A salad is a collection of raw vegetables, with or without some sort of salad dressing mixed in. From a dietary standpoint, salads come in many forms. Not all salads are healthy or nutritious. One can create a healthy meal from a salad bar. But it is also easy to make unhealthy choices and select many items high in calories and fat.
The most basic offerings at salad bars are healthy choices. These are leaf lettuces, spinach, tomatoes, carrots, cucumbers, cabbage, broccoli, and cauliflower. These are loaded with vitamins, minerals, phytochemicals, which are so-called plant chemicals, and fiber.
However, most salad bars also have nutrition traps. The creamy desserts, some salad dressings and side salads, such as macaroni salads and potato salads, are drenched with fat and calories.
Health experts recommend eating between five and nine servings of fruits and vegetables each day. These foods can help protect against heart disease and some cancers. Salad and salad bars are a great way to get five servings if a person makes healthy food choices when preparing the salad.
Vegetables are a good source of fiber. So are beans, such as kidney beans and chickpeas. Fiber helps reduce blood cholesterol levels. This helps to cut heart disease risk. Fiber may also be key in cancer prevention. Experts believe this may be due to fiber's role in keeping foods, including potential cancer-causing agents, through -- and ultimately out of -- the intestinal tract.
Dark green, yellow, and red vegetables such as spinach, red and yellow peppers, and tomatoes, are rich in vitamin A. These are called carotenoids. These key nutrients have been studied for their potentially protective role in heart disease and cancer. Tomatoes, peppers, broccoli, avocado and cabbage have an antioxidant effect due to their high levels of vitamin C.
Broccoli, cauliflower, and cabbage all belong to a family of plants known as cruciferous vegetables. In addition to fiber and vitamins, these foods have phytochemicals. Some experts believe that eating cruciferous vegetables can prevent cancer.
Eggs, nuts, seeds, tuna, and lean meats can be great protein sources in salads. Be careful of tuna made with mayonnaise or high fat meats such as pepperoni. They can add too much fat and calories. Cheese can contribute calcium and protein, but watch portion sizes because cheese also tends to be high in fat.
Salad dressings are usually high in fat. The types of fat salad dressings are made of matters. Most salad dressings are made from vegetable oils. Vegetable oils are unsaturated fats, which are thought to be good fats. The only problem is the calories. Fats of any kind contain 9 calories per gram. This is more than twice as many calories as are in carbohydrates and proteins. When choosing non-diet salad dressings, watch portion sizes. Also, look on the label for dressings that do not contain much saturated fat. Saturated fats may be higher in certain types of salad dressing such as buttermilk ranch. If weight loss is a goal, reduced fat or fat-free dressings are the best choices. Dressings made with olive or canola oil have monounsaturated fats. Monounsaturated fats may actually help lower cholesterol levels. Saturated fats are found in dairy products, meats, and some creamy salad dressings. Saturated fats raise cholesterol levels.
An innocent trip through the salad bar can easily total up to 1,000 calories, especially if the salad is loaded with fat. Making wise choices can be a great way to get the disease-fighting properties of fiber, minerals, vitamins, phytochemicals, and healthy fats. It can also help with weight loss and weight maintenance.
Duyff, R., MS, RD, CFCS. (1996). The American Dietetic Association's Complete Food&Nutrition Guide. Minnesota: Chronimed Publishing.