Salads tend to have a health halo around them, so we automatically assume they're good for us before we even look at their nutritional value. But are salads really that healthy?
Serious question, though. What's in your salad? What kind of toppings are you working with? Are you even eating all of it or are you throwing lots of lettuce away?
Salads can be healthy, registered dietitian Lisa Eberly told POPSUGAR. Think of the components of a great salad — greens, veggies, and nuts and seeds — all good! But there are so many ways a salad can go wrong. If you have to force yourself to eat something (looking at you, kale), chances are you're not going to finish your meal. Either that, or you're going to try to mask that one thing with unhealthy ingredients, like crazy-fatty dressings and toppings that aren't necessarily nutritious.
We're not here to salad-bash, though. Let's take a look at the pros and cons and how to make salads healthier, tastier, and easier to eat.
Tons of Nutrition: If you enjoy leafy greens and raw veggies, then congratulations! You're getting a ton of nutrients from wholesome veggies. And if you balance your salad well with nuts, seeds, and colorful produce, you'll be nourishing your body in a simple, low-calorie way.
It Helps You Live Longer: "Arugula, kale, and cabbage are cruciferous vegetables and are amazing at fighting oxidation," said Lisa. Why is this important? "Oxidation causes cancer, Alzheimer's, and most chronic diseases." So you want those antioxidants! "Oxidation is essentially rust in the body that takes about 80 years on average to kill us, and cruciferous veggies slow it down." More salad means a longer life.
Food Waste: Are you even eating those greens? Or did you excavate your bowl of greens in search of croutons? If you're not really eating it, it's not healthy! More often than not, salad greens end up getting tossed. "Food waste is a serious problem, people," Lisa said. "It should be something everyone is mindful of." She noted that you can cut down on waste if you "pack your own salads from home with reusable containers and the right portions that you'll eat, buy salads with dressing on the side so you can eat it all week, and if you don't like something on your salad, order it without that item."
The Health Halo: As mentioned before, there's a huge health halo around salads, so you assume that they're healthy no matter what kind of toppings and dressing you pile on. Be mindful of calories, fat, and sugar, etc. If you're layering croutons and Thousand Island on a mountain of nutrient-devoid iceberg lettuce, you're not really doing yourself a service. In that case, Lisa said, "You might as well order the cheeseburger."
While you want some healthy fats on your salad to help your body absorb the nutrients from veggies, there is such a thing as too much. "Essentially, all dressings at restaurants are too high in fat," Lisa said. She reiterated the idea that salad doesn't always mean healthy — "more than half of the salads you order at restaurants are more unhealthy than their counterparts."
How to Make Salads Better
So let's say you still want to give salads a go, but you want to ensure that 1) you're getting optimal nutrition, and 2) you're not wasting food. Here's her advice.
- Prep Smart. "Using layers to meal prep salads in Tupperware or jars is the best way to keep them fresh — just shake it when you're ready to eat. Pro tip: fold a paper towel and place it at the top of the jar under the seal to keep the lettuce crisp."
- Order Smart. At a restaurant? Hack your salad. "Hold the cheese and make your own dressing at the table — try 1/2 lemon juice, 1/2 balsamic vinegar, and a splash of EVOO with a ton of pepper or red pepper flakes — it's gold."
- Add Grains. "Warm grain bowls are nutrient dense and filling," said Lisa. If you're basing your diet on traditional Chinese medicine principles, warm foods are also easier to digest, so you'll be doing yourself a service if you layer your veggies on some warm quinoa vs. raw leaves.
- Switch It Up. "Eating a wider variety of veggies is the healthiest thing you can do," said Lisa. "Eat the rainbow! Try new fruits or vegetables." A few suggestions on how to do this: "Make a taco salad, fruit salad, or bean salads; try a fruit juice dressing, avocado dressing, or different fresh herbs in your salad."
- Pick the Right Organics. Not all organics are created equal. "Always buy organic lettuce and wash your lettuce and veggies! If you bathe in money, buy all organic. If not, only buy the dirty dozen organic [this includes lettuce!], but other fruits veggies you can buy regular and wash them."
- Pick the Right Greens. "All lettuces have different nutrients and amounts of fiber," she told us. "However, a salad with leafy greens will have more fiber and more bulk with fewer calories. Arugula, cabbage, kale, collards, and other dark leafy greens are the best choices."
- DIY Your Dressing. "The dressing is the Achilles heel of salads, and store-bought and restaurant dressings are typically high in unhealthy fats and calories," Lisa said. "People shy away from making their own because they think it's going to take forever or require culinary school, but a delicious and refreshing dressing can be so simple and take your salad game to a new level."
- Just Eat Something Else. You don't need salads to be healthy. There are plenty of options that are light and nutritious and won't lead to as much food waste. "Sandwiches on whole-grain bread with little or no cheese (unless it's grass-fed!) and plenty of veggies are great," Lisa told POPSUGAR. "Soups and stews are also nutrient-dense and filling and can be more satisfying since they're warm. A whole-wheat or bean pasta with plenty of grilled veggies is another great option. All these can be made in advance and packed for lunches all week."