Choose carefully to create healthful salad

December 27, 1999|By Lynn F. Little

Just because it's called a "salad" doesn't mean it's good for you. Sure, you can create a healthy meal on your way through the salad bar. But you also can create a nutritional nightmare if you're not careful.

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The basic standbys at any salad bar - lettuce, spinach, tomatoes, carrots, cucumbers, cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower - are loaded with vitamins, minerals, phytochemicals (plant chemicals) and fiber. But beware the hidden nutritional traps lurking among these goodies.

Take salad dressings. It's not just that they're high in fat, it's also the type of fat in them. All fats pack 9 calories per gram, twice as much as carbohydrates or protein. If weight loss is your goal, be sure to choose reduced-fat and reduced-calorie dressings. If you prefer the "real" thing, try vinaigrettes made with olive or canola oil. These oils are high in monounsaturated fats. Unlike saturated fats, they actually can help lower blood cholesterol levels.


The creamy desserts and side salads that are mainstays of many salad bars can trap the unsuspecting. By adding these to your plate, a trip through the salad bar easily can add up to 1,000 calories and be loaded with fat.

If you avoid these traps, salads are a great way to take advantage of the disease-fighting properties of fiber, vitamins, phytochemicals and healthy fats. And salads are a great way to get your five daily servings of fruits and vegetables.

What's the big deal with fruits and vegetables? Study after study shows that they protect against both heart disease and cancer. And it has to be the real thing. Supplements of isolated nutrients often fail to produce the same positive results.

How do they work? Well, vegetables are one of the best sources of fiber. Fiber helps reduce blood cholesterol levels, cutting heart disease risk. It also may help prevent cancer. In the intestines, fiber keeps foods, including potential carcinogens, moving through the system and ultimately out of it. A half-cup of beans, broccoli, peas or corn provides more than 2 grams of fiber - a good start on the 25 to 30 grams recommended daily.

Dark green, yellow and red vegetables - spinach, red and yellow peppers, tomatoes - are rich in vitamin A precursors known as carotenoids. These, too, may protect against heart disease and cancer. Studies have linked the beta-carotene in foods to cancer and heart disease prevention. Supplements of concentrated beta-carotene do not show the same benefit. This is one more reason to rely on foods, not pills, for your vitamins.

To take advantage of vitamin C's antioxidant properties, choose tomatoes, peppers, broccoli, avocado and cabbage. Broccoli, cauliflower and cabbage all belong to a family of plants known as cruciferous vegetables. Along with fiber and vitamins, they also pack important phytochemicals. Though it's too soon to make a direct cause-and-effect connection, there's plenty of evidence to suggest that eating cruciferous vegetables is an important part of a cancer-protective diet.

So the next time you browse your favorite salad bar, use your salad savvy to avoid those hidden traps, get your "five-a-day," and protect your health in the process.

Maryland Cooperative Extension programs are open to all citizens without regard to race, color, sex, disability, age, religion or national origin.

Lynn F. Little is a family and consumer sciences extension educator for Maryland Cooperative Extension, Washington County.

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