Are Salads Healthy? Here’s what to add and avoid.


Q: How do I know if my salad is actually healthy? What ingredients should I add to my salads and which should I avoid?

A: Salad is usually a healthy food, but only if you add the right combination of ingredients and stay away from store-bought bottle dressings.

Start with lettuce or leafy greens to put together a great salad. It may surprise you to learn that the type of greens you choose doesn’t really matter that much. Compared to other leafy greens, iceberg lettuce is probably the least nutritious, but pretty much all lettuce is low in vitamins and minerals. Dark leafy greens like spinach have more micronutrients, but the kind of iron in spinach is poorly absorbed and there’s plenty of oxalate, so use caution if you’re prone to kidney stones.

The main health benefit of lettuce and other vegetables in a salad is fiber. Salads are usually packed with fiber, which is one nutrient – just not for you! Fiber really is food for the microbiome, the trillions of bacteria that live in your gut. Fiber is also key to metabolic health. Bacteria in your gut convert fiber into short-chain fatty acids, which can regulate immune function and keep inflammation at bay.

To increase the fiber in your green leafy salad, add various vegetables like broccoli and green peppers, and add beans and lentils.

But the healthiest salads contain many other good ingredients like antioxidants. Antioxidants are vital chemicals for your liver that detoxify virtually all of the environmental toxins that enter your body. In order to perform this magic trick, your liver needs these antioxidants.

For antioxidants, try chopped colorful vegetables (the darker the better), chopped fresh fruit, herbs (fresh or dried), and spices. Then add proteins, like free-range eggs, grass-fed beef, fish, chicken, tofu, beans, or lentils.

Add fats and fermented foods to your salad

Now, layer up some whole-food fats — including avocado, olives, nuts, and seeds. Nuts and seeds (like chia seeds and walnuts) are high in the anti-inflammatory alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), an omega-3 fatty acid that has been shown to reduce the risk of heart disease.

For other sources of omega-3s, try small fish like anchovies (commonly found in Caesar salads). You can also add other wild-caught fish (sardines, salmon, mackerel) or chicken (free-range, grass-fed has fewer antibiotics)..

Cheese is a fantastic addition as it contains odd-chain fatty acids that protect against diabetes and heart disease. We’ve all been taught to avoid fats because they have more calories, but dairy fats are unique in that they have a specific phospholipid at their end that helps prevent inflammation. Just don’t use American cheese, which isn’t actually cheese. Try varieties like feta, cotija, parmesan, and mozzarella instead.

Bonus points go to kale, collards, and Brussels sprouts — cruciferous vegetables that may increase the body’s natural production of antioxidants and stimulate the production of liver detoxification enzymes. Another bonus: Fresh tomatoes contain lycopene, an antioxidant that supports eye function and helps prevent cataracts.

Adding fermented foods like kimchi and sauerkraut can give you a gut-friendly boost, as can homemade dressings made from natural, unsweetened yogurt. And fermented foods already contain short-chain fatty acids.

Avoid store-bought salad dressings

OK. Now let’s talk about salad dressings. To make a great homemade dressing, focus on ingredients like extra virgin olive oil, avocado oil, tahini, vinegar, Dijon, herbs, spices, and low-sugar citrus juices (lemon, lime, grapefruit).

The oleic acid in olive oil activates the liver to produce a factor that speeds up metabolism. The acetic acid in vinegar inhibits an enzyme that breaks down starches in the mouth, reducing the amount of glucose that appears in your bloodstream. Some homemade dressings get extra antioxidants from spices and spices like ginger, garlic, turmeric, thyme, and oregano.

But the same cannot be said about most store-bought dressings. Store-bought versions are often made with canola and soybean oils, which are chock-full of linoleic acid, an omega-6 inflammatory fatty acid.

You can also dump large amounts of fructose (the sugar molecule) in the form of cane sugar, high-fructose corn syrup, or honey — which damages the mitochondria, the energy-producing factories that power each of your cells. When your mitochondria aren’t working properly, your blood sugar and insulin rise and your liver has no choice but to convert the fructose into fat – leading to fatty liver and insulin resistance, potentially increasing your risk of developing heart disease, cancer and diabetes .

You might be surprised at how common sugar sneaks into bottled dressings. For example, high fructose corn syrup is the second ingredient in Kraft’s Creamy French Dressing, which contains five grams of sugar. And look out for non-fat dressings — for example, Ken’s Sundried Tomato Vinaigrette has 12 grams of added sugar.

Store-bought dressings can also contain ingredients that are bad for your gut and the trillions of bacteria that reside there. These bacteria send chemical signals to your brain asking to be fed. If you don’t feed your bacteria, they actually start feeding on you – stripping the mucin, a protective layer, right off your gut cells. Over time, this can lead to irritable bowel syndrome, inflammatory bowel disease, and altered gut permeability, which some people refer to as “leaky gut.” It can also cause systemic inflammation.

Store-bought dressings often contain emulsifiers, such as Carboxymethylcellulose, polysorbate-80, or carrageenan, which keep fat and water from separating — and can break down that protective layer of mucus in your gut. Those pesky added sugars can also cause bad microbiome bacteria to multiply, potentially leading to gastrointestinal distress, gas, gas, diarrhea, and inflammation.

Croutons and crunchy things

But that doesn’t mean you should skip the dressing. Studies have shown that fats — like those found in avocados — actually help your body absorb the nutrients from some vegetables. The key is choosing the right ingredients and ideally making your own dressing at home.

It’s also a good idea to avoid “crunchy” things (like fried onions and tortilla strips), which are often fried in seed oils at high temperatures, risking the formation of trans fats and acrylamide, a known carcinogen. I would also suggest being careful with dried fruit; Some varieties and brands coat them with sugar to make them sweeter and tastier.

Finally, beware of processed bread. A Caesar salad isn’t a Caesar salad without croutons — but commercial croutons are typically loaded with preservatives, sodium, and vegetable oils. Bake your own croutons or pair your salad with a slice of sourdough bread. But please don’t eat the fried tortilla bowl.

Robert H. Funny is Professor Emeritus of Pediatrics at the University of California, San Francisco and author of “Metabolic: The Lure and Lies of Processed Foods, Diet, and Modern Medicine.”

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