Springfield News-Leader reports that salad bars can be as dangerous to your diet as fast-food restaurants if you aren’t careful.
“I don’t think people realize that with portion sizes, if you add all the items up, you can add on the calories,” said Jenny Gardner, a registered and licensed dietitian with CoxHealth.
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. Salad bar consumers may run into something more dangerous than calories: bacteria or viruses that can lead to illness.

So, before you hit the salad bar, nutritionists urge consumers to choosehealthful ingredients served at the proper temperatures.
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. Health guidelines call for five to nine servings of fruit and vegetables a day, which a salad can satisfy.
Good choices, nutritionists say, are lettuce leaves, spinach leaves, cantaloupe, cucumbers and peas. The more vibrant the color of the food, the more vitamins it has in it. So look for greens with bright colors to ensure they’re fresh.
Nancy Day, owner of the Wellspring, a vegan restaurant, said she selects leaflettuce over iceberg because “leaf lettuce is more digestible.”
Watch the dressings. Gardner says one small ladle of blue cheese or ranchdressing could contain 15 grams of fat. If you give yourself three ladles, that’s 45 grams in one topping.
Day said a good way to cut down on salad dressing it to try dipping your forkinto the dressing before you pick up the food.
“It coats the tines,” Day said. “I have cut my salad dressing use by way overhalf. For a long time I thought, ‘That’s silly, I wouldn’t get enough dressing,’ but you do get a little burst of taste with every bite. It really does work.”
Gardner likes to use cottage cheese as a dressing.
“I don’t add a crazy amount, but I’m getting a good source of protein and calcium.”
If the salad is your meal, get proteins through beans and lean sources of meat, suggested Gardner.
Daphne Smith, a registered and licensed dietitian with Hammons Heart Institute, suggests skipping regular cheese or at least limiting it.
“The reason is there is probably going to be a lot of saturated fat, probably sodium and calories,” Smith said.
Another method of calorie control: avoid mayonnaise-based salads like macaroni salads or pasta salads, suggests Gardner.
Skipping the bacon bits, but still want to add flavor?
“Reinvent your salads with the season,” suggested Lisa Talamini, the chief nutritionist and program director for the weight-loss company Jenny Craig. Go for the fruit. Try spinach with strawberries in the summer, pears and apples in the fall.
Portion size is everything. If a salad bar hands you a large dinner plate, ask for a smaller plate, Gardner suggests.
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.
A local health inspector says consumers must carefully consider the food dangers of salad bars. Unlike food that is prepared to order for individual customers, food bars and salad bars can have a greater risk of making someone ill because the food sits out for long periods, said Ron Lawson, public health investigator.
Foods that sit too long at temperatures that are either too hot or too cold can cause bacteria to grow, he added.
Inspectors look for cold food to be stored at below 41 to 45 degrees. Hot food should be over 140 degrees.
Restaurants may opt to keep food on time control rather than temperature control. That means an establishment may serve food at room temperature for up to four hours, but staff must keep precise records of when each item was placed out.
For your health, Lawson suggests you be a pro-active customer.
“If you suspect it’s not hot enough, you can ask (the restaurant staff) ‘Is this food on temperature control, or time control?’ If they say it’s on time control, ask to see documentation on that food, which will show what time the food should be discarded. If they can’t show that and its obviously not hot enough, it’s most obviously in violation,” Lawson said.
For restaurants using temperature control, food containers typically sit in ice packs or have contact with heating elements, he explained. Consumers should look carefully to see if a food bar is overloaded with food heaping up beyond the food container. Such foods are in danger of loosing heat or warming up too fast.
“There’s any number of bacteria that could grow if it is in the danger zone between 41 up to 140. But there is a lag period in there, that’s the reason they allow four-hour time control,” Lawson explained.
The most common bacterial causes of food poisoning are staphylococcus, listeria, and campylobacter and salmonella, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Staphylococcus is found on hands and noses. If enough of this bacteria is allowed to multiply, increasing a food’s heat won’t stop you from getting sick.
It can cause vomiting and diarrhea within two hours of ingestion.
Listeria can be found in salads because it can grow when a temperature is close to refrigeration levels, said Lawson. But lower temperatures slow growth, protecting consumers. A person with listeria can experience fever, muscle aches and gastrointestinal symptoms, such as nausea or diarrhea.
Campylobacter, often found in raw poultry, can cause diarrhea, cramping, abdominal pain, and fever within two to five days after ingestion.
Salmonella can be transmitted on unwashed fruit or in bad meat. It can cause diarrhea, fever, abdominal cramps and headache.
Though bacteria is a culprit for food poisoning, 60 percent food poisonings around the country are caused by viruses, Lawson said.
“A lot of times we will do tests on food trying to find something, and a lot of times there’s just nothing there. We’d assume there was a virus,” Lawson explained.
Although Lawson can’t remember any serious local food poisoning in recent years traced to local salad bars, there have been some in other parts of the country that have sent customers to the hospital, he said.
“Most of the illnesses are self-limiting, they run their course, and people get well.”