By Cynthia Sass, MPH, RD, Health.com contributing nutrition editor
I eat some type of salad nearly every day. It’s a go-to staple I really look forward to, and I love mixing it up. Some days I toss greens with pico de gallo, black beans, and guacamole, others involve grilled veggies, quinoa, and almonds, or roasted chickpeas and olive tapenade.
I enjoy creating new combinations, and to do so without throwing my meal off balance, I use a mix-and-match philosophy: I start with a greens and veggie base, add a lean protein, choose a good-for-you fat, include a small portion of healthy starch, season, and commence crunching.
When I talk to my clients about how they build salads, I often find that they’re doubling up in some areas, and missing out in others; and those imbalances can either prevent a salad from being slimming, or lead to missing out on key nutrients. Here are some common salad-building blunders, and the best ways to build a balanced bowl.
Too little or too much protein
In my clients’ food journals I’ve seen plenty of salads with lots of veggies but no protein, and others with protein overload, like chicken plus cheese and hardboiled eggs. Protein is an essential salad component for several reasons—it boosts satiety, revs metabolism, and provides the raw materials for maintaining or building lean tissue, including both muscle as well as hormones, healthy hair, skin, and immune cells. But excess protein, beyond what your body needs, can prevent weight loss or lead to weight gain. In short, your body requires a certain amount of protein for maintenance and healing. When too little is delivered those jobs don’t get done. But when your body has more than it needs, it has no choice but to send the surplus straight to your fat cells. For balance choose, a half cup of a plant-based protein, like lentils or beans, or 3 ounces of lean meat or seafood (that’s about the size of a smartphone). If you choose dairy, stick with ½ cup of organic cottage cheese, or one whole hardboiled organic egg and three whites. If you like to include more than one type, reduce the portions of each.
Not enough veggie variety
Greens and veggies are the typical salad base, but if you’re keeping your selections narrow (e.g. just spinach or romaine) you’re missing out on important veggie benefits. One Colorado State University also found that over a two-week period, volunteers who downed a broader array of the exact same amount of produce (18 botanical families instead of 5) experienced significantly less oxidation, a marker for premature aging and disease. Another study, which evaluated more than 450,000 people and looked at their consumption of commonly eaten veggies found that regardless of quantity, the risk of lung cancer decreased when a wider variety of veggies were consumed. This may be because each plant contains unique types of antioxidants, nutrients, and natural cancer fighters, so a wider variety exposes your body to a broader spectrum of protection. To reap the benefits aim for at least two cups of veggies total, with lots of different colors, such as field greens, red tomatoes, purple cabbage, orange bell peppers, white onion…and keep changing up the variety.
Too little or too much fat
Like protein, fat serves as one of the body’s building blocks. Fat is a major structural component of your cell membranes, brain, hormones, and skin. Healthy fats also reduce inflammation, boost satiety (so you feel fuller longer), and significantly up the absorption of fat soluble vitamins and antioxidants, which hitch a ride with fat to get transported from your digestive system into your bloodstream. A few years back, researchers at Iowa State looked at the absorption of key antioxidants when men and women ate salads with fat-free, low-fat, and full fat salad dressings. They found that those who ate the fat-free dressing absorbed almost no antioxidants at all. The reduced-fat version upped the absorption, but not as much as the full fat dressing. Important info! But in your salad, dressing isn’t the only healthy way to include fat. Sometimes I crave a simple vinaigrette made with extra virgin olive oil, balsamic vinegar, minced garlic, and dried Italian herbs. But I’ll often skip the oil to make room for sliced avocado or chopped nuts. Or I’ll toss my greens and veggies with olive tapenade, or add oven roasted, grilled, or sauteed veggies that already have olive oil in the mix. Include some fat for sure—just choose wisely, and be mindful of your portions to prevent going overboard.
RELATED: Good Fats, Bad Fats: How to Choose
Without any starch in a salad, you may wind up burning the protein you’ve added for fuel, which prevents the protein from being used for key maintenance and repair work. To strike a healthy balance, include a small portion—even just a third or half cup of a nutrient-rich whole food carb source, such as cooked chilled quinoa, roasted organic corn, or a cubed roasted red potato. I find that for my clients, this starch addition boosts satiety and energy in the hours after eating, but it’s still a small enough portion to allow for weight loss. In fact, when I’ve had clients resist adding carbs and skip this step, they typically seek out more snacks and wind up stalling weight loss. If you’re hesitant, try it and see how your body responds.
Not enough seasoning
When I’ve heard people complain about disliking salads it’s typically because they’ve been eating very plain pairings, like romaine with just oil, vinegar, and bland grilled chicken. Fortunately there are plenty of ways to spruce salads up, and adding natural seasonings has been shown to further boost satiety and increase metabolism. Easy ways to add flavor include: toss fresh herbs into the mix like basil, cilantro or mint; whisk herbs, spices and raw or roasted garlic into oil and vinegar, and add pre-seasoned ingredients, like herbed quinoa, pesto-slathered grilled veggies, or spicy guacamole. A healthy salad should be a feast for your senses, and a dish you savor. And guess what? It’s entirely possible to achieve just that and shed pounds enjoying it!
More from Health.com: