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Healthy Living: Salad Savvy

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Harvey Dixon is trying to lose weight and win a bet.

The 30-year-old Atlantan and three friends are competing to see who can shed the most pounds in three months. The prize: $2.50 for each pound lost. Dixon's strategy is simple --- eat right and exercise. He walks from his downtown office to the CNN Center to grab a quick bite for lunch. Bypassing the burgers, he opts for one of the new "Garden Sensations" salads from Wendy's.

To attract health-conscious consumers like Dixon, many fast-food chains have added a variety of entree-sized salads to their menus. But just because it's served on a bed of lettuce, instead of a bun, doesn't necessarily mean a salad is better for you. Calories and fat from unexpected sources add up and can sabotage well-intentioned dieters.

Arby's Market Fresh Chicken Finger salad, which has breaded chicken strips, Roma tomatoes, cucumber, red onion and cheddar cheese on romaine lettuce, has 570 calories and 34 grams of fat, even before you add the dressing. For the same level of calories and fat, you could have a McDonald's Big Mac. If you add dressing to your Chicken Finger salad, say Caesar, you pile on an additional 310 calories and 34 grams of fat. You could have a small order of McDonald's french fries with your burger and the whole meal would still be lower in calories and fat --- albeit without the extra nutritional bonus raw veggies provide.

Aside from the dressing, one big calorie boosting culprit is the battered and fried chicken. In Arby's Chicken Finger salad, that accounts for 84 percent of the total calories and fat before adding the dressing. In general, chicken is good for you, says Hans Hammer, a registered dietitian and nutrition consultant with the state of Georgia. It's low in calories and fat and an excellent source of protein.

But the way chicken is prepared, processed and preserved makes a big difference, he says. Grilled or baked chicken is a healthier choice than anything fried. Arby's also has salads with grilled chicken, as does Chick-fil-A, McDonald's and Wendy's.

Another factor to consider is the sodium content, says Hammer. Although most meat is naturally low in sodium, salt is frequently used in preservatives, he says. So processed meats tend to have a higher sodium content; just how high may surprise you.

Dixon was shocked by the amount of sodium in his Southwest Chicken Caesar salad. Even though he skipped the croutons and used only half of the dressing, the salad alone has 1,280 milligrams of sodium, more than half the maximum recommended daily amount.

The Food and Drug Administration recommends that people consume no more than 2,400 milligrams, or about a teaspoon, of sodium per day. Hammer says most Americans eat too much. A salty diet can lead to high blood pressure, increasing the risk of heart disease and stroke.

The ideal salad should have dark green lettuce, which has more nutrients than paler varieties, and colorful vegetables such as tomatoes, peppers and cabbage. "The more colorful the salad, the better," Hammer says. He recommends avoiding processed foods and reading the labels on dressings, which can have anywhere from 50 up to 100 or more calories per serving. By the same token, he warns, beware of "light" dressings, which may be higher in sodium.

Unsalted nuts and seeds added to salads are a good source of protein and have no cholesterol, although they are high in fat. And legumes such as garbanzo or kidney beans can make a salad heartier because they're high in fiber, are a good protein source, and stick with you longer.

Dixon says he tends to feel hungrier toward dinnertime when he has just a salad for lunch, but he snacks on a granola bar to keep cravings at bay. Dixon says his weight goal is 180 pounds. "But I don't know if that'll happen," he said. He started three weeks ago at 212; right now he's at about 200. Dixon plans to start jogging and keep eating salads.

Copyright 2003 The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

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