Why Dietitians Say That Fat-Free Salad Dressing Is the Biggest Scam of All Time (Sorry, ’90s Diet Culture)

Photo: Stocksy/Kelly Knox
Here's a fact you’re probably all-too-familiar with: Diet culture loves to tell us to prioritize foods that are lowest in carbs, calories, fat, sugar, and other demonized ingredients. Grocery stores are filled with these options, too, from reduced-fat peanut butter to low-carb frozen meals. Advertisements and magazines tell us that we should try to eat as little as possible, and that doing so makes us (eye roll) “healthy.” While we’re surrounded by these messages, this advice is far from true.

Here’s an example of what we mean: Claire Chewning, RD, an intuitive eating dietitian, recently shared in a TikTok that since vitamins A, D, E, and K are fat-soluble, your body needs fat to absorb them more easily. And those vitamins are found in common salad foods. Vitamin A is in celery, purple cabbage, and tomatoes. Vitamin D is in mushrooms and cheese, while vitamin E is in olives. These vitamins help with vision, healthy skin, improving immune system function, bone strength, preventing Alzheimer’s disease and hip fractures, and more.

@clairechewning Did you know this nutrition fact? Lmk below ⬇️ #dietitiansoftiktok #nutritionfacts #factsoverfear ♬ Sensual Seduction - Snoop Dogg

Experts In This Article

Other dietitians confirm the helpfulness of fat, especially in your salad. “Using a full-fat salad dressing helps to ensure that your body is able to utilize all of the nutrients that are in your salad,” says Colleen Christensen, RD, an intuitive eating dietitian and founder of No Food Rules.

The research is there to back it up, too. A 2012 study in Molecular Nutrition and Food Research found that salads with the greatest amount of fat—20 grams—resulted in the highest absorption of carotenoids. (Aka the antioxidants in the vegetables, in this case.)

In fact, fat does a lot to keep our bodies healthy and our stomachs full. According to Christensen, fat supports cell growth and hormone production. Unsaturated fats, she adds, protect against certain disease states, such as heart disease. Additionally, eating foods with monounsaturated fats—such as nuts, olive oil, and avocados—are associated with less cognitive decline, according to a 2011 study in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society.

A full-fat salad dressing also keeps you full and satisfied, like food should. Christensen explains it gives you extra energy, helps you feel more sated, and may make eating vegetables more accessible and tasty. The importance and validity of those factors can’t be undermined. What's more, while food is about fueling our bodies, it can be one big source of pleasure in our lives, too—and highly-processed bottles of non-fat salad dress are, truly, anything but pleasurable.

“For so long, our society pushed low-fat, low-calorie products, which is highly tied to diet culture,” Christensen says. “Now, we are understanding that lower-fat and/or calorie is not actually always a better option, and can actually have a negative effect both mentally and physically.”

“Many find the taste of full-fat salad dressing more enjoyable than non-fat, which will allow them to actually include more nutrient-packed veggies into their day,” Christensen says. “Having something to eat that tastes good to you is huge! This helps us to feel satisfied with the food we eat and not wind up in the pantry 20 minutes later looking for the cookies to ‘hit the spot.’” In short, eating what you want to begin with can actually help you.

So, what kind of ingredient base should you look for in a salad dressing? Christensen says that overall, it’s best to shoot for unsaturated oils, as they're “typically considered the ‘health promoting ones’ and make for great salad dressings.” More specifically, you have lots of options, Christensen adds, such as:

  • Olive oil: Great for a neutral flavor and as a kitchen staple
  • Avocado oil: Another kitchen staple
  • Sesame oil: Can be used for recipes at different temperatures—room temperature and higher-heat ones—because it has a pretty high smoke point, unlike some other oils

(Side note: If you like to make your own dressing, Christensen shares some recipes below!)

Choosing foods with fat is a healthy option outside of just salads, too. For example, carrots—rich in vitamin A—pair well with full-fat ranch dressing. Or, when you’re having a cereal-and-milk midnight snack, filled with vitamin D, grab the carton of whole milk.

“For so long, our society pushed low-fat, low-calorie products, which is highly tied to diet culture,” Christensen says. “Now, we are understanding that lower-fat and/or calorie is not actually always a better option, and can actually have a negative effect both mentally and physically.” This is especially the case with salad dressing, when you need a source of fat to fully absorb the bounty of nutrients.

3 delicious salad dressing recipe ideas

Is it time to hit the kitchen? Here are some ingredients for dressings that will top off your salad with popping flavors, from Christensen:

Honey dijon dressing recipe

1 tbsp dijon mustard
1 tbsp apple cider vinegar
1 tbsp lemon juice
1 tbsp honey
3 tbsp olive oil
1/4 tsp salt
1/8 tsp black pepper

Pomegranate vinaigrette dressing recipe

1/4 cup pomegranate juice
2 tbsp olive oil
1 tbsp white wine vinegar
1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar
1 tbsp maple syrup
1 tbsp lemon juice
1 tsp onion powder
1/4 tsp salt

Big Mac dressing recipe (perfect for a hamburger salad!)

1/3 cup mayo
2 tsp mustard
2 pieces of sliced pickle
2 tsp honey
1/4 tsp onion powder
1/4 tsp garlic powder
1/2 tsp white vinegar
Dash of paprika

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