It happens all the time: A group of people are at a restaurant, deciding what to order, when someone proudly proclaims that they’ll ‘just have a salad.’ So they go ahead and order their Grilled Chicken Winter Brie Salad, completely unaware of the fact that what they’re eating contains 200 more calories than the half-pound cheeseburger. But that’s the story at Longhorn Steakhouse, where that salad contains a whopping 990 calories and 51 grams of fat. And that’s on the lower end of the chain salad calorie spectrum! We tracked down the salads with the most fat and calories at 10 chain restaurants, and you might be surprised by just how unhealthy some of these salads really are.
When we think of a salad, many of us think of the run-of-the-mill variety: some lettuce, cucumbers, tomatoes, and maybe a couple other vegetables, tossed with some sort of dressing. And while those are certainly still commonplace, if you head to a chain restaurant those simple salads are usually offered only as a side, and a dinky one at that. If you want a main-course salad, expect to consume just as many calories as plenty of other, non-salad menu items.
But why is that? Isn’t a salad just vegetables and dressing? Well, not really. Fat is flavor, and chains are pumping their salads full of unhealthy stuff in order to make them taste as good as possible. So they add in fried chicken, cheese, nuts, and all sorts of other calorie-rich stuff to boost the flavor and variety. When it comes to dressings, one tablespoon can contain up to 14 grams of fat and 100 calories, and they certainly don’t skimp on that, either: many entrée salads can contain up to 7 tablespoons of the stuff, which can also be full of sugar.
Another major reason why chain salads contain so many calories is portion size. These salads are gigantic, served in bowls that are comically large, and diners want to make sure that each bite contains all the good stuff, like fried chicken and cheese, so the kitchens make sure to load it up.
We used the restaurants’ online listings to find our totals, but interestingly enough, chains like Cheesecake Factory and Cracker Barrel choose to not post their nutrition info online, and some, like the Hard Rock Café, only list calories, so don’t be surprised if Cheesecake Factory salads pack in even more calories than you might expect.
So the next time you’re at a chain restaurant and you think you’ll go light and just have a salad, take a minute and think about what’s actually in your bowl. If there’s anything fried, any cheese, and sugary little things like dried cranberries, and a full-fat dressing, you might want to think again. Ask them to exclude a couple of the heavier items, and see if they can substitute grilled chicken for fried, or low-fat dressing (an even better option is straight balsamic vinegar and olive oil on the side). Click here to learn what the unhealthiest chain salad in America is; the answer might surprise you!
Dan Myers is the Eat/Dine Editor at The Daily Meal. Follow him on Twitter @sirmyers.