Advice |  Ask a Doctor: Are Salads Really Good for You?

Advice | Ask a Doctor: Are Salads Really Good for You?


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

A: Salad is generally a healthy food, but only if you add the right combination of ingredients and avoid store-bought bottled dressing.

To prepare a good salad, start with lettuce or leafy greens. You might be surprised to learn that it doesn’t really matter what kind of greenery you choose. Compared to other green vegetables, iceberg lettuce probably contains the fewest nutrients, but almost all lettuces are low in vitamins and minerals. Dark leafy greens like spinach have more micronutrients, but the type of 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 greens in a salad is fiber. Salads are usually loaded with fiber, which is a nutrient – but not for you! Fiber really is food for the microbiome, the billions 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 control inflammation.

To boost the fiber content of your leafy green salad, add assorted vegetables, such as broccoli and green peppers, and add beans and lentils.

But the healthiest salads contain many other healthy ingredients, such as antioxidants. Antioxidants are essential chemicals for your liver that detoxify virtually all environmental poisons 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 on some whole-food fats, including avocado, olives, nuts, and seeds. Nuts and seeds (like chia seeds and walnuts) are packed with anti-inflammatory alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), an omega-3 fatty acid that reduces the risk of heart disease.

For other sources of omega-3s, try small fish, like anchovies (commonly found in Caesar salads). You can also include other wild fish (sardines, salmon, mackerel) or chicken (pasture-raised chicken has fewer antibiotics).

Cheeses are a fantastic addition because they contain odd-chain fatty acids, which 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 contain a specific phospholipid at their end that prevents inflammation. Don’t use American cheese, which 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 body’s natural production of antioxidants and boost the production of liver-detoxifying 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 an intestinal boost, as can homemade salad dressings made with natural, unsweetened yogurt. And fermented foods already contain short-chain fatty acids.

Avoid store-bought salad dressings

OK. Now let’s talk about dressings. To make a good homemade dressing, favor ingredients such as extra virgin olive oil, avocado oil, tahini, Dijon vinegar, herbs, spices and low-strength citrus juices. in sugar (lemon, lime, grapefruit).

The oleic acid in olive oil activates the liver to produce a factor that speeds up metabolism. The acetic acid in vinegar inhibits an enzyme that breaks down starches in your mouth, reducing the level of glucose that appears in your bloodstream. Some homemade salad dressings contain additional antioxidants from spices and seasonings such as ginger, garlic, turmeric, thyme, and oregano.

But the same cannot be said for most store-bought dressings. Store-bought versions are often made with canola and soybean oils, which are packed with linoleic acid, an inflammatory 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 damage mitochondria, the energy-producing factories that feed each of your cells. When your mitochondria aren’t working properly, your blood sugar and insulin spike, and your liver has no choice but to turn fructose into fat, leading to fatty liver and insulin resistance and potentially increasing your risk of develop heart disease, cancer and diabetes.

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

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

Store-bought salad dressings often contain emulsifiers, such as carboxymethylcellulose, polysorbate-80, or carrageenan, which keep fat and water from separating — and can dissolve that protective layer of mucin in your gut. Those pesky added sugars can also cause bad microbiome bacteria to overgrow, potentially leading to gastrointestinal upset, gas, bloating, diarrhea, and inflammation.

Croutons and crispy things

But that doesn’t mean you should skip the bandage. Studies have shown that fats — like in avocados — actually help your body absorb nutrients from certain vegetables. The main thing is to choose the right ingredients and, ideally, to 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 fatty acids. acrylamide, a known carcinogen. I would also suggest being careful with dried fruit; some varieties and brands coat them in sugar to make them sweeter and more palatable.

And finally, beware of processed breads. A Caesar salad is not a Caesar salad without croutons – but commercial croutons are usually packed with preservatives, sodium and vegetable oils. Bake your own croutons or serve your salad with a slice of sourdough bread. But please don’t eat the bowl of fried tortillas.

Robert H. Funny is Professor Emeritus of Pediatrics at the University of California, San Francisco and author of “Metabolic: The Allure and Lies of Processed Foods, Nutrition, and Modern Medicine.”

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