All-American food faceoff: Which is healthier, potato salad or pasta salad?
Back when my parents were young, “salad” referred to any food bound together with some mayonnaise and maybe some chopped celery (think ham salad, apple salad, carrot salad). Nowadays, salad for me is more likely to feature vegetables, and mayonnaise is not the dressing of choice. But there are two exceptions—pasta salad and potato salad. Since typical versions of these dishes follow the basic equation of starch plus mayo, you can bet that both are high in calories…but which is worse and which is the better option? I did some research and found out.
Typical pasta salad is a calorie landmine—1 cup can have as much as 450 calories! And that’s for a side dish! Not to mention a considerable amount of fat (18 grams) and saturated fat (3 grams)—that’s 27% and 19% of the recommended daily limit on a 2,000-calorie diet, respectively. Sure, it may have some vegetables in it (maybe about ¼ cup), but it mostly comes down to white pasta and loads of mayo.
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So, it’s not looking so good for pasta salad as the healthier choice…let’s see about potato salad.
Although classic potato salad is usually lower in calories than pasta salad (about 360 per cup), the mayonnaise keeps the saturated-fat content high (it typically has 17 grams of fat and 3 grams of saturated fat). But potato salad has one advantage over pasta salad—it’s almost all vegetable. Potatoes actually have many redeeming health qualities: they’re a good source of potassium and vitamin C and naturally deliver some fiber (especially when you keep the skin on) and protein.
So which one would I choose? If we’re talking about the un-healthified varieties of each, I’d choose potato salad. Why? I prefer it, and also the potato’s nutrients outshine those in white pasta.
Healthy Potato Salad Recipes to Try: Creamy Potato Salad and More Low-Calorie Potato Salads That Won’t Pack Pounds
Better yet, I would make a healthier, homemade version of either potato salad or pasta salad and bring it to the next potluck cookout I go to. Here are two guilt-free versions that deliver lots of flavor (plus more vegetables!):
Recipe: Country Potato Salad
(138 cal, 4 g fat and 1 g sat fat per 1-cup serving)
8 servings, about 1 cup each
Active Time: 40 minutes I Total: 1 hour
This updated picnic potato salad gets subtle flavor from smoked ham. If you can find them, small, thin-skinned early potatoes are best in this salad.
2 pounds small potatoes, preferably heirloom
1 cup chopped celery
2 ounces smoked ham, sliced into strips
1/4 cup chopped fresh parsley
2 tablespoons chopped fresh chives or scallions
2 tablespoons chopped fresh mint or dill
3/4 cup nonfat buttermilk
1 tablespoon lemon juice
1 tablespoon peanut or canola oil
1/2 teaspoon salt
Freshly ground pepper to taste
2 large hard-boiled eggs, peeled and coarsely chopped
1. Place potatoes in a large saucepan, cover with water and bring to a simmer over medium-high heat. Reduce heat to medium and cook, partially covered, until just tender, 12 to 20 minutes, depending on their size. Drain and let cool for about 15 minutes.
2. When the potatoes are cool enough to handle, taste a bit of potato skin—if it’s bitter or tough, peel the potatoes. Otherwise, leave the skins on. Cut the potatoes into bite-size pieces and put them in a large salad bowl.
3. Add celery, ham, parsley, chives (or scallions) and mint (or dill) to the potatoes. Toss to combine. Add buttermilk, lemon juice, oil, salt and pepper; stir to combine. Gently stir in chopped egg. Serve at room temperature or chilled.
Recipe: Garden Pasta Salad
(205 calories, 9 g fat, 2 g sat fat per 1-cup serving)
6 servings, 1 cup each
Active Time: 35 minutes I Total: 35 minutes
This lightly dressed pasta salad gets lots of flavor from Kalamata olives and basil. A colorful mix of diced bell pepper, shredded carrot and tomatoes adds vitamins and minerals. Serve on a crisp bed of greens. Toss in canned chunk light tuna, cooked chicken or flavored baked tofu to add protein and make it more substantial.
2 cups whole-wheat rotini (6 ounces)
1/3 cup reduced-fat mayonnaise
1/3 cup low-fat plain yogurt
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 tablespoon red-wine vinegar or lemon juice
1 clove garlic, minced
1/8 teaspoon salt
Freshly ground pepper to taste
1 cup cherry or grape tomatoes, halved
1 cup diced yellow or red bell pepper (1 small)
1 cup grated carrots (2-4 carrots)
1/2 cup chopped scallions (4 scallions)
1/2 cup chopped pitted Kalamata olives
1/3 cup slivered fresh basil
1. Bring a large pot of lightly salted water to a boil. Cook pasta, stirring occasionally, until just tender, 8 to 10 minutes, or according to package directions. Drain and refresh under cold running water.
2. Whisk mayonnaise, yogurt, oil, vinegar (or lemon juice), garlic, salt and pepper in a large bowl until smooth. Add the pasta and toss to coat. Add tomatoes, bell pepper, carrots, scallions, olives and basil; toss to coat well.
Kerri-Ann, a registered dietitian, is the associate editor of nutrition for EatingWell Magazine, where she puts her master’s degree in nutrition from Columbia University to work writing and editing news about nutrition, health and food trends. In her free time, Kerri-Ann likes to practice yoga, hike, cook and bake.
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