It's lunchtime. You're hungry, you don't have a lot of time and you're trying to eat healthy. You splurged yesterday, so you feel like that means you should eat a salad today. But, you also really just want to eat a sandwich.
It's easy to spin your wheels about what's actually considered healthy vs. unhealthy. So, when it comes to your daily lunchtime dilemma, is a salad really always the healthiest option?
Leslie Ramirez, clinical dietitian at Houston Methodist, says that both can be healthy (and unhealthy) options — it all just depends on how you build each.
"At the end of a meal, your stomach feels full based on the volume that fills it up, not the calories," explains Ramirez. "With either a sandwich or a salad, there's plenty of opportunity to increase volume without increasing calories. So, done correctly, a sandwich doesn't have to an unhealthy choice at all."
5 tips for building a healthy salad or sandwich
Ramirez says that the three nutrients that help fill us up, without adding in too many extra calories, are:
- Nonstarchy veggies
This means that finding ways to include plenty of these three items into every meal can help increase the healthfulness of your meal and limit the total calories.
Here are five tips that can help make any sandwich or salad a healthy option.
1. Go high-fiber to help fill yourself up
When it comes to eating healthy and losing or maintaining weight, we probably don't talk about fiber enough.
"Fiber is a great way to add bulk (or volume) to a meal, helping you to feel full by the time you're finished," Ramirez explains. "In addition, fiber expands and stays in your stomach longer than most other foods, helping you feel fuller for a longer period of time after your meal."
How to go high-fiber in your sandwich: Skip the white bread and choose 100% whole wheat, whole grain, sourdough, oat or flax bread instead.
How to go high-fiber in your salad: Rather than adding croutons, toss in a serving of beans, lentils or quinoa.
2. Pack in plenty of lean protein
"I find that people don't add enough protein to their sandwiches and salads," adds Ramirez. "If you don't include enough protein in your meal, you'll be way more tempted to overeat on carbs in an effort to feel full."
(Related: How Much Protein Do You Need?)
But, Ramirez says you shouldn't add just any meat to your sandwich or salad. It should be one of the following types of lean meat:
- Lean roast beef
- Pork or beef tenderloin
Eating lean protein ensures that you get plenty of protein, without the extra calories that are present in fattier options. This means you'll want to avoid meats like bacon, pastrami, salami or steak.
If you follow a plant-based diet, don't fret. You can also make sure your meal has plenty of protein by adding egg slices or hummus to your sandwich or beans or quinoa to your salad.
How to pack protein into your sandwich: Add more protein than you probably think you need — a good 3 to 4 ounces.
How to pack protein into your salad: In addition to your main protein source, add nuts or seeds for extra protein, while also getting back some of that crunch you lost when you ditched the croutons.
3. There's no such thing as too many nonstarchy veggies
Did you know that only 9% of us eat enough vegetables every day? Yikes.
"We all need to incorporate a lot more veggies into our diets, and sandwiches and salads are both a great opportunity to do just that," says Ramirez. "Nonstarchy veggies are not only low in calories, but they're also a great way to add a ton of volume to your meal."
And remember, your level of fullness is dictated by the volume you eat — not the calories.
"It is important to know the difference between starchy and nonstarchy vegetables," warns Ramirez. "Starchy veggies are higher in carbs and common examples include potatoes, corn and green peas. Beans and lentils are also considered starchy veggies, but these come with added health benefits like extra fiber and protein."
How to add plenty of non-starchy veggies to your sandwich: Admittedly, it may be harder to keep all of the layers together, but try to add plenty of lettuce, tomato, bell pepper and sprouts.
How to add plenty of non-starchy veggies to your salad: Don't be afraid to "taste the rainbow" by choosing veggies that add a range of color, such as tomatoes, cucumbers, carrots, bell peppers and mushrooms.
4. Choose healthy fats and complex carbs
Carbs should make up about 40 to 50% of your daily food intake, while healthy fats should fall somewhere between 15 to 30%. But, since both carbs and fat tend to be very delicious, it's easy to overdo it on both at just about every meal.
"When it comes to fats, focus on portion control and choosing healthy fats over the not-so-healthy alternatives," says Ramirez. "Healthy fats are rich in monounsaturated and/or polyunsaturated fats and include things like olive oil, nuts and seeds, avocado and many types of fish. Not-so-healthy fats are rich in saturated fats and typically come in the form of meat and dairy products."
In addition, Ramirez adds that a slice of sandwich bread is a single serving of carbs in itself. Since you'll probably be using two slices, be aware that your sandwich is already two servings of carbs right off the bat.
"There's nothing wrong with having two servings of carbs with your lunch, but keep in mind that whole grain bread — which is full of healthy complex carbs — will help you feel fuller longer than white bread — which is mostly made of refined, not-so-healthy simple carbs," explains Ramirez. "If you're trying to cut down on carbs, there are plenty of low-carb bread options that can help keep your two slices of bread to a single serving of carbs."
How to sub healthy carbs and healthy fats into your sandwich: Your bread choice can help you feel fuller longer or cut down on carbs, and it's best to sub that cheese you're used to for avocado and full-fat mayo for light mayo.
How to sub healthy carbs and healthy fats into your salad: Choose a carb source that's also high-fiber and high-protein, like beans, lentils or quinoa, and toss your salad with olive-oil-based salad dressing.
5. Rethink your side and beverage
After you've crafted a healthy sandwich or salad, don't undo all of your great choices by choosing a side that's high in saturated fat, refined carbs and salt (like chips), and then washing everything down with a sugary, empty calories (like a soft drink).
"That 150-calorie can of soda doesn't contribute to your sense of fullness," warns Ramirez. "And if you do want to have a side of chips, limit yourself by pre-portioning about 10 to 15 chips and saving the rest of the bag for later."
A lot goes into making healthy food choices day in and day out. Whichever way you're leaning during you lunchtime dilemma, just know that there's a way to make both a sandwich or a salad healthy.