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5 Reasons to Ditch Low-Fat Salad Dressing

There are a lot of “rules” tossed around about healthy eating and I find myself disagreeing with most of them.

Many of these “rules” are fabricated from half-truths or extrapolated from outdated nutrition dogma. 

In my world, you’re often better off just listening to what your body wants to eat and how much at any given time.

Even if you’re not eating particularly healthy foods, tuning into these inner cues can go a long way to maintaining a normal weight and avoiding feelings of deprivation and guilt. These ideas are central to mindful eating, which has been the focus of many of my articles and nutrition workshops in the past. If you want to hear about future workshops, join my email list via the box at the end of this post.

Now some of these supposed rules are harmless, but sometimes I have to tackle the misinformation head-on because it’s just. so. wrong. So today, I’m doing just that with one of my least favorite “rules”.

“If you eat a salad with dressing, you cancel out the health benefits.”


“If you eat carrot and celery sticks with dip, it’s not healthy anymore.”


“Salad is only healthy if you use low-fat salad dressing.”

This is bogus and here’s why.

5 reasons to ditch low fat salad dressing:

1. You need fat to absorb the nutrients from your vegetables.

The beta-carotene found in carrots is fat-soluble and so is the lycopene in your tomatoes and so is the zeaxanthin in your kale… (I could keep going). This means you must consume it with some fat to get the benefits of these powerful antioxidants. Also, the fat soluble vitamins – A, D, E and K –  require fat for absorption.

Don’t believe me? In a study comparing the absorption of carotenoids from 3 salads with varying amounts of fat (and equivalent amounts of spinach, romaine lettuce, cherry tomatoes, and carrots), “Essentially no absorption of carotenoids was observed when salads with fat-free salad dressing were consumed.”   And to that I say –

What’s the point of eating a tasteless, unsatisfying plate of raw vegetables if you’re missing out on the health benefits?

Turns out the salad with the most fat—28 grams—resulted in the highest absorption of carotenoids. That’s 2 tablespoons of oil or ~ ½ cup of nuts or ¾ cup of avocado. We’re not talking a worthless, decorative “light sprinkling” here. This is a healthy, flavorful, filling portion of fat.

A similar study looking at salad and tomato salsa concluded, “adding avocado fruit can significantly enhance carotenoid absorption from salad and salsa, which is attributed primarily to the lipids present in avocado. “

2. Vegetables are unsatisfying when eaten plain.

You’ve heard me say this before: If it tastes bad you won’t eat it. Sit me down in front of a bowl of plain steamed broccoli and I won’t touch it. Put a little butter or sharp cheddar cheese or pesto on top and I’m there! Our bodies evolved in an environment where food was scarce and thus we’re biologically wired to enjoy higher calorie foods more than other options. Obviously salad dressing or sour cream dip tastes good and leads us to eat more vegetables. If you don’t add some good fat to your vegetables, your body will simply lead you to eat other high calorie foods later on. Seriously. Have you ever eaten a dry salad with the best of intentions only to end up eating junk food later that night out of desperation? (Confession: I have!) Remember,

When it comes to food cravings, it’s not a lack of willpower, it’s biology. – @LilyNicholsRDN (<– tweet that!)

3. They don’t have enough calories to keep us full.

If you eat vegetables by themselves, you will not satisfy your hunger for very long. You can use this to your advantage if you simply want to distract yourself and chew something when you’re not really hungry, but if you actually need energy to get on with your day, get through a workout or simply hold yourself over between meals, plain vegetables won’t cut it.

4. Low fat dressings and dips are full of crap.

Have you ever looked at the ingredients on low fat dip? If you haven’t, check out my post on sour cream. Real is always better than fake, wouldn’t you agree? I trust real cream more than partially hydrogenated soy oil, monodiglycerides, carageenan, xanthan gum, guar gum, and corn syrup. Look at this ingredient label from a bottle of fat free dressing. Notice anything? Aside from water, corn syrup is the main ingredient.  So much for being healthy.


5. Fat does not make you fat.

The most commonly promoted way to lose weight is to simply cut fat. The argument is that fat contains a lot of calories (true) and that calories make you fat (not 100% true). If this simple equation of calories in=calories out worked, losing weight wouldn’t be so hard. The more important details are how we biologically manage how much we eat (brain) and how our bodies respond to food (metabolism). Eating fat does not slow down your metabolism and unless it’s packaged with a lot of carbohydrate (crackers, cookies, cake, etc), it won’t trigger you to overeat.

In fact, just last year, a great study from the prestigious Journal of the American Medical Association compared weight loss and metabolism from people on either a low carbohydrate, low glycemic index, or low fat diet. Those who ate the low carbohydrate diet (which is by definition high in fat) burned 350 MORE calories per day without exercising.

(Here’s the study for the fellow nutrition nerds: Ebbeling CB, Swain JF, Feldman HA, et al. Effects of Dietary Composition on Energy Expenditure During Weight-Loss Maintenance. JAMA. 2012;307(24):2627-2634.)

As one of the researchers said, “Losing weight is hard enough for anybody. We need every advantage we can get. We’ve wasted a lot of energy pursuing ineffective approaches like a low-fat diet.” – Dr. David Lustig.

