How many calories are in a bowl of plain salad?

Salad is a nutritious and low-calorie food choice that can help you lose weight or maintain a healthy weight. However, the calories in a salad can vary widely depending on the ingredients you use. A basic bowl of plain lettuce salad without any additions is very low in calories. But once you start adding ingredients like vegetables, cheese, nuts, seeds, croutons, dressing, etc., the calories quickly add up.

Quick Answer

A bowl of plain salad made with only lettuce and no other ingredients contains about 20 calories. A bowl of plain green leaf lettuce salad weighing 100 grams (3.5 oz) has around 15 calories. Romaine lettuce, also known as cos lettuce, has slightly more calories providing around 17 calories per 100 grams. Other common lettuce varieties like iceberg and red leaf lettuce have about 14-16 calories per 100 grams.

Calories in Different Types of Lettuce

Let’s look at the calories and nutritional profile of some common types of lettuce:

Type of Lettuce Calories per 100g
Romaine Lettuce 17
Iceberg Lettuce 14
Green Leaf Lettuce 15
Red Leaf Lettuce 16

As you can see from the table, most lettuce varieties provide around 15-17 calories per 100 grams. Since a typical salad bowl contains around 100-150 grams of lettuce, it will provide about 20-25 calories without any other ingredients.

Nutrition Facts of Lettuce

All types of lettuce are low in calories because they are high in water and low in fat. Here is the nutritional value of romaine lettuce per 100 grams (Source: USDA):

  • Calories: 17
  • Protein: 1.2 g
  • Carbs: 2.97 g
  • Sugar: 1.34 g
  • Fiber: 1.6 g
  • Fat: 0.3 g
  • Water: 95 g
  • Vitamin A: 334 IU
  • Vitamin C: 5.9 mg
  • Calcium: 33 mg
  • Iron: 0.97 mg
  • Potassium: 247 mg

As you can see, lettuce is almost entirely water and carbs by weight, and contains minimal fat, protein and calories. It provides some fiber, vitamins A, C, K and folate as well as minerals like potassium and manganese.

Factors That Increase Calories in a Salad

While plain lettuce salad is very low in calories, adding other ingredients can significantly boost the calorie count. Here are some of the factors that can increase the calories in your salad:

  • Dressings: Creamy dressings like ranch, caesar, blue cheese, etc. can add 150-300 calories per serving.
  • Cheese: Just 30 grams (1 oz) of cheddar cheese can add about 115 calories.
  • Meat: 2 oz (50 grams) of grilled chicken breast adds 110 calories. Same amount of bacon can add 150 calories.
  • Nuts and seeds: An ounce of nuts like walnuts, almonds or peanuts can add 160-170 calories.
  • Dried fruits: Adding 2 tablespoons of dried fruits like raisins, cranberries or cherries contributes about 60 calories.
  • Croutons: A 1/2 cup of croutons can add 140 calories.
  • Oil-based salad dressings: 2 tablespoons of oil adds 120 calories.
  • Avocado: One-half of a medium avocado contributes about 120 calories.

To make your salad lower in calories, go easy on high-calorie ingredients like cheese, dried fruits, nuts, croutons and creamy dressings. Opt for low-calorie additions like cucumbers, tomatoes, bell peppers, carrots, onions, mushrooms, etc.

Calories in Common Salad Add-Ins

Salad Add-In Calories
Ranch Dressing, 2 Tbsp 150
Caesar Dressing, 2 Tbsp 130
Cheddar Cheese, 1 oz 115
Grilled Chicken, 2 oz 110
Bacon Bits, 2 Tbsp 60
Chopped Walnuts, 1 oz 185
Dried Cranberries, 2 Tbsp 60
Croutons, 1/2 cup 140
Olive Oil, 1 Tbsp 120
Avocado, 1/2 medium 120

As you can see from the table, even small amounts of high-calorie salad toppings can quickly spike up the calories. To keep your salad low in calories, drizzle salads with a tablespoon of olive oil or lemon juice instead of creamy dressings, go easy on dried fruits, nuts, cheeses and croutons, and emphasize vegetables over other high-calorie toppings.

Low Calorie Salad Dressing Options

Instead of drenching your salad in creamy high-calorie dressings, try these lower calorie options:

  • 2 tablespoons Balsamic Vinaigrette – 50 calories
  • 2 tablespoons Italian Dressing – 70 calories
  • 1 tablespoon Olive Oil with herbs and garlic – 120 calories
  • 2 tablespoons Red Wine Vinegar – 0 calories
  • 2 tablespoons Rice Vinegar – 0 calories
  • 2 tablespoons Apple Cider Vinegar – 0 calories
  • 2 tablespoons Lemon Juice – 8 calories
  • 2 tablespoons Lime Juice – 20 calories

Making your own simple vinaigrette with three parts oil to one part vinegar or lemon juice is an easy way to add flavor without a lot of calories. Herbs, garlic, mustard, salt and pepper can add more punch of flavor.

