Whether you’re looking to lose weight, improve your nutrition or simply adopt a healthier lifestyle, salads can be either your best friend or your worst enemy. Although they seem innocent enough, salads can quickly turn treacherous when they’re topped with creamy dressings and packed with fatty, high-calorie mix-ins. But if you make smart choices, you can build a healthy salad that’s not only tasty but healthy.
Your chosen leafy greens do more than just lay a foundation for your remaining mix-ins. In fact, leafy greens pack a powerful punch of nutrients all on their own. Although each type of leafy green offers different health benefits, they’re all low in calories and packed with fiber — which means you’ll fill your belly with fewer calories. Fiber also improves the health of your digestive system. Dark green lettuce, kale and spinach are packed with vitamins A, C, E and K, while bok choy and mustard greens also provide many of the B vitamins. This combination of vitamins supports the immune system, protects bones and keeps the cardiovascular system healthy. Unfortunately, light-colored leafy greens like iceberg lettuce don’t provide much nutrition — but they’ll still fill you up for fewer calories.
Most veggies have just 25 calories per 1/2-cup serving and are packed with vitamins and minerals. Since a veggie’s color often indicates its health benefits, aim for a rainbow of colors atop your salad. Green veggies, like broccoli and asparagus, promote eye health and may protect against cancer. The antioxidant lycopene, which reduces the risk of heart disease, is found in red vegetables like tomatoes, radishes and bell peppers. Get a healthy dose of immune-boosting vitamin C with yellow vegetables like squash and yellow peppers. Sweet potatoes, carrots and other orange veggies provide beta carotene, which benefits the immune system, eyesight and skin. For a sweeter salad topping, choose blueberries; they’re packed with anti-inflammatory and anti-cancer compounds. Purple veggies like eggplant and purple onion fight the effects of aging. White veggies like jicama, mushrooms, onion and cauliflower can protect against cancer and heart disease.
If your salad is the main course for your meal, don’t forget the protein. Protein provides amino acids, the building blocks for your body’s bones, muscles and cartilage. It’s also vital for the synthesis of enzymes and hormones. Skinless chicken or turkey breast, chunk light tuna or salmon are excellent choices. If you’re a vegetarian, stick with beans, legumes or egg whites to add a punch of protein.
A little bit of healthy fat helps your body absorb the nutrients in your salad. Of course, that doesn’t mean you should soak your salad with creamy, cholesterol-laden dressings. Instead, choose a drizzle of olive oil and a handful of olives, sunflower seeds, almonds or walnuts. For a creamier dressing, mash an avocado with a bit of olive oil. In addition to helping you absorb the veggies’ nutrients, healthy fats also provide vitamin E and selenium, help lower blood pressure and reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease.