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11 Shocking Salads

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Oh Salad, how did it ever come to this? Experts say that eating a salad every day may be one of the healthiest eating habits to adopt, but did they know what kind of beasts are being created in the name of the salad? It’s fascinating how language shapes our perceptions. Even though I spend much of my life exploring food and decoding nutrition, I am still sometimes swayed by the subtle messaging that says that anything called a “salad,” regardless of its reckless ingredients, is still a healthy choice! Restaurant menu-development teams are definitely on to this phenomenon.

So, what are the problems with this collection of shocking salads found on the menus of our nation’s most popular restaurants? My biggest gripe is the sky-high calories, simply for their shock value–followed by the seriously exuberant sodium levels, and finishing up with some pretty surprising fat counts.

In the new set of Dietary Guidelines proposed for the 2010 USDA Food Pyramid, the average recommended daily calorie intake is 2100, and total fat intake should be 20 to 35 percent of your total daily calories. (At 9 calories per gram of fat, 30 percent would roughly equal about 70 grams of total fat daily for a 2100-calorie diet.) The crazy thing here is sodium: The new guidelines reduced the recommended amount of salt healthy people should consume to 1,500 milligrams (mg), from the previous amount of 2,300 mg. Each one of these salads has more than the daily recommended level of sodium, some of them have more than double that. Salty!

Even so, aside from all the ills of these non-salad salads, I’ll still opt for the salad more than not. Even though most of those listed here have similar calorie counts to a burger and fries (or two), the saturated fat is generally less, and you do get the benefit of the vegetables. Just remember that any of these salads should be your big meal of the day, and forget about eating another grain of salt until tomorrow (or the day after).

11. Burger King Tendercrisp Garden Salad
You have to love the adjectives they come up with, like “tendercrisp!” What exactly does that mean? If it’s the chicken they’re referring to, what that means is “Fried Whole Muscle Breast” as described in the ingredients list. I guess “tendercrisp” sounds more appealing than “fried whole muscle breast.” Add to that lettuce, carrots, tomatoes, and not one, not two, but three kinds of cheese–and you’ve got one-third of your calories for the day, over half of your fat allowance, and oopsie, you’re 17 percent over your sodium level.

Calories: 670
Total Fat (g): 45
Sat Fat (g): 9
Sodium (mg): 1740

10. Wendy’s Chicken BLT Salad with Homestyle Chicken Fillet
You could eat a regular BLT sandwich for around 400 calories, or you can eat this BLT salad for double the calories. Wendy’s boasts that “bacon, lettuce and tomato never had it so good”–that is, if bacon, lettuce, and tomato enjoy the company of chicken chunks,  cheddar cheese, garlic croutons and honey-dijon dressing. It seems to kind of take away from the simplicity, and relative healthiness, that is the BLT.

Calories: 790
Calories from Fat: 490
Total Fat (g): 54
Sat Fat (g): 14
Sodium (mg): 1690

9. Jack in the Box Crispy Chicken Club Salad
Seriously, why eat this salad? Lettuce with crispy chicken strips, cucumber slices, red onions, grape tomatoes, crumbled bacon pieces, shredded cheddar cheese, bacon ranch dressing and seasoned crouton–really?! You could eat a Jumbo Jack hamburger and small french fries for the same calorie count, decreased fat grams, and 727 less mg of sodium!

Calories: 873
Total Fat (g):  59
Sat Fat (g): 13
Sodium (mg): 2179

8. Taco Bell Chipotle Steak Taco Salad
It feels cheating to actually call this a salad. If you look at the ingredients, it’s realy a burrito, with the additional calories of the “crispy” (hello fried) bowl. In fact, the big Taco Bell “Beefy 5-Layer Burrito” has 350 calories less! Oh! But this comes with reduced-fat sour cream. Phew!

Calories: 900
Calories from Fat: 510
Total Fat (g): 57
Sat Fat (g): 11
Sodium (mg): 1700

7. Baja Fresh Mango Chipotle Chicken Salad
With “mango” and “salad” in the name of this item it sounds innocent enough–must be something about the tortilla shell, chicken, avocado, cheese and glaze that boosts this baby to the same calorie level you’d reach with four chicken soft tacos.

