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Are Salads Actually Healthy?

Getting (or staying) healthy is one of the more common goals that people have. Many times, it comes in the form of working out more often. But it also includes the desire to eat more nutritious food, and cut out snacks and processed items. When you think about going on a diet, what’s one of the first foods that comes to mind? Most of us are hardwired to instantly land on salads, as this meal has long been considered on the healthy side of nutrition.

However, studies show that Americans don’t have an accurate grasp on what determines food to be healthy. Much of this has to do with the verbiage used on food packaging and the messages we receive through advertisements. In fact, nearly 75% of people who participated in an NPR poll said that their diets are top notch. But close to 80% of Americans don’t consume enough fruits and vegetables each day.

Does this discrepancy point to a failure in understanding what constitutes a healthy meal choice? While the variables are numerous and complex, it seems as if truly knowing which foods are good for you (and which aren’t) is a challenge that needs to be tackled.

Let’s explore some of the more common myths around salads. A meal that’s often considered to be a “diet” item may create more problems than you realize.


Myth #1 – All Salads Are Created Equal

Depending on where you live, your toppings might vary. But most salads include many of the same things: greens, tomatoes, a few other random components, and dressing. While the options are nearly endless, what you include in your salad can play a major role in the overall level of health it provides. Surprisingly, the toppings that are considered to be rather popular can actually be some of the worst for you:

  • Bacon bits Sure, it’s obvious that sprinkling pieces of fried fat onto your salad likely won’t help you to achieve your dietary goals. But a shockingly large number of people still turn to this item by default. If meat on your salad is a must, try shredded chicken breast instead. Other protein sources that are rich in nutrients include tempeh and chickpeas.
  • Dried fruit What better way to incorporate some fruit into your diet than by adding dried mango or cranberries in your salad, right? Unfortunately, when fruit is dehydrated it becomes calorie-dense and often contains added sugar or oils. Better bets include fresh chopped apples, grapes, or blueberries. Or, if you absolutely must have dried fruit, make your own at home in the oven.
  • Cheese Whether it’s a Greek salad with feta or a cobb with shredded cheddar, cheese often tops our greens on a regular basis. Unfortunately, even just a little bit adds to our daily intake of saturated fat and can derail your diet goals. While we know it’s not the same, adding cubed tofu can mimic the real thing. Dairy-free cheeses can also be a smarter alternative, but make sure to first check the label for its nutritional benefits.
  • Creamy salad dressings – Despite being absolutely delicious, most popular dressings like ranch or blue cheese contain a wide range of artificial ingredients and tons of added fats and sugars. Instead of relying on something in a bottle to add a creamy element to your salad, try using hummus or avocado. Make your own dressing at home using Greek yogurt as a healthier alternative to store-bought options.
  • Croutons – It’s a classic salad staple, particularly in restaurants, offering crunch and texture to an otherwise boring meal. However, croutons essentially add a host of extra calories to your plate without many benefits. Instead of opting for a salty processed version, try toasting your own at home using whole wheat bread.

It’s surprising just how many of these ingredients are completely commonplace in people’s salads. Yet we often wonder why we aren’t reaching the health goals we anticipate. If salads are the main staple in your diet, make sure to choose toppings that truly are health-conscious instead of piling fat, sugar, and extra calories on top of that bed of lettuce. However, it’s not just the added items that can be problematic when it comes to this meal. Even the vegetables can spell trouble.


Myth #2 – Raw Salad Delivers Optimal Nutrients

Consider the last time you ate a salad and then take a mental inventory of all the things that were on your plate. How many of them were cooked? Likely very few, if any. While some parts of the nation are embracing alternatives to the “traditional” salad, many people still hold onto the vision of fresh greens and produce. Yet in some cases, these items aren’t as good for you as you may think.

Adding protein to your salad is a wise choice. Oftentimes black beans or kidney beans are items that make the cut. However, studies show that uncooked beans contain large amounts of a toxin called glycoprotein lectin. It has been known to cause nausea, diarrhea, and vomiting depending on the levels ingested. As few as five kidney beans can be enough to cause symptoms. If you’re adding beans to your salad, make sure to soak them in water for at least five hours and then cook them in clean water until tender.

A healthy crunch in your salad doesn’t sound like a bad idea, but you may want to think twice before going completely raw with your veggies. While this won’t be true for everyone, some individuals do experience gas and bloating from certain cruciferous vegetables including broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, and brussels sprouts. If you have thyroid issues you may want to exercise even greater caution, as eating these items raw can release thyroid inhibitors into your system.

Not only is it smart to avoid certain raw veggies, but there are other salad selections that can add nutritional value when cooked. Cooked carrots offer up their beta-carotene more easily. And spinach gives your body more calcium, magnesium, and iron after being heated. Although tomatoes are typically raw in salads, if you do choose to cook them, you’ll absorb more lycopene. However, not all salads will taste great with cooked vegetables, so choose wisely.

Myth #3 – Eating Salad Helps You Lose Weight

Unless you have a particular love for vegetables, the primary reason you’re considering incorporating salads into your diet on a regular basis is likely to lose weight. On the surface, it might seem that a salad is an ideal choice, as it typically fills you up without a lot of calories. But this rationale is one of the main problems with this meal choice. Many common ingredients including iceberg lettuce, celery, and cucumbers are virtually calorie-free and less filling. This means you’re probably left with a pile of calorie-laden toppings and dressing.

What’s more, studies show that when foods are marketed under the label of “healthy” or even low-fat, it causes your brain to change the way it reacts to the food. Called the “health halo” effect, the way food is presented to us makes a big difference in how much of it we eat. Suddenly, enjoying a good-for-you food makes you want more than you’d normally consume, essentially canceling out its health benefits.

Since a salad doesn’t contain a ton of calories and likely zero carbs (unless you’ve really piled on the croutons) it can actually work against you. Your energy levels will decrease due to a lack of fuel and your time in the gym won’t be nearly as effective. Instead, your body will start to process amino acids for energy, thus slowing down your metabolism and doing the exact opposite thing that aids in weight loss.


Salads for Life

Even though salad may not be quite what it seems, you can still take advantage of its benefits by incorporating this meal into your daily routine. Choosing the right vegetables and toppings is key. With some creativity and healthy swaps of more traditional ingredients, you’ll reap the benefits of feeding your body plenty of vegetables on a regular basis.

So, get creative with your salads and play around with both hot and cold ingredients. Grab items from your pantry that you might otherwise not include on a plate of greens. Get creative in the kitchen by making your own healthy dressings.

Instead of buying into these popular salad myths and wreaking havoc on your diet, let the power of salads help you to achieve your health and wellness goals. And remember that the right choices make the right salad!
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