With the hot summer weather arriving quickly, a cool crisp salad can be the basis for a light and refreshing meal.
They’re easy to make at home, and to order in a restaurant when dining out. And, with their multiple health benefits, consuming a serving of leafy greens each day can be one of the best habits to get into, summer or winter.
To get the most nutritional impact from your salads, let’s look at some of their benefits, what ingredients add extra dietary punch, and what to avoid to ensure that your dish stays nutritious and healthful.
A Salad a Day Keeps Disease and Aging at Bay
Aside from their natural good taste and great crunchy texture alongside wonderful colors and fragrances, eating a large serving of fresh, raw vegetables each day can have significant health benefits.
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It makes a substantial contribution to disease prevention, healthy weight and youthful energy – and who isn’t interested in a bit more energy and vitality?
And they are easy to make, especially if you have some tools and utensils on hand that can assist with preparing the diet of a raw food aficionado.
A spiralizer can make a trendy salad out of any firm vegetable, and is a must have for any raw foodist.
When presented in wooden salad bowl or other nice serving dish, salads look great as well.
Here are nine of those benefits so easily available to us:
1. A Natural Source of Fiber
Your leafy greens and raw veggies are a superb source of natural fiber, and consuming enough fiber each day has several health advantages:
- Fiber helps to reduce LDL or “bad” cholesterol.
- It helps to control blood sugar.
- Adequate fiber intake helps with weight loss and healthy weight maintenance.
- It normalizes bowel movements, and aids in the prevention of bowel disease.
- Proper fiber intake has been shown to reduce the recurrence and prevention of a number of cancers including colorectal, breast, mouth, throat and esophagus (1).
2. Nutritional Benefits of Fresh Fruits and Vegetables
The idea that fresh vegetables and fruits are essential to our good health and well-being isn’t anything we haven’t heard before, but it’s good to be reminded of it every so often. The following quote is from an article at the Harvard School of Public Health:
“A diet rich in vegetables and fruits can lower blood pressure, reduce risk of heart disease and stroke, prevent some types of cancer, lower risk of eye and digestive problems, and have a positive effect upon blood sugar which can help keep appetite in check” (2).
It’s important to eat a variety of fresh fruits and vegetables, in as many different colors as possible. Combining them in a salad is both easy and delicious! Loaded with vitamins and minerals, eating a salad a day will also increase the level of powerful antioxidants in your blood.
The basis of any salad, leafy greens, offer a huge nutritional benefit. Among the best of the super greens group are: kale, spinach, beet greens, watercress and Romaine lettuce (3). For something a little different, try adding fresh dandelion greens and mizuna as well.
Brightly colored fruits and vegetables in the “red” family are of particular nutrition benefit. This includes produce with orange, purple, red and burgundy flesh. Some examples are tomatoes, red and orange peppers, carrots, strawberries, nectarines, peaches, plums, blueberries, blackberries, cranberries, and pomegranates.
Carotenoids are a class of compounds synthesized from the yellow, orange and red pigments of plants. This includes vitamin A and all its varied compound forms: beta-carotene, lycopene, lutein and zeaxanthin. All of these have substantiated positive effects, plus antioxidant and anti-inflammatory benefits within the body.
3. Load up on Salads for Weight Control
Eating a fiber-rich salad before your entree will help you to feel full faster, so you’ll consume less calories than you might when a meal is served without this appetizer. The more raw vegetables you can incorporate into your salad, the greater the potential positive effects will be.
4. A Daily Salad Will Aid Your Intake of Healthy Fats
Add a couple of tablespoons of mixed raw or roasted seeds like pumpkin, sesame, sunflower and ground flax or chia to boost your daily intake of good fats. Experimenting with different kinds of oils in your dressings will help with this, too.
Slicing a quarter of an avocado and adding it to your greens will also give you a boost. These foods also help the body to absorb all of the protective compounds, phytochemicals, and lutein.
Adding a healthy fat to your salad via the dressing, or by adding healthy raw nuts or avocado will also make it more filling, as fats are among the most satiating.
5. Build Strong Bones
Low vitamin K levels have been linked with low bone mineral density in women. For healthy bone growth, a recommended full daily serving can be found in just 1 cup of watercress (100%), radicchio (120%) or spinach (170%).
6. Protect Your Peepers
The carotenoids found in the green leafies like spinach, Romaine and Red Lettuce help the eyes to adjust from bright to dark, and to filter out high intensity light levels, protecting them from the formation of damaging free radicals.
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7. Improve Muscle Performance
Well, it turns out Popeye knew his stuff. The nutrients found in spinach not only help to build strong bones, they also help to improve the performance of the mitochondria – little structures inside our cells that help to produce energy, as well as inform and power our muscles.
8. Protect Your Heart
Romaine lettuce contains two key nutrients in significant levels that help to protect the heart muscle: folate and fiber. High levels of folate have been shown to assist in the prevention of stroke and cardiovascular disease (4).
9. Improves Skin Tone
The high levels of water found in salad veggies improves hydration in our bodies, which is necessary for youthful skin tone and various basic bodily functions.
Get an Herbal Boost
You can give your salads an extra dose of antioxidants by making your own oil-based salad dressings and including power herbs such as basil, parsley, thyme, cilantro, dill, rosemary, oregano, garlic and lemon. Choose your favorite herb combos, mix with a healthy oil plus lemon juice or vinegar, and season to taste.