I’ll have to address the issue of fat in more detail in future posts, as I believe there is a lot of un-learning and re-educating that needs to happen in this arena.

At the very least, enjoying some fat means the nutrients in your next salad wont go to waste, and I’m sure it will taste better and be more filling. So, the next step is finding a healthy salad dressing.

What Salad Dressings are Healthy?

I’m not a huge fan of commercially prepared salad dressing. They are usually made with poor quality vegetable oils, such as corn, soy, canola, or cottonseed oils. I avoid these oils as much as possible for reasons that I’ll leave to another post. Even your vinaigrette “made with olive oil” is mostly canola or soy oil. Flip over the bottle and look at the ingredients.

Due to the high content of monounsaturated fat in olive oil, it will semi-solidify or at least look thick and cloudy when stored in the refrigerator, so food manufacturers mix it with cheap vegetable oil. Plus, it’s expensive, so they don’t use much of it.

It is much better to make your own salad dressing with good quality ingredients and no weird fillers. Plus, it’s so stinkin’ easy and tastes much better, so why not?

A Few of My Favorite Salad Dressings:

  • Basic Balsamic – Balsamic vinegar + EV olive oil + salt + pepper
  • Raspberry Balsamic – same as above. Add ¼ cup smashed fresh raspberries
  • Creamy South of the Border – Plain full-fat yogurt or sour cream + lime juice + lime zest + honey + salt + chili powder
  • Pomegranate – Pomegranate molasses + lemon juice + EV olive oil + salt (not familiar with pomegranate molasses? See this post for more info.)
  • Bacon Balsamic – Balsamic vinegar + bacon fat + salt +pepper (really really good on baby kale or arugula)
  • Olive+Thyme – Apple cider vinegar + black olive tapenade + EV olive oil + salt + pepper + fresh thyme
  • Honey Mustard – Apple cider vinegar + mustard + honey + EV olive oil + salt + pepper (make it creamy with a dollop of sour cream)
  • Thai Sesame – Lime juice + toasted sesame oil + soy sauce + sweet chili sauce

Just a heads up on my recipes – I don’t measure, but for a vinaigrette, I use approximately equal portions of vinegar/sour and oil/fat, since I like mine a little tart. I typically mix it up in a large bowl that I also use to toss and eat my salad.

Simply make your dressing, toss in your greens, and you’re good to go!

Less dishes always wins in my book. You can mix it in a jar and store extra in the fridge. That’s your call. Know that you might need to let it sit out on the counter to “melt” before using next time.

Be sure to taste test before you use it. Remember your salad is plain Jane without dressing, so make it a little on the salty side, especially if the salad greens are freshly washed and still damp. I taste and adjust seasonings as I go.

Too tart? Add more oil or something sweet (honey, stevia, fresh orange juice).

Too bland? More salt or sour or herbs/pepper.

Other Tasty Ways to Add Fat to Salads:

  • goat cheese

  • pesto (did you see my arugula pesto? It makes a great dressing when mixed with equal parts olive oil.)

  • olives

  • hard boiled egg, sliced, with the yolk!

  • sun dried tomatoes, jarred in olive oil

  • sliced avocado

  • bacon crumbles (made from real bacon, not those weird dried pink chunks)

  • freshly grated parmesan cheese (not the fake stuff in the can)

  • nuts – almonds, walnuts, pine nuts, macadamia nuts, etc…

Now I’d like to hear from you.

  1. What is your favorite salad dressing?
  2. And, what is your least favorite nutrition rule?

In the comment section below, please share your feedback!

Until next week,


PS – It’s easy to eat enough vegetables when they taste delicious! For some yummy vegetable recipes and more tips on getting the most out of your produce, check out my ebook “Veggies: Eat Them Because You Want To, Not Because You Have To”.

I’ve turned countless veggie haters into regular veggie eaters with the tips and tricks I describe in this information-packed guide.

Veggies: Eat them because you want to, not because you have to

Your guide to making vegetables taste seriously good

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Lily Nichols is a Registered Dietitian/Nutritionist, Certified Diabetes Educator, researcher, and author with a passion for evidence-based prenatal nutrition and exercise. Her work is known for being research-focused, thorough, and unapologetically critical of outdated dietary guidelines. She is the author of two bestselling books, Real Food for Pregnancy and Real Food for Gestational Diabetes.


Leave a comment
  1. Wow, thanks for the tips Lily. These are awesome ideas since I’m always looking for ways to keep salads un-boring. I never thought about using bacon fat to make a salad dressing!! Instead of a hard-boiled egg I often top my salads with a fried or poached egg. The runny yolk oozes over the salad like a dressing… (is it weird that I like that?)

    • Dana, I’m a big fan of eggs over-easy, so that sounds delicious. Old-fashioned dressings were made with raw egg yolk to emulsify the oil and vinegar, so it makes complete sense.

  2. Wow, I just read the ingredients on a bottle of low fat balsamic dressing in my fridge and it contains CORN SYRUP. Gross.

