Best protein toppings for my salad?

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’ve described, when it comes to protein toppings for your salads, there’s a long list of options. Though, with so many options to choose from, it can be difficult to decide which ones are the most nutritious. 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, keep reading for some things to consider before you dig into that salad.  

First, to speak in comparable terms, consider the similarities and differences between a three ounce serving of roasted chicken breast and the same size serving of roasted turkey breast. Here’s how they stack up nutritionally:

  • Protein: Chicken — 25 grams ; Turkey — 24 grams
  • Calories: Chicken  — 170; Turkey  — 160
  • Total fat: Chicken — 7 grams; Turkey — 6 grams
  • Saturated fat: Chicken — 2 grams; Turkey — 2 grams
  • Sodium: Chicken  — 60 milligrams; Turkey — 55 milligrams
  • Cholesterol: Chicken  — 70 milligrams; Turkey — 60 milligrams

Adapted from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).

As you can see, these two poultry options are pretty similar in nutrient values. That being the case, choosing between the two really depends on what you’re looking for and your personal preferences, especially when you take into account the other foods you’re eating throughout the day. It’s all about balance.

Make room on your plate though, as 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. On the plus side, it is a source of omega-3 fatty acids. 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 keep that in mind. How 'bout those hard-boiled eggs? You’re right that they do contain dietary cholesterol, but limiting foods high in saturated fat and that contain trans fat is the current advice to keep cholesterol ratios healthy.

But wait, there's more! Don’t forget that popular salad additions such as 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. You can also speak with a registered dietitian about your specific protein needs and how to best incorporate rich sources into your diet.

Whichever protein you choose, keep eating those leafy greens!

Last updated Mar 10, 2017
Originally published Jan 17, 2014

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