In this ongoing series, we take a close look at restaurant chains across the country to help you find the most metabolically friendly options. Read on for guidance on how to maximize nutrition and maintain healthy blood sugar levels when dining out.
Sweetgreen is known for flavorful bowls of fresh vegetables, lean proteins, and clean dressings. With these kinds of options, it’s pretty simple to order a metabolically healthy meal. Logs containing Sweetgreen from Levels members show a peak glucose under 100 mg/dL and a rise of 20-26 mg/dL — pretty optimal stats.
But you do have to be mindful of a few details to avoid an unnecessary blood sugar spike. Fortunately, you can easily customize any meal and swap in the ingredients that work best for your personal dietary needs. Here’s what you need to know to build a better bowl.
The Pros and Cons of Eating at Sweetgreen
From a metabolic health standpoint, there are more positives than negatives on the Sweetgreen menu.
To start, almost every salad, bowl, and plate has at least 20 grams of protein and anywhere from 5-19 grams of fiber. Both of these slow down digestion, leading to more gradual rises in blood glucose.
Second, plants dominate the menu. Different colored vegetables offer up different polyphenols. These plant compounds reduce the risk of chronic diseases by various actions, including decreasing inflammation, improving endothelial function (a risk factor for cardiovascular disease), and blunting post-meal glucose spikes.
Plant-based ingredients also contain antioxidants such as betalains, lycopene, and beta-carotene. These help fight oxidative stress, which may decrease the risk of cancer, heart disease, diabetes, and other conditions. Antioxidant-rich ingredients on Sweetgreen’s menu include basil, black lentils, pecans, sunflower seeds, almonds, beets, and red cabbage.
At the same time, many meals are heavy on grains and seeds, such as wild rice and quinoa. These foods have a health halo because they aren’t stripped of their outer layers called the bran and germ, as is the case with white rice. The bran and germ contain fiber, vitamins, and minerals. However, eating large portions of so-called “nutritious” carbs like quinoa, wild rice, and roasted sweet potatoes (a staple in several of Sweetgreen’s signature salads and bowls) can still cause some people’s blood glucose levels to spike. (Sweet potato scores pretty low among Levels users, around 5.5 out of 10.)
Another negative: Some dressings and sauces contain added sugars, most often in the form of honey or maple syrup. Eating too much of any added sugars can promote insulin resistance and increase the risk of diabetes. In addition, many of the dressings contain sunflower oil, which can be high in linoleic acid, an omega-6 fatty acid that may contribute to obesity and diabetes, especially when consumed frequently.
Despite these drawbacks, Sweetgreen is an excellent venue to order blood sugar-friendly meals. And, with the guidelines below, you can ensure you always choose smart options.
7 Tips to Create a Healthy Meal at Sweetgreen
1. Limit the rice and sweet potatoes.
Everyone’s glucose response is unique, but even “healthy” carbs like wild rice, quinoa, and sweet potatoes can cause blood sugar to spike. Brigid Titgemeier, MS, RDN, LD, IFNCP, functional medicine dietitian at BeingBrigid.com, says you can blunt your blood glucose response by eating a smaller portion of the carbs as part of a bowl or salad that includes protein- and fiber-rich ingredients such as seafood, chicken, tofu, avocado, and almonds).
When you add carbs to any meal, you want to pick high-quality carbs, that is, ones rich in fiber and other nutrients like vitamins and minerals to support all of your body’s functions. (Think: black lentils, which provide fiber and protein, as well as anthocyanins, compounds that may increase insulin sensitivity.)
2. Favor salads over bowls.
Most (but not all) salads are lower in carbs than bowls. More importantly, adding extra greens to your diet is beneficial; studies show that consumption of leafy greens may slightly reduce diabetes risk by a variety of mechanisms. For one, spinach and kale are sources of magnesium, which helps the body process glucose and may play a role in insulin sensitivity.
3. Go easy on the cheese.
Sweetgreen has several cheeses on its menu. (Currently, blue cheese, goat cheese, and shaved Parmesan are available as premium toppings.) Thanks to lactose (the sugar in milk), consuming any dairy can increase insulin production. Cheese contains carbohydrate in the form of lactose, the sugar found in milk. Although it will spike blood glucose less rapidly than refined sugars, dairy is an insulin secretagogue. It prompts the body to release more insulin than expected based on its total carbohydrate load. Cheese also tends to be high in saturated fat, which can decrease whole-body insulin sensitivity in the short term.
