From classic to gourmet varieties, salads are the food for all seasons and, or so we believe, our health goals.
That’s not always true, though.
Some can have very high calorie counts, while others could simply lack nutrients. A good balance of both is essential to pack the best nutritional punch.
Here are a few tips to help you choose wisely.
1] Leafy base
Colour is a great indicator of nutrition. More packed with the healthy plant pigments (phytonutrients), darker leaves like spinach, romaine and kale contain more antioxidants and nutrients than the typically lighter-colored ones; although low in calories (15 cal), an iceberg lettuce salad is mostly water, with minimal amounts of fibre and nutrients.
The tough leaves, like kale and swiss chard, are also a good source of dietary fibre, which are required for digestive health and also help with weight management.1
First, go for a variety of colours to get a good mix of nutrients!
Here’s why: phytonutrients don’t just give plants their colour, fragrance and flavour; they also protect us from free radical damage.
The most well-known ones are carotenoids; for example, the red lycopene in tomatoes and watermelon, which protects our skin from the sun. Even the orange beta-carotene of carrots is converted to vitamin A, which is required for night vision, brain function, immune competence and much more.2, 3 Interestingly, studies have demonstrated that carotenoids also play a role in attractiveness!4
Another antioxidants class is flavonoids, which also help the body transport Vitamin C. These are found in yellow fruits and vegetables, and in broccoli, kale, parsley, celery and capsicum peppers.5, 6
Second, don’t avoid vegetables with fat!
Avocado, cabbage, tarragon, mangold, zucchini, and broccoli have omega-3 fatty acids that can help build your immunity against allergies, gum disease, heart blockages, rheumatoid arthritis, and even cancer.7
Also, opt for raw or lightly steamed vegetables.
When boiled/steamed, vegetables like carrots, tomatoes, spinach, mushrooms, asparagus, cabbage and peppers supply more antioxidants to the body than they do when raw. The downside of cooking vegetables is that it can destroy the vitamin C in them.8
As a general rule, if your other meals have been cooked, choose raw vegetables to get a balance of all the nutrients though the day.
It’s generally recommended that we eat 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight per day.9
Select lean meats like chicken or turkey. Eggs are high in protein, low in calories, and nutrient-rich. Stay away from caloric or processed meats like bacon and salami, or those that are fried.
Eating fatty fish (like mackerel, herring, tuna, and salmon) around twice a week delivers protein along with omega-3 fatty acids in your diet.
Go for tofu (remember, firm tofu has twice the protein content of silken tofu) and legumes; beans are a great source of fibre and plant-based protein, so this works out well for vegans.9
The toppings and dressings used in some salads can make the meal as fattening as a double cheeseburger!
Hold off on the creamy dressings; they’re generally high in sugar with low nutritional value. Instead, opt for vinaigrette or a citric dressing.
Olive oil and lemon juice make a simple, tasty and low calorie dressing, containing vitamin C and some healthy fatty acids.
A yogurt-based dressing is also a good option, given that it can contain probiotics for a healthy gut.10
Tip for ordering at restaurants: order your dressing on the side (some salads end up having more dressing than vegetables!).
Although very high in calories, cheese provides protein, calcium, vitamin A, B12, riboflavin, zinc and phosphorus.11 It’s also a source of conjugated linoleic acid (CLA), a fat that may have anti-cancer, weight-reducing, and heart-protective effects. Mature cheddar, blue, brie, Edam, and Swiss cheeses have higher CLA content than the other cheeses.12, 13
However, don’t overdo your cheese – they have a high saturated fat content.
This just another way of saying “fried”! These come with unhealthy trans-fats that do not offer any nutrition and are associated with heart disease. Croutons, bacon bits, crispy noodles, fried chicken strips and onion rings can make the calorie count soar – needless to say, they don’t help your salad’s health quotient.
Nuts and seeds:
Here’s a great alternative for the added “crunch”! Peanuts, for instance, are loaded with zinc, selenium, vitamin E and vitamin B3, which are vital for healthy skin – but use only a handful, since they’re high in calories. Also, try using chia seeds, which are very rich in omega-3 fatty acids.
Couscous and quinoa:
Great for adding some essential amino acids and good quantities of calcium, phosphorus, magnesium and iron, as well as dietary fibre.14, 15
Fruits and dry fruits:
Another good source of phytonutrients and fibre; they also offer a sweet twist and a wholesome flavour. Pomegranates, oranges, watermelon and raisins are salad favourites.
They can add flavour without the struggles of extra salt and sugar. Many of them also have phytonutrients, eg. cinnamon and chillies.16
So, here’s a broad view of the healthiest choice in a salad:
That said, here are some healthy salads that you can pick from (restaurants often add ingredients upon request):
– Spinach, tofu and pesto salad
– Arugula, tomato and cucumber salad in olive oil
– Chilli pepper and ginger flavoured greens and smoked salmon
– Moroccan chickpea and carrot salad
– Watermelon and feta cheese with greens
With these simple pointers in mind, you can savour a tasty salad with all the flavors you love and the calorie-count and nutrients you need!
1. WHfoods. World’s Healthiest Foods: Rich in Fiber. 2015 [cited]Available from: http://www.whfoods.com/genpage.php?tname=nutrient&dbid=59
2. Alvarez R, et al. Chem Rev 2014, 114(1): 1-125.
3. Litwack G. Vitamin A; Vitamins and Hormones, vol. 75. Elsevier: London, UK, 2007.
4. Stephen ID, et al. Evolution and Human Behavior 2011, 32(3): 216-227.
5. Grotewold E. The Science of Flavonoids. Springer, 2007.
6. Kumar S, Pandey AK. Chemistry and Biological Activities of Flavonoids: An Overview, vol. 2013, 2013.
7. Vidrih R, et al. Czech Journal of Food Sciences 2009, 27: S125-S129.
8. Subramanian S. Scientific American May 2009, 31.
9. USDA. Protein and Amino Acids. Dietary Reference Intakes 2015 [cited]Available from: http://www.nal.usda.gov/fnic/DRI/DRI_Energy/589-768.pdf
10. Adolfsson O, et al. Am J Clin Nutr 2004, 80(2): 245-256.
11. USDA. National Nutrient Database for Standard Reference Release 27. Beltsville, Maryland, USA: United States Department of Agriculture Agricultural Research Service; 2015.
12. Lehnen TE, et al. J Int Soc Sports Nutr 2015, 12: 36.
13. Lin H, et al. J Dairy Sci 1995, 78(11): 2358-2365.
14. Cooper R. Journal of Traditional and Complementary Medicine 2015, 5(3): 138-143.
15. Suliburska J, Krejpcio Z. Journal of Food Science and Technology 2014, 51(3): 589-594.
16. Ninfali P, et al. British Journal of Nutrition 2005, 93(02): 257-266.