Are salads healthy? Here’s what you should add and avoid.


Q: How do I know if my salad is really healthy? Which ingredients should I add to my salads and which should I avoid?

A: Salad is usually a healthy meal, but only if you add the right combination of ingredients and stay away from store-bought bottled dressing.

To make a great salad, start with lettuce or leafy greens. It might surprise you to learn that the type of vegetables you choose doesn’t really matter all that much. Compared to other vegetables, iceberg lettuce probably has the least nutrients, but almost all lettuces are low in vitamins and minerals. Dark leafy greens like spinach have more micronutrients, but the iron in spinach is poorly absorbed and high in oxalate, so be careful if you’re prone to kidney stones.

The main health benefit of lettuce and other salad greens is fiber. Salads are usually full of fiber, which is a nutrient—just not for you! Fiber really is food for the microbiome, the trillions of bacteria that live in your gut. Fiber is also key to metabolic health. Bacteria in your gut convert fiber into short-chain fatty acids, which can regulate immune function and keep inflammation in check.

To increase the fiber in your leafy green salad, add a variety of vegetables, such as broccoli and green peppers, and add beans and lentils.

But the healthiest salads include many other good-for-you ingredients, such as antioxidants. Antioxidants are chemicals essential to your liver that detoxify virtually all environmental toxins that enter the body. To perform this magic trick, your liver needs these antioxidants.

For antioxidants, try chopped colorful vegetables (the darker the better), chopped fresh fruit, herbs (fresh or dried) and spices. Then add protein, such as free-range eggs, pastured beef, fish, chicken, tofu, beans, or lentils.

Add fat and fermented foods to your salad

Now layer in some fat from whole foods – including avocados, olives, nuts and seeds. Nuts and seeds (such as chia seeds and walnuts) are full of the anti-inflammatory alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), an omega-3 fatty acid that has been shown to reduce the risk of heart disease.

For other sources of omega-3s, try small fish such as anchovies (commonly found in Caesar salads). You can also include other wild-caught fish (sardines, salmon, mackerel) or chicken (free-range chickens have fewer antibiotics).

Cheeses are a fantastic addition because they contain odd-chain fatty acids that protect against diabetes and heart disease. We’ve all been taught to avoid fat because it has more calories, but dairy fatty acids are unique in that they have a specific phospholipid at the end that prevents inflammation. Just don’t use American cheese that isn’t really cheese. Instead, try varieties like feta, cotija, parmesan and mozzarella.

Bonus points go to kale, cabbage and Brussels sprouts – cruciferous vegetables that can boost your own natural production of antioxidants and stimulates the production of liver detoxification enzymes. Another bonus: fresh tomatoes contain lycopene, an antioxidant that supports eye function and prevents cataracts.

Adding fermented foods like kimchi and sauerkraut can give you a gut-friendly boost, as can homemade dressings made with natural, unsweetened yogurt. And fermented foods already contain short-chain fatty acids.

Avoid store-bought salad dressings

Okay. Now let’s talk about the salad dressing. To make a great homemade dressing, focus on ingredients like extra virgin olive oil, avocado oil, tahini, Dijon vinegar, herbs, spices, and low-sugar citrus juices (lemon, lime, grapefruit).

The oleic acid in olive oil activates the liver to produce a factor that accelerates metabolism. The acetic acid in vinegar inhibits an enzyme that breaks down starch in the mouth, thereby reducing the rate at which glucose appears in your blood. Some homemade dressings get extra antioxidants from spices and herbs like ginger, garlic, turmeric, thyme, and oregano.

But the same can’t be said for most store-bought bandages. Store-bought versions are often made with canola and soybean oils, which are full of them linoleic acidinflammatory omega-6 fatty acid.

They can also sneak in large amounts of fructose (the sugar molecule) in the form of cane sugar, high fructose corn syrup or honey – which damages mitochondria, the energy-producing factories that power your every cell. When your mitochondria are not working properlyyour blood glucose and insulin spike, and your liver has no choice but to turn fructose into fat—causing fatty liver and insulin resistance, and potentially increasing your risk of heart disease, cancer, and diabetes.

You might be surprised how common it is for sugar to sneak into bottled dressings. For example, high fructose corn syrup is the second ingredient in Kraft Creamy French Dressing, which has five grams of added sugar. And watch out for fat-free dressings—for example, Ken’s Sundried Tomato Vinaigrette has 12 grams of added sugar.

Store-bought bandages can also contain ingredients that are bad for the gut and the trillions of bacteria that live there. These bacteria send chemical signals to your brain asking to be fed. If you don’t feed your bacteria, they actually will they start feeding on you — removing mucin, a protective layer, right from your intestinal cells. Over time, this can lead to irritable bowel syndrome, inflammatory bowel disease, and altered intestinal permeability, which some people call “leaky gut.” It can also cause systemic inflammation.

Store-bought dressings often contain emulsifiers such as carboxymethylcellulose, polysorbate-80, or carrageenan, which keep fat and water from separating—and can dissolve them a protective mucus layer in your gut. These pesky added sugars can also cause bad microbiome bacteria to proliferate, potentially leading to gastrointestinal issues, gas, bloating, diarrhea and inflammation.

Croutons and crunchy things

But that doesn’t mean you have to skip the dressing. Studies have shown that fat — such as in avocados — actually helps your body absorb nutrients from some vegetables. The key is to choose the right ingredients and ideally make your own dressing at home.

It’s also a good idea to avoid “crispy” things (like fried onions and tortilla strips), which are often fried in seed oils at high temperatures, risking the formation of trans fats and acrylamide, a known carcinogen. I would also suggest being careful with dried fruit; some varieties and brands coat them with sugar to make them sweeter and tastier.

Finally, beware of processed breads. A Caesar salad isn’t a Caesar salad without croutons—but commercial croutons are usually full of preservatives, sodium, and vegetable oils. Bake your own croutons or pair your salad with a piece of sourdough bread. But please don’t eat the fried tortilla bowl.

Robert H. Funny is professor emeritus of pediatrics at the University of California, San Francisco and author of “Metabolic: The Lure and Lies of Processed Food, Nutrition and Modern Medicine.”

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