Heading for the salad bar so you can inch into last year's bathing suit? Good for you. But watch out. You could be walking into a mine field filled with hidden caloric dangers if your selections are unwise.
"Dining at the salad bar can be healthful, but it can also supply you with more calories than you need," said registered dietitian Susan Magrann, media spokeswoman for the California Dietetic Assn.
Magrann pointed to several culprits at the salad bar that could defeat your intent to cut calories.
One of the offenders is salad dressing. Selecting salad dressings high in oil content can add dozens if not hundreds of calories: a ladle (4 tablespoons) of Italian dressing contains 332 calories. Thousand Island dressing has 320 calories and French dressing contains 264 calories. "And most people don't stop at one ladle," said Magrann.
If you're serious about cutting calories, use half or a quarter the amount of dressing mixed with additional vinegar or lemon juice; or use diet dressing, which contains about 40 calories per ladle or 10 per tablespoon, Magrann suggested.
Another low-calorie dressing substitute is salsa. Salsa contains only about 40 calories per ladle.
Other alternatives: lemon juice, wine vinegar or rice vinegar. No calories in any of these vinegars. Add herbs and soy sauce to any of the vinegars for a no-calorie dressing that tastes good.
Magrann also suggested that if you are watching calories strictly you should avoid dressings made with mayonnaise altogether, as they are excessively high in fat, having an oil and egg base.
"You will automatically avoid excess calories if you avoid foods high in fat," Magrann said.
Fat calories are more than double the calories of any other food category, Magrann pointed out. Fat calories are 9 calories per gram, while calories derived from fruits, vegetables and grains contain 4 calories per gram. (Alcohol calories are second highest with 7 calories per gram alcohol.)
Beware also of the type of salad you select when eating at the salad bar, cautions Magrann.
"Remember that many prepared salads, such as potato, macaroni, fruit and cooked-vegetable salads may contain mayonnaise or other creamy dressings, which are extremely high in fat.
"If you want to curb calories, stick to salads made exclusively with greens and raw vegetables, such as broccoli, mushrooms, cauliflower, alfalfa sprouts, cabbage, carrot, celery or cucumber, which range from 5 to 20 calories per 1/2 cup. Greens contain 10 to 14 calories per cup.
"If you add meat or seafood to the salad, choose less fatty meats, such as chicken, turkey or fish, and limit the amount to 3 to 4 ounces or less if other protein foods (cheese or eggs) are added.
"If you use cheeses, select those that are less calorie-rich, such as feta, Jack and Swiss. Natural fresh cheeses, such as cottage, farmer and pot cheeses are relatively low in calories if made with low-fat milk, but they, too, can add excess calories if you load up. Cottage cheese has 24 calories per ounce (about 2 tablespoons), but one tends to eat cottage cheese by the cup, not ounce. Each cup contains 125 calories. A cup of whipped cottage cheese contains about half the calories. Most cheeses such as blue, Roquefort, brick, Swiss, Cheddar and Camembert contain from 85 to 113 calories per ounce, with Camembert the lowest and Cheddar the highest.
Some prepared salads are less caloric than others, said Magrann, who studied the menus of several salad bar restaurants.
Rice curry salad contains 64 calories per 1/2 cup, a three-bean salad 52 calories, cucumber and tomato salads have 47 calories, but carrot and chiles only 23 calories.
Other high-fat items to void in excess: guacamole, banana chips, coconut, croutons, bacon bits, cheese and olives. There are 35 calories in only five olives, cautions Magrann.
Cast a wary eye on the baked goods served at a salad bar if you are trying to cut calories. And watch out for the muffins, especially. A bran muffin contains 373 calories. Others, such as blueberry, oatmeal, carrot-pineapple, apple-nut, orange, banana-nut and zucchini, range from 248 to 324 calories each.
Instead of bread, choose crackers. A slice of bread contains 70 calories, while saltines or other wheat crackers tally up to 25 for two.
And you should pass up the butter too. Butter and other spreads also add high calories to a salad bar meal. Calories can add up to 67 per tablespoon for whipped butter, 52 calories per tablespoon for cream cheese. If you must have butter, go for the precut or packaged pat of butter, which contains 36 calories.
Stick with fresh fruit and avoid fruit salad mixed with cream, sour cream or mayonnaise. The chances are you can save 100 or more calories by simply choosing fresh melons, oranges, pineapple, apples, kiwi and grapes, which range in calories from 35 to 70 calories per half cup, compared to 140 to 280 calories for fruit mixed with dressing. For instance, a Waldorf salad contains 280 calories, an ambrosia salad 191 per half cup.