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Salads are commonly hailed as the epitome of healthy eating — thought to be low in calories, low-carb and nutrient-dense. 

"Some sneaky culprits, however, can turn your healthy meal into a calorie-laden dish," said Nikki Kuhlmann, RD, LDN, a registered dietitian with Anne Till Nutrition Group in Raleigh, North Carolina.

To find out more about how calories may be hiding and adding up in your leafy salad greens, three registered dietitians weighed in on what the culprits are and why they pose a problem.

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They also shared suggestions for healthier alternatives. 

Here are six areas worth watching.  

1. Salad dressings

You may believe that choosing a salad for lunch and dinner almost guarantees a low-calorie and healthy meal choice, but the wrong salad dressing can shift your meal to one with more calories than expected. 

Stay clear of creamy dressings, said Julie Lopez, RD, with Virtual Teaching Kitchen Succasunna, New Jersey. 

Salad and woman eating salad

You may have prepared an amazingly healthy and delicious salad — but the wrong dressing could shift your meal to one with unexpected calories. Here's what to know — and to make the wisest choices.? (iStock)

Even too much dressing can be a sneaky trap, too. 

"You can always add more dressing, but you can’t take it away," she said.

"Some [people] recommend dipping your fork in the dressing, but I personally like to toss it all together. So I like to add a little and toss it so it lightly coats it."

"A healthier way to go is to make your own dressing using olive oil, vinegar or lemon juice, and a touch of mustard or honey for flavor."

Also, store-bought dressings are loaded with sugar, unhealthy fats and preservatives, warned Kuhlmann with Anne Till Nutrition Group. 

Even "light" or "fat-free" versions can be high in sugars and additives to compensate for the lack of fat, she said. 

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"A healthier way to go is to make your own dressing using olive oil, vinegar or lemon juice, and a touch of mustard or honey for flavor," Kuhlmann told Fox News Digital. 

"This way, you control the ingredients and the portion size."

2. Cheese toppings?

While cheese adds flavor and texture, food pros say it’s high in calories and saturated fats. 

"A small sprinkle can quickly escalate the calorie count," Kuhlmann said. 

"Cheese can add 100-200 calories per serving and significant amounts of saturated fat, which can contribute to heart disease if consumed in excess." 

Caesar salad up close

This fresh Caesar salad has romaine lettuce hearts, croutons, Parmesan cheese and dressing. If you want cheese in your salad, use a small amount of strong-flavored cheese like feta or Parmesan, one expert suggested. (iStock)

If you want cheese in your salad, then use a small amount of strong-flavored cheese like feta or Parmesan, she suggests.  

3. Croutons and other crunchy toss-ins

Croutons, bacon bits and fried onions add crunch but also a hefty dose of calories, unhealthy fats and sometimes sugars, Kuhlmann said. 

"These toppings can add 100-150 calories per serving and are often made with refined grains and unhealthy oils," she said. 

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A healthier idea is to instead use nuts or seeds like almonds, walnuts or sunflower seeds, she noted.

"These provide healthy fats, protein, and a satisfying crunch and toasting them can enhance their flavor," she added. 

4. Protein picks

True, protein is essential, but some choices like fried chicken, processed deli meats or large amounts of steak can significantly increase calories and unhealthy fats, explained Kuhlmann. 

Consider grilled or baked chicken or fish, tofu, beans or legumes.?

"These protein sources can add anywhere from 200-400 extra calories, plus unhealthy fats and sodium," she pointed out. 

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Instead, consider grilled or baked chicken or fish, tofu, beans or legumes. 

These options are lower in unhealthy fats and can provide high-quality protein.

5. Pasta and grains

Salads with added pasta, quinoa or couscous make them more filling — but these can also be calorie-dense. 

pasta, different types

Instead of pasta, quinoa or other salad add-ons, try cauliflower rice or spiralized vegetables like zucchini noodles for a lower-calorie alternative.? (Sezgin Pancar/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

"A cup of pasta or grains can add 200-300 calories," said Kuhlmann. "While these can be healthy carbs, they can also push your salad into a high-calorie meal if not portioned properly."

If you want to add grains, keep the portion small — about a quarter cup. 

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"You can also use cauliflower rice or spiralized vegetables like zucchini noodles for a lower-calorie alternative," she suggested. 

6. Dried fruit

Common salad toppers can include dried fruits like raisins, cranberries, dates and cherries — but these sweet add-ins can boost your calorie intake. 

"I love dried fruit, but throwing a big handful on a salad can add quite a few calories," said Lisa Valente, MS, RD, food expert with Healthline, who is based in Burlington, Vermont. 

Plate of dried apricots, dates, raisins and nuts

"If you’re really craving dried fruit, be mindful of portion size and look for no added sugar options." (iStock)

"I prefer using fresh fruit for a little bit of sweetness … You get a much bigger portion, but if you’re really craving dried fruit, be mindful of portion size and look for no added sugar options."

7. Nuts and seeds ?

Nuts and seeds can add crunch, are sources of healthy fats and can help you feel fuller between meals — but keep portion size in check. 

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"Choose smaller nuts and seeds, like slivered almonds or sunflower seeds, to help spread them out over your salad without going for a huge portion," suggested Valente with Healthline. 

And when picking nuts, skip the candied nut varieties, said Lopez with Virtual Testing Kitchen.

Must-have ingredients for a healthy salad

To make your salad both bountiful and healthy, here are some tips to keep you on a healthy track.

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Leafy greens. The base of any good salad, leafy greens like spinach, kale, and arugula are low in calories but high in vitamins, minerals, and fiber, said Kuhlmann, the RD in North Carolina.

leafy greens

Leafy greens like spinach, kale and arugula are low in calories but high in vitamins, minerals and fiber, said one registered nutritionist.? (iStock)

Colorful produce. She also noted that adding a variety of colorful vegetables like bell peppers, tomatoes, carrots and beets not only makes your salad more visually appealing but also boosts its nutrient profile.

Power protein sources. Incorporate a lean protein source to make your salad a complete meal. 

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Consider options like chickpeas, grilled fish, grilled chicken, tofu or hard-boiled eggs.

Healthy fats. Kuhlmann said a small amount of healthy fats from avocado, olive oil or nuts can enhance the absorption of fat-soluble vitamins and keep you feeling satisfied.

For more Lifestyle articles, visit www.foxnews.com/lifestyle.

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