Calories: 930
Total Fat (g): 52
Sat Fat (g): 9
Sodium (mg): 1960

6. El Pollo Loco Chicken Tostada Salad
Can you guess which item on the entire El Pollo Loco menu has the second-highest calorie count? If you said the chicken tostada salad, gold star for you. I suppose the iceberg lettuce qualifies this as a salad? But the chopped chicken, tostada shell, pinto beans, Spanish rice, pico de gallo salsa, sour cream, and jack/cheddar cheese seem to kind of bump it out of the salad category, in my book at least. Oh, and the 62 grams of fat. Salad? Really?

Calories: 1030
Total Fat (g): 62
Sat Fat (g): 15
Sodium (mg): 1570

5. Ruby Tuesday Carolina Chicken Salad
Well at least there are garden greens and tomatoes in this one. But what with the fried chicken, almonds, diced tomatoes, shredded cheddar, bacon, and croutons, it’s not feeling very salad-y to me. And the nearly two-days’ worth of sodium just can’t be good.

Calories: 1157
Total Fat (g): 70
Sodium (mg): 2891

4. Applebee’s Santa Fe Chicken Salad
Applebee’s describes this little diddy as Real festive. Real good.” They forgot to add “Real fattening. Real salty.” The ironic part is that you could order their Chicken Fried Steak which comes with potatos, gravy and vegetable for 10 less calories. And notice that sodium? That’s the recommended limit for three days.

Calories: 1300
Total Fat (g): 94
Sat Fat (g): 25
Sodium (mg): 3540

3. Chili’s Quesadilla Explosion Salad
When I think of an explosion, my instinct says, “run away.” Instinct serves me correctly here. The danger here isn’t in the salad, per se, which is comprised of grilled chicken with cheese, corn relish, cilantro, tortillas strips and citrus-balsamic dressing–it’s that in addition to the cheese quesadillas served with the salad that should have us running for cover.

Calories: 1400
Total Fat (g): 88
Sat Fat (g): 26
Sodium (mg): 2360

2. Outback Steakhouse Queensland Salad
So you go to a steakhouse and decide to eat healthily, you order the salad with chicken, right? Hahahahaha! Somehow this salad of chicken with mixed greens, cheese, bacon, diced egg, tomatoes, toasted almonds and croutons manages to rack up more than two-thirds of your daily calorie needs, is over 30 percent more of your fat limit, and maxes out your sodium intake for the day. Maybe just order the steak?!

Calories: 1451
Total Fat (g): 117
Sat Fat (g): 30
Sodium (mg): 1477

1. California Pizza Kitchen Waldorf Chicken Salad
Waldorf chicken salad…doesn’t sound too bad for a healthy choice at a pizza and pasta joint. But somehow, field greens, grilled chicken breast, grapes, apples, candied walnuts, celery and Gorgonzola cheese have become the sinister sister of the salad world. A word to the wise here, the CPK Garlic Cream Fettucine with Chicken has almost 200 calories less, and believe it or not, the Cheeseburger Pizza and the Meat Cravers’ Pizza both have less calories! With salads like that, who needs pizza?

Calories: 1570
Sat Fat (g): 30
Sodium (mg): 2082

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Melissa Breyer

Melissa Breyer is a writer and editor with a background in sustainable living, specializing in food, science and design. She is the co-author of True Food (National Geographic) and has edited and written for regional and international books and periodicals, including The New York Times Magazine. Melissa lives in Brooklyn, NY.


+ add your own
6:29PM PDT on May 18, 2014

Thanks for sharing.

6:17PM PDT on May 18, 2014

never heard of any of those not even queensland one and i liev in australia

8:23AM PDT on May 22, 2013

Thank you for sharing.

7:53AM PDT on Oct 2, 2011

You mean people go to places like Burger King or Applebee's and believe anything they order there is going to be "healthy"?


If this is true, Americans have a truly frightening ability to fool themselves and/or are really ignorant about their food and how it's made..

6:03AM PDT on Oct 2, 2011


3:34AM PDT on Sep 3, 2011

Gee the article on the worst coffee drinks and this one on salads is tough.I love the fast food salads and those fun fattening coffee drinks!

5:47PM PDT on Sep 2, 2011

GO THE HOMEMADE SALAD - you know the old fashioned one with lettuce (of any kind), tomato, cucumber, olives, carrot,
fennell anything that comes from a vege patch... some extra virgin olive oil and balsamic vinigar - laughing...

10:38PM PDT on Sep 1, 2011

Another great article. Thanks for sharing, lost my appetite a bit

6:37PM PDT on Sep 1, 2011

Well, fast food and salads don't really mix well anyway in my opinion. So is it really a stretch that they are so bad?

6:57AM PDT on Aug 26, 2011

Great article. Thanks for sharing.

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