Best protein toppings for my salad?

Originally Published: January 17, 2014
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Dear Alice,

I'm having trouble sussing out which would be "better" to add to my salads: chicken or turkey? I know that turkey is supposed to be a lot leaner, which is great cause that's less fat, but I think chicken has higher protein content?

Or would tuna be the best option because it has a lot of omega-3s? But then I guess with tuna you also run the risk of high mercury content that you don't worry about when consuming poultry...

Or perhaps would adding hard-boiled eggs be the best alternative? I have a history of high cholesterol in my family though so I'm always wary of eating too many eggs in a day because I hear they're pretty high in cholesterol.

Hope you can help me sort out this little snafu!

- Pondering Protein

Dear Pondering Protein,

Everyone knows that the best part about hitting the salad bar is having free reign over all the toppings! As you know, when it comes to protein toppings for your salads, there’s a long list of options; but with so many options to choose from, it can be difficult to decide which ones are the healthiest. Ultimately, the “best” protein to add to your salad is the one that will satisfy your appetite and contribute to a balanced diet. So, while there’s no definitive answer as to which protein is the smartest choice, let’s discuss some things to consider before you dig into that salad.  

You are certainly correct that turkey is leaner than chicken. In fact, turkey has about two-thirds fewer calories per ounce! Turkey also contains less saturated fat, which is good for keeping your cholesterol down. While both chicken and turkey are excellent sources of protein, chicken contains almost double the amount of protein per ounce. Chicken also contains less sodium, which means it can help stabilize your blood pressure. So it really depends on what you’re looking for, especially when you take into account the other foods you’re eating throughout the day. It’s all about balance.

There are also trade-offs to consider with the other sources of proteins you mentioned. Tuna has less calories and fat than chicken, but it also has less protein. And, as you mentioned, tuna, depending on where it's from and whether it's fresh or from a can, can also contain mercury, so you will need to keep that in mind. Eggs contain less saturated fat, but are high in cholesterol. With a family history of high cholesterol, you might want to try egg whites instead or do the whole egg, just not every single day. Don’t forget that popular salad toppings like beans, nuts, and some grains are also great sources of protein, in addition to offering plenty of fiber, vitamins, and minerals. Just think about all the options: bulgur, quinoa, black beans, chickpeas, kidney beans, walnuts, almonds, lentils, tofu, tempeh — the list goes on and on. You can also add some protein to your salads in the way of a dressing. What about using hummus, cottage cheese, or a yogurt-based dressing?

Each option offers different pros and cons, so try switching it up to add variety to your diet. This will also keep you excited and looking forward to your meals. If you want to investigate further, check out the USDA National Nutrient Database, which will give you information about the nutritional content of all your favorite foods. If you’re a Columbia student, you may also want to check out the Get Balanced Guide for Healthier Eating.

Whichever protein you choose, keep eating those leafy greens!

Alice