Healthy Eating: Toss it up

Salad is by nature healthy – but have you ever wondered what nutrients are mixed up inside that big pile of greens?

June 11, 2013 16:00

GEORGIAN BEAN SALAD WITH POMEGRANATE 370. (photo credit: Courtesy)

Heading out to lunch with friends and in the mood for a healthier option, what do you order? Salad. Wanting to put together a quick and easy dinner, what do you make? Salad.

Salad is one of the most popular dishes to order at restaurants and to make at home. And as it is primarily vegetables, we can automatically assume it is healthy for us. But have you ever stopped to wonder just how healthy? What nutrients are we getting from that chicken salad at lunch, or the chopped salad we ate as an appetizer at dinner?

Here is a run through of the nutrients you are getting when you toss up a salad.

Lots of lettuce

Making up the base of most salads, lettuce often gets overlooked for its nutritional benefits. Yes, we assume it’s good for us because it’s a green, but very few people realize just how good this leafy legume really is. For starters, lettuce is an excellent source of Vitamin A (beta-carotene), C and K and so in short is important for our eyes, boosts our immunity and helps to mop of cancer causing free radicals. While that’s already quite an extensive list, this crunchy green also contains Zeaxanthin, an antioxidant that helps delay age-related eyesight problems.

Now, there is some truth to the rumors about lettuce. Iceberg, while tasty, does contain less nutrients than the darker versions. Romaine lettuce, for instance, is an excellent source of dietary fiber, which helps to lower cholesterol. Romaine lettuce is also considered a great source of Folic Acid, a B-vitamin that is needed to remove homocystein – a compound that damages blood vessels and greatly increasing the risk of heart attack and stroke.

However, there is more to salad than just lettuce – so let’s take a look at some of the other common salad ingredients:

Throw in some tomatoes

Loaded with vitamins, tomatoes are without doubt one of the best foods around. However, what really makes tomatoes shine is their lycopene content. The carotenoid responsible for tomato's fiery hue, lycopene, is also responsible for its multiple health benefits. This potent antioxidant helps to mop of free radicals that can cause many different types of cancer including prostate and breast. If that wasn’t enough, studies have also found that lycopene makes skin less sensitive to UV light damage, a leading cause of fine lines and wrinkles.

Go crazy with cucumbers

Ninety-five percent water, cucumbers are extremely hydrating and refreshing. However, there is more to this green than just water. Cucumbers are a great source of Vitamin K and have been shown (in animal studies) to reduce inflammation in the body.

Pile on the peppers

Low in calories, bell peppers are loaded with Vitamin C, Vitamin B6, magnesium as well as cancer-fighting antioxidants. So whether you are a fan of green, red, orange or yellow, bell peppers are without doubt an excellent addition to your salad. However, is one healthier than the rest?

Before declaring one winner, it is important to note that they are all the same plant. The different colors just come from the different stage at which the plant is harvested. Green peppers are harvested before they are ripe – which is why they are cheaper, and unfortunately contain the least amount of nutrients. Yellow and orange peppers, like our sun, are in the middle stages. They are more mature than green, and contain more Vitamin C. However, it is red peppers that really come out on top. The last stage in the color cycle, red peppers contain double the amount of Vitamin C and nearly ten times the amount of Vitamin A (beta-carotene) as green peppers.

Overload on red onions

It’s a pretty common fact that onions (whether they are red or white) are healthy for us; but very few of us realize just how healthy.  For starters, red onions are one of the best sources of quercetin, an anti-oxidant that has garnered a lot of attention for its cancer-fighting benefits. This compound also exhibits anti-fungal, anti-bacterial, and anti-inflammatory properties and has been found to help suppress the rhinoviruses, which is the underlying cause of the common cold. Red onions also contain allicium, which has been linked to reducing the risk of cardiovascular diseases.

Vegetables such as peppers, lettuce and cucumbers will certainly load your body up on fiber, vitamins and antioxidants; but what about some good old fashion protein?

Grilled chicken

High in protein and low in fat, grilled chicken is a great addition to any salad. A 225g piece actually supplies 70% of one’s daily recommended intake – so it’s the perfect way to fill up and load up on this essential nutrient.  It is also high in phosphorus, selenium and Vitamin B6.

However, if you are vegetarian (or just aren’t a fan of chicken), then try some garbanzo beans (commonly known as chickpeas). This white bean is loaded in protein and fiber, so it will keep you feeling full for a long longtime. What’s more, studies have found that regular intake of chickpeas can lower LDL (bad) cholesterol levels.

Add a healthy fat

While it may seem like an oxymoron to put the word healthy next to fat, the combination does exist. Monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats, the two unsaturated fats, provide a long running list of health benefits – including lowering LDL cholesterol levels, decreasing the risk of coronary heart disease and helping to control glucose levels.

So, where can you find some healthy fats? Olive Oil. The base of many salad dressings, olive oil has been shown to reduce LDL cholesterol, decrease blood pressure, and even help to improve cognitive function. However, watch out, as many salad dressings, contain unhealthy ingredients that can easily negate the good ones of olive oil.

Not all salads are created equally

Salad is one of the easiest (and healthiest) dishes to prepare; however, not all salads are the same. And even if it contains some (or even all) of the healthy ingredients listed above, many salads have more calories and fat than a McDonald’s Big Mac. A few to place on your watch list are: Caesar – while extremely delish, this salad’s dressing and croutons push the calorie and fat content sky high, well above 500 calories and 20 grams of fat. Also watch out for Cobb Salad, whose French dressing is packed with fat. In short any salad that is dosed in fatty cheese, creamy dressing and fried croutons, is definitely in need of a health food makeover.

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