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We all know that salads, when made with the right components, are one of the healthiest choices you can make at meal time. Low in fat and calories, and full of vegetables and nutrients, it's a one-plate powerhouse for the health conscious. But over the years, salad has gotten a bad rap. The overwhelming opinion is that this doctor recommended plate of roughage is downright boring. And in many cases, that's true: the widespread American version of the salad, usually found as an afterthought on restaurant menus, is a bland combination of iceberg lettuce, carrot shreds, a few onion slices, and some watery tomato. Would anyone actually want to eat that? Probably not. But a salad, when made properly, can actually become a culinary masterpiece, high in flavor and low in calories.

Why Eat It?

The benefits of salads are well known: plenty of vegetables (and sometimes fruits), which contain vital vitamins and minerals that fight disease, and little fat or calories. For those seeking to cut calories for weight loss, replacing just one rich, heavy pasta or meat based meal a day with a salad can cut up to 500 calories from your daily caloric intake, an adjustment that could mean up to a pound of weight loss per week. In addition, meals supplemented with salads as an appetizer or side dish get an instant boost in nutritional value, and help you meet the 3-5 servings, or 2 ½ cups, of vegetables recommended daily by the USDA. Even better, most salads contain raw veggies, which retain more of their naturally occurring nutrients than those that have been cooked.

The Trouble With Salad
The aforementioned salad combination of iceberg lettuce and veggies is admittedly bland and mundane. Made up of garden varieties without much flavor (or nutritional value), the taste is a whole plate of nothing. To make up for this lackluster performance in flavor, many people pile on the dressing, and the calories. Salad dressing varieties like Caesar or ranch can have up to 200 calories per serving! And with serving sizes around 2 tablespoons each, which most people double or triple, that simple salad can suddenly have more fat and calories than an average cheeseburger. Even worse, the absence of vegetables high in fiber mean you'll be hungry again in under a few hours.In addition to these problems, many people are so comforted by the word "salad" that they don't stop to analyze what they're actually eating. It doesn't matter if you're eating tons of bacon and cheese, because it's in a salad, right? In reality, a "salad" is not defined as a healthy meal option, but as a combination of chopped or sliced ingredients. An entire Philly Cheese steak, oozing cheddar, beef, onions, and grease, chopped finely and placed on a plate over a piece of lettuce could technically absolutely be defined as a salad, but it most certainly wouldn't be healthy. It is easy to fall victim to this trap unless and consume an unreasonable amount of fat and calories unless you implement mindful eating and educated choices.

Building a Better Salad

All that being said, it is very easy to create a filling, flavorful, and 100% healthy salad from the ground up. And if you know what to look for, and what to avoid, it is easy to separate the healthy choices from those that are dietary disasters.

  • The Foundation

    Iceberg and lettuce may have a satisfying crunch, but it is made up mostly of water, and has very little fiber, the stuff that keeps you full until the next meal. In addition, it has fairly low levels of vitamins and mineral in comparison to other leaves. You should look for dark, leafy greens like spinach or baby spinach, arugala, and mesclun greens, which offer plenty of vitamins and fiber. Blends of baby or micro-greens are also good, and are more delicate than mature leaves.
  • Add Ins

    These are the items that give the salad its bulk and make it enjoyable, so choose wisely. The best "healthy" salads have a good balance of lean protein (like chicken, salmon, or turkey), nutrient dense vegetables, and one or two flavorful accents used in moderation (a handful of nuts, cooked beans, a ¼ cup of lowfat cheese) to make the dish enjoyable. You are not limited to onions, tomatoes, and carrots! You aren't even limited to vegetables, fruits can be delicious, flavorful additions to any salad. The goal should be to include at least one item from each color group found in the produce aisle:
  • Red : beets, red peppers, radishes, red onion, tomatoes, cherries, cranberries, pomegranates, raspberries, red apples, red grapes, strawberries, etc.
  • Orange/yellow : sweet corn, sweet potatoes, carrots, butternut squash, yellow beets, yellow peppers, yellow summer squash, mangoes, nectarines, oranges, peaches, papayas, pineapple, yellow apples, etc.
  • White : cauliflower, garlic, ginger, jicama, mushrooms, onions, potatoes, shallots, white corn, dates, white peaches, etc.
  • Green : artichokes, asparagus, broccoli, celery, cucumber, endive, green beans, green pepper, okra, peas, watercress, zucchini, avocados, green grapes, green apples, kiwifruit, limes, etc.
  • Blue/Purple : eggplant, purple asparagus, purple cabbage, purple corn, blackberries, blueberries, black currants, plums, figs, purple grapes, raisins, etc.

With all the options available, it shouldn't be hard to make a healthy, satisfying salad that you personally will enjoy.

  • Dress it

    Here is where many healthy intentions go awry. While heavy dressings are rich in flavor, they are also heavy with calories, fat, and saturated fat. Paying attention to portion size is a must; measure quantities exactly if need be. A good rule of thumb is to avoid all cream and cheese based dressings, like ranch, Caesar, bleu cheese, Russian, and Honey Mustard (which can be packed with sugar). Lite varieties are good alternatives, but read the labels : some "healthy" varieties are actually not all that lite at all.

Look for vinaigrettes and dressings with a heart-friendly oil base, like extra-virgin olive oil or walnut oil. These options draw their flavors from vinegar, citrus juices, and seasonings rather than fats, and the fats they do contain are generally good for you in moderation. And be creative : salsas and pureed avocado or guacamole are great substitutions for traditional dressings, and add colors and flavors that make the meal interesting.

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