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Despite popular belief, a salad can be as dangerous to your diet as a Big Mac

WASHINGTON—You just can't go wrong with a salad.

It's a common assumption to make, nutritionists say, but in truth, salad bars can be as dangerous to your diet as fast-food restaurants.

"I just have to cringe sometimes because I know people think they're doing the right thing," said Dr. Elizabeth Pivonka, a registered dietitian and the president of the Produce for Better Health Foundation in Wilmington, Del. "But when you put Jell-O and pudding with your salad, it doesn't count."

Salad bars have gained enormous popularity in the last few years as the healthiest option for eating out, but as the market grows more competitive, the salads have grown more extravagant—and less healthful.

Here's how to avoid extra pounds:

_ No matter what the scale of the salad bar, the most important items to load up on are fruits and vegetables, which have few calories. Just don't cheat and add any sort of dressing or sauce; they're freebies only on their own.

_ The more vibrant the color of the food, the more vitamins it has in it, said Tom Miner, principal at Technomic, a Chicago consulting firm for food-service companies. So look for greens that look vibrant to ensure they're fresh.

_ Avoid the cheese, said Dr. Amy Lanou, a senior nutrition scientist at the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, a nonprofit organization. "Everyone hates me for this" recommendation, she added, so if you can't resist, take only a small amount.

_ Try to avoid drowning salads in dressings or sauces. "It's the salad dressing that kills you lots of times," Pivonka said. If you think no salad is complete without dressing, avoid the creamier ones. Vinegar-based dressings such as thai vinaigrette are tasty and better for you. Or get dressing on the side so you can control how much you eat and add vinegar or lemon to cut the fat content, suggested Lisa Talamini, the chief nutritionist and program director for the weight-loss company Jenny Craig.

_ Skip mayonnaise-based salads, such as potato or egg salad. If you must have them, continue with Talamini's "dilution" game. Add a few more vegetables or stick the salad in a tomato so you'll reduce the number of calories you consume from the salad.

_ Skipping the bacon bits, but still want to add flavor? "Reinvent your salads with the season," Talamini said, and go for the fruit. Try spinach with strawberries in the summer, pears and apples in the fall.

_ Portion size is everything. Everyone loves croutons, but in terms of flavor, a few can go a long way. Other items that are a bit higher in calories include beans, peas, olives, tuna, chicken and hardboiled eggs, so eat those in moderate amounts. On the other hand, if you're eating the right kind of salad, it's almost impossible to go overboard. "You can hurt yourself by eating too much, but very, very, very few people will hurt themselves on salad. Most of the raw vegetables are so low in calories you can get away with what seems like an enormous amount but not get as many calories as you will from a piece of lasagna," Lanou said.

_ Be the first in line. "We're far less likely to be influenced by others. Managing a salad bar is partly about the mindset you bring to it," Talamini said.

Nutritionists agree that consumers should be wary of the myths surrounding salad diets, but they say the salad bar can be a powerful tool if controlled.

"If you make the right salad, you can in fact better manage your weight," Talamini said.

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CALORIE COUNTS

Here are rough calorie counts for some of the most common things on salad bars, from the Web site CalorieKing.com:

Dressings: From about 65 calories per tablespoon for French, Italian and Russian to about 90 per tablespoon for ranch

Carrot raisin salad without dressing: 20 calories per 6-ounce serving

Coleslaw: 150 calories per 6-ounce serving

Cottage cheese: 120 calories per half-cup

Egg salad: 345 calories per 4-ounce serving

Greek salad: 120 calories per cup

Mixed salad with vegetables such as lettuce, spinach, celery, onion, radishes, bell peppers, sprouts, zucchini, broccoli, cauliflower (no dressing): 35 calories per cup

Pasta salad: 160 calories per half-cup

Tortellini with pesto: 170 calories per 6-ounce serving

Bean salads: 110 calories per half-cup

Bacon bits: 30 calories per tablespoon

Bac'Os: 20 calories per tablespoon

Croutons: 20 calories per tablespoon

Hard-boiled egg: 13 calories per tablespoon

Parmesan cheese: 25 calories per tablespoon

Fresh apple slices: 105 calories per half-cup

Canned peaches, in juice: 55 calories per half-cup

Canned pears, in juice: 60 calories per half-cup

Canned pineapple, in juice: 75 calories per half-cup

Fresh strawberries: 20 calories per half-cup

Peas: 70 calories per half-cup

Sunflower seeds: 175 calories per ounce

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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