Whenever we think about eating healthy, salads are one of the first things that come to mind. But are they really as healthy as they seem, and could they be part of what’s hindering your weight loss goals? 

Salads come in all shapes and forms, and all are not created equal. Some salads really are healthy and are a great option for weight loss, weight loss maintenance, or just a healthy lifestyle in general. Unfortunately, some salads are very misleading and are higher in calories, fat, and sugar than many other foods!

Let’s look at a couple salads from common chain restaurants as an example.

O’Charley’s Southern Pecan Chicken Tender Salad

If you’re choosing this salad thinking this a healthy and light option, unfortunately you’re mistaken. The good thing is that many chain restaurants now include calorie counts on their menus, making it less likely that you’ll be deceived by an unhealthy salad. 

Also, the word unhealthy is very subjective. We all have different dietary needs so it’s hard to definitively say that something is unhealthy. Instead we should look at foods and shoot for a nutritionally balanced diet. For this O’Charley’s salad though, we can safely categorize it as nutritionally unbalanced. It carries a full: 106g of fat (163% of the suggested daily value, including 18g of saturated fat), 95g of carbs (including 53g of sugar), and 1650g of sodium. And that’s just for ONE meal!

O’Charley’s California Chicken Salad

While on the surface this salad’s ingredients may make it sound like a healthy choice, it boasts a whopping 56g of sugar! That’s 13.5 teaspoons of sugar in this salad. Control of sugar intake is very important for both weight loss and weight loss maintenance. This salad is a great example of a dish that holds a lot more sugar than you might think. It also has 1,020 calories.

Applebee’s Grilled Oriental Chicken Salad

The first salad we looked at had crispy chicken tenders on it, which may seem a little obvious that it’s not in the “healthy” department. However, this Oriental Grilled Chicken Salad from Applebee’s is a little more sneaky. Clocking in at 1430 calories, 89g of fat, and 52g of sugar, this salad is an indulgence. 


Does this mean all restaurant salads are bad?

No, but you need to know what to look out for in order to make an informed and healthy decision. Skip salads loaded with any breaded or fried proteins, candied nuts/fruits, creamy or sweet dressings, and croutons or fried bread (such as tortilla chips or wonton strips).

Here are some examples of salads you can find at restaurants that won’t ruin your diet:

Asian Sesame Salad with Chicken at Panera

Chicken, romaine, fresh cilantro, toasted almonds, sesame seeds and wonton strips tossed in Asian sesame vinaigrette. While this salad does have wonton strips, which should generally be avoided, it only has 410 calories and 7g of sugar. 

Olive Garden Salad

Olive Garden’s signature salad is full of fresh vegetables so it’s naturally lower in calories. To keep the calorie count down, skip the croutons and get the light dressing.

So what should you order instead of a salad?

Most chain restaurants have an option of a grilled fish, steak, or chicken served with a side or two. Most of these restaurants also have vegetables, such as broccoli, available as a side item. Cutting portions in half is also a great option (some restaurants even offer ½ portions!), considering most restaurants serve portions that are way too big for a healthy lifestyle. Also, a side salad that is a more controlled portion is a great way to still enjoy a tasty salad in a restaurant.

What kinds of salads should you eat?

The best salads you can eat are the ones you make yourself. Lettuce mixes from the supermarket, for example the ones that come with shredded carrots and cabbage, can save you some time and add an extra crunch to your homemade salad.

How to build a salad:

  1. Fresh greens
  2. Fresh vegetables (raw, roasted, or leftover from the night before!)
  3. Nuts, seeds, or dried  or fresh fruit (remember to avoid nuts and dried fruit with added sugar)
  4. Protein (nothing fried or breaded!)
  5. Dressing (check out our video on how to make your own salad dressing)

Optional: Grains, cheese. If weight loss is your goal, it’s best to skip these! Regarding grains: skip store bought croutons. Homemade croutons are so easy to make, taste way better, and are less processed. Croutons are a great way to use up some leftover or stale bread. When you make them yourself, you also have control over what type of bread you’re using. For a healthy lifestyle, stick to whole grain and minimally processed breads. You can also add leftover rice, quinoa, or farro to your salads for some added texture. For cheeses, skip the mild pre-shredded cheese and opt for something like blue cheese crumbles, feta, or parmesan. You can use less of these types of cheese while still getting a lot of flavor. 


Making your own dressings will save you a lot of calories and is very easy, however, there are plenty of pre-made dressings that are lower in calories. Just check the labels before you buy!