? We asked Bettye Nowlin, R.D., a Los Angeles-based spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association, to take us on a guided tour of a typical salad bar and rate the roughage.
++++: Dietary powerhouse
+++: Indulge with impunity
++: Nutritional lightweight
+: Overindulging could be hazardous to your health
Iceberg lettuce (++)
Mom thought she was feeding you so well. But actually, "iceberg lettuce has hardly any nutrients," explains Nowlin. "It just has some fiber and a lot of water." Iceberg, however, is low in calories and filling (it also makes a good base for other veggies), but you're better off with a darker greens (see below).
Mesclun, spinach, arugula (+++)
"The darker the green, the more nutritious it is," Nowlin explains. So skip the waterlogged iceberg and go for darker (and tastier) greens like mesclun and spinach for a whopping dose of vitamin A and fiber.
Red on the outside and white on the inside, radishes are thoroughly duplicitous. But don't be taken in by these little frauds: Although they add a sharp taste and crunch, they're pretty much lacking in the nutrition department.
"Tomatoes and cherry tomatoes are high in vitamin C [one medium tomato provides 40 percent of the RDA], and are a good source of vitamin A," says Nowlin. "In addition, tomatoes contain lycopene, a cancer-preventing substance."
No nutrition, no taste, no thank you. Cucumbers are practically calorie-free (just five calories per half cup), so they won't do any damage to your diet—but they contain only trace vitamins and minerals.
Shredded carrots (++++)
Long-rumored to be good for your eyes, (hey, did you ever see a blind bunny?) carrots are head-to-toe nutritional powerhouses: One half cup contains more than one and a half times the RDA of vitamin A, as well as lots of vitamin C and fiber.
Though they don't have much in the way of nutrients, mushrooms are low in calories (1/2 cup is less than 10 calories). And they add an exotically earthy taste to your salad, says Nowlin.
Don't pass up this lean, green, cancer-fighting machine. "It's just an incredible food," says Nowlin. "It's very high in vitamins A and C (as well as folic acid). They've also found substances in broccoli that prevent certain types of cancers."
Do yourself a favor, and pop some peppers onto your plate. They're great sources of vitamins C and A and fiber, and they're available in your favorite color (green, red, yellow, and purple).
Beans, beans, good for your heart...and your muscles and your bones and your digestive tract. "They're high in protein, and you get a lot of B vitamins, iron, and high fiber," explains Nowlin. So feel free to sprinkle kidney, garbanzo, or black beans on your salad.
Croutons, bacon bits (+)
These nutritional black holes are high in fat and calories. If you just can't say no, limit yourself to a tablespoon or two.
Pasta salad and potato salad (+)
"I would say avoid these, because they're loaded with fat," advises Nowlin. The pasta contains some B vitamins and iron, she points out, but you can get the same thing from a better, lower-fat source—like a whole-grain roll.
Creamy dressings (+)
These full-fat dressings can be a dietary disaster, says Nowlin. Two tablespoons of Thousand Island dressing, for example, contain 140 calories. Drench your salad in it, and soon your meritorious greens are topping the calorie count of a large platter of nachos. A better bet: low-cal dressing, regular Italian, or vinaigrette.