What goes on top of your salad is just as important as what’s in it. Get to know the ways that you can dress your bowl of delicious veggies up with nutrition Expert Lindsey Kane.

You’re at the salad bar and you’re feeling oh-so-proud of your decision.  You’ve got your kale, cherry tomatoes, crunchy cucumbers, shredded carrots, and even some quinoa.  You even opted for nuts and seeds for a healthier crunch.  You. Are. On. Fire.  

But before you start collecting high-fives from your fellow diners, I encourage you to turn that bottle of salad dressing around, zoom straight to the ingredient list, and get ready for an honest heart to heart. Just like most things in life, details matter, and how you dress your salad is no different. 

Here’s a play-by-play of how to take your salad game to the next level:

Know What’s in your Dressing

When it comes to a healthy salad dressing, we want a dressing that enhances the natural flavor of our veggies, but more importantly, we want a dressing that maximizes the nutrient density of our salad.  The way we do this is by choosing salad dressings that contain unprocessed, real food ingredients.  When grocery shopping, disregard any front-of-package labeling — it’s just marketing.  So, ignore those mini billboards and go directly to the source of hard data: the ingredient list.  This list tells you exactly what is in the product.  More times than not, you will find a long list of unrecognizable, low-quality ingredients that may include chemicals and preservatives, as well as a collection of fancy euphemistic words that are synonymous for highly processed oils, refined sugars, and hidden sodium. Stick to salad dressings that only contain ingredients that you can actually buy at the grocery store!

“Free” is a Red Flag

Fat-free salad dressing is a classic example of how front-of-package labeling deceives consumers.  Like most “free” things in life, if it sounds too good to be true, there’s almost always a catch.  Fat-free salad dressings are no different, as food manufacturers often add sugar and salt to compensate for the absent fat.  Generally speaking, in the world of processed food, whenever a company removes a component from their product, they almost always sneak something else back into the formula.  From now on, be cautious whenever you see the word “free” on any food products.  Pro Tip: When reading labels, divide the grams of sugar by four.  This tells you how many teaspoons of sugar are in each serving.

Fat-Soluble Vitamins

Another very important fat fact is that many of the powerful, protective, and health-promoting vitamins in our salad are known as “fat-soluble vitamins” (Vitamin A or beta-carotene, D, E and K).  “Fat-soluble” simply means that these vitamins rely on fat to “chauffeur” them across our intestinal wall and deliver them to our cells to be utilized by our body.  By eliminating fat from your salad altogether, you are voluntarily ripping yourself off from all of the potential health benefits your nourishing, vitamin-packed salad has to offer.  (That’s one more reason to kiss the fat-phobia goodbye.) If you prefer oil-free dressings, be sure to top your salad with avocado, nuts, seeds, or olives to give those fat-soluble vitamins a chance to work their magic!

The Type of Fat Matters

So we want fat in our salad, but what kind?  Fat is probably one of the most confusing and misunderstood concepts in the nutrition world.  To keep it simple, there are pro-inflammatory fats, also known as Omega-6 fatty acids, and there are anti-inflammatory fats, also known as Omega 3’s.  Since inflammation is tied to almost every chronic disease out there, including cancer, heart disease, arthritis, diabetes, kidney disease, and more, limit highly processed, pro-inflammatory Omega-6 fats.  These fats include soybean oil, as well as corn, safflower, peanut oil, and “vegetable oil” (which is essentially a blend of these highly processed oils).

Instead, look for a dressing that uses anti-inflammatory, cold-pressed omega-3 fats, such as olive oil.  Heads up: just because the front label says “made with olive oil”, this does not necessarily mean it’s made with 100% olive oil.  Many companies will strategically use a cheaper, highly processed, pro-inflammatory oil for the majority of their formula, and then add as little as one single tablespoon of olive oil just so they can slap the word “olive oil” on the front of their label – a smart business strategy to generate sales while cutting cost, and yet another case in point to never trust the front of a label!    

So how do you dress your salad for success?

Here are some questions to yourself when selecting a truly healthy salad dressing.  Hint, to pass the test, the answer to all of the questions below should be a resounding “YES!”

1. Can the ingredient list be used as a recipe? Meaning, if you were to make a homemade version of this salad dressing, can you actually purchase each listed ingredient at the grocery store?
2. Are these ingredients unrefined, unprocessed, whole ingredients? The closer each ingredient is to its naturally occurring form the more nutrient-dense it is. Avoid words like refined, extracted, isolated, and evaporated – which all imply processing.
3. Is the type of fat used, a “healthy fat”? Great examples include olive oil, nut and seed butters, tahini, avocado, etc.

Ask yourself these questions the next time you are grocery shopping to find the brands that use a short and simple list of ingredients that you can feel good about. Another option is to start making your own homemade salad dressing. (I promise, it is way easier than you think!)  Store your DIY dressing in a mason jar, keep it in the fridge for a week’s worth of flavorful, nutrient-rich dressing.

Dress it up well!

Adapted from the original article.

Lindsey Kane, MS, RD, LDN is a San Francisco-based Registered Dietitian helping others live a stress-free, balanced, and thriving life. By getting to know her clients inside and out, Lindsey identifies the opportunities within their everyday lifestyle to integrate subtle changes that create lasting, impactful results. Learn more at Bite For Change!