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How to Build a Better Salad

We get tips from a nutrition expert on the dos and don’ts of creating a more healthful salad

By Melanie Peters   |   May 04, 2018

Fresh vegetables and fruits, whole grains, lean proteins — these are the building blocks of a balanced diet but getting enough of the right kind of nutrition into your daily regimen can prove challenging. Current guidelines call for 3 to 5 servings of vegetables and 2 to 4 servings of whole fruits a day but few of us meet this goal on a daily basis.

An easy, maybe too easy, solution to fitting in all of your veggies is that lunchtime staple: the salad. But not all salads are created equal in terms of nutrition. For example, while a Cobb salad may pack in a lot of protein (eggs, bacon, chicken and cheese) it also packs a lot of fat (bacon, cheese, and salad dressing) and sodium (bacon, cheese, and salad dressing). So how can you get the most of what you want and less of what you don’t want from your salad?

We asked Gloria Leichter-Wilder, RD, dietitian at UC San Diego Health, to guide us through building a better salad. From bottom to top, lettuce to salad dressing, she gives us the 4-1-1 on how to get the most out of your salad without the unwanted extras.

All about that base: The best foundation for your salad

Think of lettuce as a free food: with about seven calories per cup and packed with nutrition, choosing lettuce as the foundation is a good start to any healthy salad. All leafy greens are low in calories but darker greens, like spinach, generally have more nutrients than the lighter colored greens. Since different greens are rich in different nutrients, think about using a variety for your base. Iceberg lettuce isn’t a bad choice but you are missing the opportunity to load up on more nutrients found in darker varieties. For example, start with cruciferous vegetables (known for anti-cancer qualities), such as kale, arugula, watercress, cabbage, or shredded Brussels sprouts. Spinach and chard, while nutrient rich, shouldn’t be the only leafy green used due to their high oxalate content, which can prevent calcium from being absorbed.

Build a Better Salad infograph

Whole grains and beans are great for adding variety to salads, but leafy greens are the most important to include. If losing weight is your goal, make it more of a vegetable salad rather than a grain based salad. One trick I use: make a grain or bean based salad and serve it on top of a bed of greens.

Adding color and flavor: Which vegetables to use and which to avoid

Feel free to pile on the veggies! Cucumbers, tomatoes, bell peppers, celery, broccoli, onions (green, white or red), beets, carrots, radishes — these add variety and flavor to your salad while increasing nutritional value. To add crunch, try adding jicama, which has a low glycemic index. Fresh fruit adds flavor and nutrition, too — like fresh berries, which are high in antioxidants and low on the glycemic index. As long as you keep starchy vegetables, like corn, potatoes and winter squash to a minimum, you can let your imagination and personal taste be your guide!

Protein power: Keeping it lean and mean

Beans are a great way to add protein (and fiber) to a salad. There is a large body of research on beans, which shows great results for longevity. In addition to the nutrient content, they contain resistant starch, which we don’t absorb so we don’t get all the calories from consuming beans. If beans aren’t your preference, minimally processed soy foods, such as baked tofu or edamame beans, are also a good choice for adding protein to a salad. Small amounts of nuts are also a good choice as nuts are a healthy, whole food fat without cholesterol. When we have a small amount of fat with vegetables, it increases the absorption of the nutrients in those vegetables so it’s best to have nuts with your salad rather than as a snack on their own.

When choosing animal protein for a salad, choose lean types, such as chicken breast or egg whites. However, most people are lacking in plant proteins rather than animal proteins. Also, plant proteins are loaded with antioxidants and phytochemicals, which we want to consume in large amounts.

Those little extras: Should you reach for the bacon bits and croutons?

While those items at the end of a salad bar can be tempting — shredded cheese, bacon bits, croutons —this is where many people go wrong. You don’t want to top 100 calories worth of vegetables with 300 calories worth of toppings! If you want to sprinkle nuts or seeds on your salad, go for the raw, unsalted type — most people get way too much sodium and the commercial roasting process changes the fatty acid profile. Another healthy fat that adds flavor to salads is avocado. Again, if your goal is losing weight, it’s okay to add nuts and avocado in small amounts as we need some fat in a balanced diet.

Croutons, cheese and bacon bits add sodium and calories without nutrients, which puts them in the “empty” calories category: it’s better to avoid them altogether.

The grand finale:  How to avoid the salad dressing trap

Salad dressings, like those extra toppings, can be a calorie-and-fat bomb. The trick is to keep it flavorful without overdoing it on the fat content. While a squeeze of lemon is great, most people like more of a dressing and there is no reason to feel deprived here. Salad dressing is also a great place to use nuts and seeds, which are a whole food and preferred over oils. All oils are pure fat and about 120 calories per tablespoon — the food with the highest calories of all foods! Plus, oils don’t fill you up at all. Nuts and seeds are high in calories but also packed with nutrients, like protein, vitamins and minerals and fiber. Save your nuts and seeds to blend into salad dressings rather than for a snack. Remember, adding healthy fats to your salad increases the absorption of nutrients from the vegetables.

Homemade dressings are so easy to make — it can be as simple as blending almond butter with balsamic vinegar, mustard, garlic powder, pepper and a little water to thin it. Or in a food processor or blender, blend cashew nuts with lemon juice, mustard, garlic and fresh Italian herbs, like basil or parsely. Add a pitted date or a tablespoon of raisins for whole food sweetness.

Or, if nuts and seeds aren’t your favorite, you can substitute nuts with canned white beans — just drain and rinse before using. Also, you can easily find a wide variety of flavored vinegars, which can be used as a low calorie dressing that requires no effort.

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