Salads can be one of your best food choices and should be at the top of everyone's list of healthy, fail-safe choices even on the busiest of days. With the use of convenient pre-washed greens, they can be assembled in a flash and provide your body with a concentrated source of disease-fighting antioxidants. But some salads are loaded with calories and fat and can weigh in with more than 1,000 calories and 30 grams of fat. Choose from these ingredients to either make your own healthy salad at home or to make wise choices at a salad bar.
1. Choose the most nutritious greens. Greens are the base of a healthy salad and not all greens are created equal. In addition to being more nutritious, darker greens are more flavorful. Pass up iceberg for dark green lettuces including spring mixes, spinach, romaine, and arugula. Be generous: Two-thirds of your salad should be comprised of nutrient-dense, calorie-light greens — two cups of mixed leaves only contain about 20 calories.
2. Pile on the veggies. Red bell peppers, red onion, carrots, cucumbers, tomatoes, broccoli, sugar snap peas, and bean sprouts are all good choices. Tomatoes and carrots are two common salad veggies that are nutritional powerhouses, so choose generous helpings of both. The lycopene in tomatoes reduces cardio risk and also fights many types of cancer, including breast, prostate, and colon. Carrots have generous amounts of beta carotene, which protect your eyes while lowering your risk of heart disease and several types of cancer. Skip the marinated artichoke hearts, but do add a few chunks of avocado. Its monounsaturated oils help your body absorb all of the healthy antioxidants from the other veggies.
3. Sprinkle on a bit of dried fruit. Dried fruits such as raisins, blueberries, and cranberries add variety and flavor to your salad. Pterostilbene, a chemical in blueberries, boosts the immune system, and the potassium in raisins helps lower blood pressure. In addition to preventing urinary infections, some studies show that cranberries increase metabolism and stimulate the part of the brain that controls satiety. But use just a spoonful — dried fruits are sources of concentrated calories. Pieces of freshly chopped fruit, such as apples and pears, are also great choices for including in salads since they're packed with antioxidants and fiber.
4. Toss in a few nuts. Nuts have gotten a lot of attention lately as study after study found that the monounsaturated fats, plant sterols, and fiber found in nuts reduce the risk of heart disease and cancer and can even add years to your life. Walnuts are a top choice since they contain almost twice as many polyphenols as other nuts, but all nuts are healthy choices as long as they are raw or dry roasted.
5. Add a protein punch. Chunks of low-fat meat such as chicken, tuna, or salmon add stick-to-your ribs protein to your salad. Tuna and salmon are great choices because they add disease-fighting omega-3 fatty acids to your diet. Hard-boiled eggs and beans, such as chickpeas, garbanzo and black beans, provide protein and are rich in nutrients. Cheese also adds protein to your meal, but adds fat as well, so stick to small amounts, preferably shredded. Grated cheese, such as parmesan, gives a punch of flavor for fewer calories. But pass on crumbled bacon.
6. Choose a wholesome dressing. Many people take a healthy, good-for-you salad and ruin it by dumping on too much of the wrong dressing. The wrong dressing can raise the amount of fat and calories to the level of a fast food meal. In general, avoid creamy dressings which are usually full of fat and calories. A vinaigrette made with olive oil and a couple of fresh herbs, such as oregano and rosemary, tops the list of the most healthy dressings. The American Chemical Society found that a compound called oleocanthal found in olive oil protects nerve cells by removing abnormal proteins that are characteristic of Alzheimer's from the brain.
But even too much of a healthy vinaigrette can be too much of a good thing. Try to limit yourself to one-and-a-half tablespoons, but an even better idea is to serve the dressing on the side and dip your fork into the dressing before spearing a bite of salad. You'll be surprised how little dressing it takes to bring out your salad's great flavors.
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