Low Calorie Vegetables to Add to Salads

Make your salad more filling yet low in calories by piling on non-starchy vegetables like:

  • Tomatoes
  • Cucumbers
  • Carrots
  • Bell peppers
  • Mushrooms
  • Radishes
  • Broccoli
  • Cauliflower
  • Celery
  • Zucchini
  • Onions
  • Spinach
  • Kale
  • Cabbage
  • Asparagus

One cup of any non-starchy vegetable will add less than 50 calories to your salad. So you can add volume and variety of flavors and textures without spiking calories.

Low Calorie Protein Sources for Salads

To make your salad more satisfying, add some protein from these lean options:

  • 2 oz Grilled Chicken Breast – 110 calories
  • 2 oz Roasted Turkey Breast – 60 calories
  • 2 oz Tuna – 50 calories
  • 1 Hard Boiled Egg – 80 calories
  • 1/4 cup Chickpeas – 60 calories
  • 2 tablespoons Hummus – 50 calories

Tips to Keep Salad Low in Calories

Follow these tips to enjoy salads without busting your calorie budget:

  • Use lettuce or mixed greens as the base.
  • Choose low-calorie dressings like vinaigrettes or lemon juice.
  • Load up on non-starchy vegetables.
  • Add lean protein sources like chicken breast, fish or beans.
  • Avoid bacon bits, croutons, crackers and tortilla strips.
  • Limit high-calorie toppings like cheese, nuts and avocado.
  • Use small amount of dried fruits like raisins, cranberries or cherries.
  • Avoid cream-based dressings like ranch, caesar and blue cheese.
  • Measure salad toppings to control portions.
  • Enjoy salads as a side, not a full meal.

Calorie Saving Salad Hacks

Here are some simple tricks to shave off calories from your salads:

  • Swap iceberg lettuce for nutrient-dense greens like kale, spinach or arugula.
  • Rinse high-fat ingredients like bacon bits, croutons, cheeses under cold water to remove some fat.
  • Dip your fork in dressing then spear salad rather than pouring dressing on top.
  • Mix Greek yogurt with mustard and herbs as lower calorie substitute for creamy dressings.
  • Squeeze fresh lemon, lime, orange instead of vinaigrette or oil-based dressings.
  • Swap candied nuts for plain unsalted nuts to save sugar and calories.
  • Use half the amount of shredded cheese and nuts.
  • Swap fried wonton strips for baked wonton strips.

Frequently Asked Questions

How many calories should a salad have?

The calories in a salad can range widely from 20 calories for a plain lettuce salad to 500-600 calories for a loaded salad with lots of high-calorie toppings and dressing. To keep your salad calories in check:

  • A side salad should contain 100-150 calories
  • A main dish salad containing lean protein and other vegetables can go up to 300-400 calories.

What are some low calorie salad dressing options?

Some low calorie salad dressing choices include:

  • Vinaigrettes – 50-70 calories per 2 Tbsp
  • Lemon or Lime Juice – 8-20 calories per 2 Tbsp
  • Red Wine Vinegar – 0 calories per 2 Tbsp
  • Rice Vinegar – 0 calories per 2 Tbsp
  • Herb infused Olive Oil – 120 calories per Tbsp

Avoid cream-based ranch, caesar, blue cheese, thousand island and other creamy dressings as they are very high in calories.

What are the lowest calorie salad toppings?

Some of the lowest calorie salad toppings include:

  • Cucumbers
  • Tomatoes
  • Carrots
  • Bell peppers
  • Mushrooms
  • Radishes
  • Zucchini
  • Onions
  • Spinach
  • Kale

Most non-starchy vegetables will add less than 25 calories per cup to your salad.

How can I make my salad more filling without added calories?

Try these tips to make your salad more satiating:

  • Add fiber-rich veggies like broccoli, artichokes, peas
  • Include lean protein such as grilled chicken, tuna, chickpeas
  • Don’t skimp on healthy fats like olive oil, avocado
  • Add quinoa or brown rice for whole grains
  • Chop veggies instead of shredding for more volume
  • Don’t dress your entire salad, just a portion

The Bottom Line

A plain salad made with just lettuce contains only about 20 calories in a single serving bowl. However, calories can add up quickly once you start adding cheese, meat, nuts, dressings and other higher calorie toppings. To keep your salad low in calories, load up on non-starchy vegetables, use minimum dressing, and limit high-calorie toppings. With some simple tweaks and swaps, you can enjoy flavorful and satisfying salads without sabotaging your healthy diet.

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