Still, cheese is a source of saturated fat, and too much can decrease whole-body insulin sensitivity in the short term. All in all, if you like it, a little cheese is OK, but be mindful if your bowl contains other foods high in saturated fat.
4. Add avocado.
As an alternative to cheese, ask for avocado. While this fruit has 3 grams of saturated fat per serving, it also has 12 grams of unsaturated fat and 9 grams of fiber. Replacing carbs or saturated fat with unsaturated fat may help reduce insulin resistance. One study showed that adding avocado to a meal can help reduce your body’s glucose and insulin response. Plus, eating avocado daily may positively impact your gut microbiome, which also plays a role in metabolism, immune function, and inflammation.
5. Pick a simple dressing.
Some Sweetgreen dressings have 4 grams of sugar per serving. It’s best to avoid added sugars as much as you can (the average American eats around 17 teaspoons of added sugars a day). Try asking for your dressing on the side so you can control how much you add. Other dressings contain refined seed oils.
Ask for extra-virgin olive oil with vinegar or a squeeze of lemon or lime, or select the Green Goddess Ranch or Caesar Dressing, which contain 0 grams of sugar and no sunflower oil.
6. Pile on the non-starchy vegetables.
“Sweetgreen provides an opportunity to get three or more cups of non-starchy vegetables in one meal,” Titgemeier says. In addition to blood sugar- and energy-stabilizing fiber, these veggies provide micronutrients and phytonutrients that support the gut microbiome and mitochondrial function, she explains.
Add extra vegetables like cucumbers, cabbage, carrots, and spicy broccoli, as well as fresh herbs. This boosts the amount of inflammation-fighting antioxidants and other micronutrients that support a range of metabolic functions. For example, the various polyphenols found in plants are thought to delay or prevent metabolic syndrome by helping to improve lipid metabolism and lower blood pressure, blood glucose, and weight.
7. Avoid the crispy rice and tortilla chip toppings.
Made with rice, sorghum, and sugar, the crispy rice adds 15 grams of carbs and no fiber per serving. Similarly, the tortilla chips add 10 grams of carbs and only 1 gram of fiber per serving. These fats promote inflammation and may contribute to insulin resistance.
Your Metabolic Menu: Five Go-to Orders to Stay on Track for Your Metabolic Goals
While almost any meal at Sweetgreen can be metabolically friendly when you mind those carbs and dressings, the suggestions below from Amy Gorin, MS, RDN, an inclusive plant-based registered dietitian nutritionist, and The Nutrition Twins, Lyssie Lakatos, RDN, CDN, CFT and Tammy Lakatos Shames, RDN, CDN, CFT, can help you stay true to specific nutritional goals.
If you’re going for high protein and high fiber…
…combine chopped romaine and shredded kale, then add carrots, tomato, roasted chicken, warm portobello mix, avocado, and roasted almonds. Choose Pesto Vinaigrette dressing. You’ll get about 20 grams of fiber and 36 grams of protein.
…or order the spring mix, tomato, cucumber, red onion, roasted steelhead, warm portobello mix, and roasted sweet potatoes with Pesto Vinaigrette. You can also add shredded cabbage and roasted almonds.
If you’re vegan…
…order shredded kale, arugula, shredded cabbage, spicy broccoli, red onion, pickled carrots and celery, black lentils, roasted sesame tofu, and roasted almonds, with extra-virgin olive oil and lemon squeeze.
If you’re an avocado aficionado…
…order the Guacamole Greens—spring mix and chopped romaine topped with shredded cabbage, red onions, tomatoes, avocado, and roasted chicken with zero-sugar lime cilantro jalapeno vinaigrette and lime squeeze—with no tortilla chips. For a blood sugar-healthy crunch, ask to add roasted almonds or spicy sunflower seeds.
If you’re following a keto diet…
…order the Kale Caesar Salad without the Parmesan crisps and add extra vegetables like cucumbers, cabbage, spicy broccoli, cilantro, and basil for extra nutrients, fiber, antioxidants, and anti-inflammatory compounds.