Andrea Skjold/ Istock
MYTH #1: IT'S JUST A SALAD!
There's nothing "just" about the 490 calories and 41 grams of fat in a Subway BMT salad with ranch dressing. That adds up to even more calories and fat than a Burger King Bacon Cheeseburger (360 calories, 18 grams of fat). At Ruby Tuesday, the Carolina Chicken Salad packs - brace yourself - 1,300 calories and 72 grams of fat (275 fewer without dressing).
MYTH #2: FAT-FREE DRESSING IS HEALTHIEST.
Not quite. You do save on calories when you take out the fat, but many such dressings are loaded with sugar - more than two teaspoons per serving - and offer zero nutrition. Plus, they block your ability to absorb the carotenoid antioxidants in salad greens and tomatoes - important compounds that reduce the risk of heart disease. In one study, people eating full-fat salad dressing absorbed twice the nutrients of those using reduced-fat dressing. Fat-free dressing allowed for virtually no absorption of these good guys.
MYTH #3: CELERY HAS NEGATIVE CALORIES, SO IT WILL COMPENSATE FOR THE EXTRA CHEESE!
At six calories per stalk, celery is unquestionably a weight-friendly food. Alas, the body doesn't expend more calories than that to chew and digest it, according to David Baer, Ph.D., a research physiologist at the USDA Beltsville Human Nutrition Research Center in Maryland. "No negative-calorie foods have been discovered yet," he says.
MYTH #4: LETTUCE IS LETTUCE.
Not when it comes to nutrition (or flavor): Arugula and watercress are superstars, loaded with cancer-fighting compounds. In fact, a chemical in watercress has been shown to deactivate one of the cancer-causing toxins in tobacco smoke. Spinach is another hero because of its cache of lutein, thought to protect against cancer and blindness. And baby versions of kale, mustard greens, and turnip greens are less sharp, tough, and bitter than the grown-ups but are outfitted with the same cancer-fighters. Dark-leaf, mild-tasting greens, including romaine, red-leaf lettuce, and many mesclun mixes, don't have a wealth of phytonutrients but have respectable levels of beta-carotene. Light greens, like iceberg and endive, are pretty much nutrition duds.
MYTH #5: GO FOR THE GREEN.
Colorful, all-vegetable salads offer good-for-you phytonutrients that aren't available in greens. For instance, powerful antioxidants (anthocyanins) in purplish vegetables such as eggplant help reduce heart-disease risk and improve brain function. Radishes offer cancer-fighting indoles; red tomatoes are the ultimate in lycopene, linked to lower risk of heart disease and cancer.
MYTH #6: GARBANZO BEANS GIVE ME A MEAL'S WORTH OF PROTEIN.
A ladleful (about 1/4 cup) provides roughly four grams of protein - not enough, if that's the only protein you're having in that meal. You need .36 grams per pound of body weight per day (so a 154-pound woman needs about 55 grams of protein daily). Get more by using 3/4 cup of beans - that's 11 grams of protein - plus 1/4 cup of chopped egg (four grams of protein) or 1/4 cup of shredded cheese (seven grams of protein).
MYTH #7: IF I ADD BACON, I MIGHT AS WELL HAVE ORDERED A BURGER.
Bacon won't ever win any health prizes -- in fact, nutritionists consider it a fat (and not a healthy fat!), as opposed to a meat. But it's not as bad as you might think. One slice, about 1 1/2 tablespoons crumbled, has about the same amount of fat as two tablespoons of feta or shredded cheese or one tablespoon of sunflower seeds. Just make sure you keep other fats, such as croutons or creamy dressing, out of your salad.
MYTH #8: YOU CAN'T GET FOOD POISONING FROM SALAD LIKE YOU CAN FROM BEEF OR CHICKEN.
"Lettuce, sprouts, and tomatoes are some of the most common carriers of salmonella, toxic strains of E. coli, and other harmful microbes," says Christopher Braden, M.D., at the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta. How do they get into your salad? From the manure and contaminated water they're grown in (suspected in last year's E. coli/spinach fatalities), from a dirty cutting board or knife, or from people touching the vegetables without washing their hands. Not much you can do about it when you're out, but at home, wash veggies under running water.
MYTH #9: ORGANIC SALAD IS HEALTHIER.
When it comes to nutrients, freshness matters more than an "organic" designation. Every day after they're picked, vegetables lose vitamin B, vitamin C, and other nutrients; heat and light speed the decline. A conventional head of lettuce that was picked yesterday will have retained lots more nutrients than an organic head of lettuce that's a week out of the fields. Of course, there are reasons to choose organic, but a nutrient bonus isn't one of them.