Adding fresh herbs goes a long way toward improving your nutrition, as many are densely packed with vitamins and various phytonutrients. Because these vitamins and phytonutrients are produced so intensely, they’re especially nutritionally dense – meaning they’re thermogenic, and may help to naturally increase your metabolism.
Easy to grow at home, herbs have many positive properties that can be added to your dressings, or sprinkled over the top for extra flavor. Also, don’t be afraid to mix in a few edible flowers – they offer many of the same benefits as traditional herbs.
Adding sprouts to your salad is like turbo-charging the nutritional value of your veggies. And, if you want fresh and organic, they’re easy to grow at home, and economical as well.
Some of the popular choices for sprouting your own come from a variety of common grains, vegetables and nuts, such as:
- Wheatgrass, which has good amounts of vitamins B, C and E.
- Alfalfa, good for vitamins A, C, and K, with significant amounts of phytoestrogens.
- Mung beans, with a nice protein count, fiber and viitamins A and C.
- Pea shoots, rich in vitamins A and C, and folic acid from the B family, they offer some of the most significant protein levels in the sprout family. And, they taste like garden peas.
- Lentils, since the sprouts contain over 25% protein.
- Clover, high in isoflavones.
- Broccoli, a noted source of the anti-cancer enzyme sulphoraphane.
- Sunflower, also offering significant levels of protein along with healthy fats and fatty acids, fiber and minerals.
If you’re planning to sprout some at home, pretty much any untreated, whole seeds will germinate if given the right environment, and most offer significant nutritional benefits.
In general, leafy greens are highly nutritious because of the large variety of vitamins and minerals they have to offer. And they contain naturally occurring phytochemicals from plant compounds such as carotenoids, found in the leaves due to synthesis with sunlight.
Leaves that are exposed to the greatest amount of sunlight contain the highest amounts of these healthful compounds, such as beta carotene. And when plants are young, their form is loose, so all leaves receive equal amounts of light. This is opposed to mature plants, where only the outer leaves of heads of lettuce receive direct sunlight.
As these nutrition-packed phytochemicals have been shown to offer a range of potential benefits, including anti-cancer and cell protection properties, selecting baby greens provides the highest concentration of these important compounds.
Among baby greens, the young leaves of watercress, spinach and arugula contain the highest levels of potent phytochemicals and other nutrients.
Salad Mistakes to Avoid
The many potential health benefits of adding a salad to your daily diet can be quickly counteracted with the addition of certain cooked ingredients, and commercially produced additives.
Among the worst offenders are salad dressings, as they’re often loaded with high fructose corn syrup for flavor and processed trans fats to prolong shelf life. Low-fat dressings usually have increased sugar levels, with fructose added to compensate for the loss of flavor.
As excess fructose in your diet drives insulin and leptin resistance, major contributors to diabetes and other chronic diseases, it’s a good idea to avoid these added sugars when possible.
Make your own dressings instead, with a healthy oil, herbs and lemon or vinegar for a healthful condiment that will work with your salad, not against it. The healthy fats found in olive oil actually assist the breakdown and absorption of nutrients. Just don’t get carried away.
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Another common “mistake” is the addition of cooked or processed foods to a salad. Ingredients such as deli meats (which contain high levels of preservatives and nitrates) full-fat cheeses, croutons, and salted or candied nuts all add flavor and texture, but they come with a price tag of calories, unhealthy fats and extra sugar.
Use these ingredients sparingly to get the most out of your salad’s nutritional potential.
Protein for Salads
If your salad is going to be your main course, make it a balanced meal with the addition of some lean protein. Good quality protein sources for serving with your greens include tofu, eggs, tuna, salmon, prawns (or shrimp), nuts and seeds, lean chicken and turkey, as well as low-fat cheeses, cottage cheese and yogurt.
But even if you are craving some meaty steak, recipes like our breaded beef fillets can be served with a large salad to create a balanced and healthy dinner.
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So, get into the habit of having a salad a day, and you’ll benefit quickly from the nutritional boost. Here’s a recipe to get you started.
We’d love to hear about your favorite salads too, so drop us a line and share your ideas!
Kale with Peppers and Apple
Kale is one of the super greens that packs a substantial nutritional wallop, but it can have a bitter taste. To take advantage of its many positive properties, try “massaging” your kale to soften it and remove the bitterness – this actually causes the kale to wilt, as its cellulose structure breaks down.
It will soften, change color, and take on a silky texture, minus the bitterness… well worth the few minutes required! See directions below for the massaging technique.
Citations and Resources
(1) Mayo Clinic. “Dietary Fiber: Essential for a Healthy Diet.” http://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/nutrition-and-healthy-eating/in-depth/fiber/art-20043983?pg=1
(2) Harvard School of Public Health, The Nutrition Source. http://www.hsph.harvard.edu/nutritionsource/what-should-you-eat/vegetables-and-fruits/
(3) Oregon State University, Linus Pauling Institute. http://lpi.oregonstate.edu/mic/dietary-factors/phytochemicals/carotenoids
(4) American Heart Association. “Stroke.” http://stroke.ahajournals.org/content/33/5/1183.full
About Lorna Kring
Recently retired as a costume specialist in the TV and film industry, Lorna now enjoys blogging on contemporary lifestyle themes. A bit daft about the garden, she’s particularly obsessed with organic tomatoes and herbs, and delights in breaking bread with family and friends.