    I’m throwing it out and making my own dressing from now on. (That raspberry balsamic sounds soooo good!) Thank you, thank you, thank you for writing this. I saw a nutritionist years ago who told me to buy low fat dressing and looking back I wish I had never taken her advice.

    PS- I really enjoy getting your emails each week! Keep it up!

    • Isn’t it surprising what’s in those products, Crystal? I bet you’ll love the raspberry balsamic dressing. It’s quite a contrast to those fake-flavored bottled ones. Let me know how it turns out and cheers to eating tasty salads with REAL dressing!

      As always, I’ll “see you” in your inbox next week!

  3. Great post! I love that you’ve busted this myth because it drives me crazy! A year ago I cut sugar out of my diet completely and with it began focusing on eating full fat everything. At first I was nervous about the “fat will make me fat” myth but I noticed that it didn’t. In fact, it made me more full and I felt altogether better for having eaten naturally. Thanks for sharing!

    • You bet, Anne! Nice to hear this confirms the signals your body was sending you.

  4. Once again, this is a great post and we are so on the same page, Lily! Eating flavorful real food is part of what supports alignment and radiance of my body. I love full fat salad dressings and I love all the dressing suggestions you’ve listed. I haven’t made a dressing from yogurt and will definitely try your South of the Border recipe!

    • The South of the Border dressing is once of my faves!

      You can also use any of the dairy-free dressings in here as the seasoning for making kale chips. The Honey Mustard is especially good with kale. 🙂

  5. Great tips and inspirational. More confidence and excitement making vegetables. The salad dressings were useful too…thank you

  6. great tips, thanks!
    I only just discovered that you need fat to absorb fat soluble vitamins from veggies in the past year or so – what a revelation!
    I think it’s so important to spread this message far and wide, to encourage a return to real foods, and ditch all the crap.

    • Absolutely, Sam! Let’s get this message out into the world! Feel free to share this article with your friends and family. 🙂

  7. I heart this post! I’ve been doing Paleo for almost a month now and have embraced the full fat train. It’s amazing how difficult it is to find the full-fat version of some products (yogurt, for example – rows and rows of low-fat). I can’t wait for the rest of the world to wise up. Also, I’ve been eating more salads than I used to, so I’m looking forward to trying these dressings. Ready for some variety from the plain vinegar/oil combo.

    • I hear you, Beth. Luckily more and more people are hearing about the benefits of fat and saturated fat, so full-fat products are getting easier to find.

  8. Hi Lily! Balsamic vinaigrette and spicy peanut thai dressing never fail in my book! And my least favorite nutritional rule is to always follow food combining! Um, bananas and Greek yogurt are the best!

  9. Yum!! Thanks for the salad dressing suggestions. In addition to what you listed, I like to add a spoonful of cottage cheese.
    You asked what dressings we like. The only store-bought ones I like are Annie’s Organics — Three favs: Goddess, Shitake & Roasted Red Pepper. Fat free is yukky, whereas the kinds of salads we like are scrumptious!

  10. Mayo is my fave salad dressing. Sometimes adding dijon mustard or salsa! Yumm! I don’t like how we are programmed to think low-fat is better.

  11. Regarding fat free dressing, if you are only eating a salad with only leaves and vegetables then I understand, but who just eats a salad like that? There’s usually some kind of protein: chicken, beans, etc. Or we will eat a pure leafy green salad w/ another meal like fish or chicken. Wouldn’t any kind of protein provide the fats necessary for vitamin absorption?

    • That depends entirely on your protein choice – chicken (unless eaten with the skin) and beans are pretty low-fat. The studies show that the higher the fat content of salads, the better the nutrient absorption.

  12. Thank you so much Lily my boyfriend thinks he’s going to die of a heart attack in his whole refrigerator is full of low-fat fat-free Lite dressings and mayonnaise that tastes disgusting I always put on butter real sour cream real cream but I do have a little bit of a tummy I need to work on and I think that the cards are my problem so thank you so much for your information it confirms what I thought all along!

  13. Thank you lily for talking about the oil. I have a question about the oil effecting my hair and skin, so I goggled it and you popped up.

    Thanks again

  14. I have been making my own dressings for the last few years. I have found in a pinch that even a good olive oil with salt and pepper is delicious on salad.
    Thanks for all your posts, love reading them and all the fresh ideas!

  15. In our quest to find cholesterol-free brands we came across the JUST line. It says it is GMO Free and egg free (we’re not allergic to eggs) but it was the cholesterol we were hoping to avoid and most brands did not have 0mg as this one does. However, a main ingredient is “expeller-pressed canola oil” so I’m not sure what this means. I appreciate any information you can share on the subject.

  16. What about homemade thousand island and ranch, blue cheese dressings? They really make a salad satisfying.

  17. Enjoyed reading this information and the ideas for salad dressings.
    When you say 28g of fat for a salad. What size salad are you referring to?

  18. These all sound great. Thanks for sharing. I love making homemade ranch dressing. I use avocado mayo, homemade 24hr Greek yogurt (hello probiotics) and a blend of seasonings with a splash of raw milk to thin it or serve as is for a veggie dip. So so good!

  19. You’ve expressed many great ideas here. You’re correct on the science regarding nutrition and healthy fats.

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