What’s in your garden salad? Hopefully, not just iceberg lettuce. Plain, old iceberg lettuce is no match for dark, leafy salad greens that pack more nutritional punch. Need some ideas for making your salads more nutrient rich? Here are some of the healthiest leafy salad greens around and the health benefits they offer.
Salad Greens: Kale
There’s a lot to love about kale. Maybe that’s why it’s enjoyed a meteoric rise in popularity recently. Kale is in the same family as broccoli and cabbage, the cruciferous vegetable family. This gives this leafy, green veggie powerful cancer-fighting properties. Plus, it’s rich in antioxidants and chemicals called glucosinolates that help your liver detoxify. What you may not realize is kale is good for your eyes too. It’s rich in carotenoids like lutein and zeaxanthin that protect against two common causes of visual loss – cataracts and macular degeneration. Kale is also a good non-dairy source of calcium for bone health. Best of all, unlike some vegetables, kale is low in oxalates that could reduce mineral absorption.
Kale is a bit tougher in texture than lettuce. One way to make it easier to chew is to chop it into small pieces and mix your salad dressing in with it. Then allow it to sit for a few minutes so it can soften. It’s worth the extra effort to get the full health benefits of kale.
Salad Greens: Watercress
Watercress is also a member of the cruciferous family. That makes them pretty special from a nutritional standpoint. Cruciferous vegetables are well-known for their health benefits. Watercress contains a unique chemical called nasturtium. When you munch on a watercress salad, the nasturtium in watercress is converted to a compound called PEITC. Research shows, PEITC blocks the growth of breast, prostate and cancer cells. Like kale, it’s rich in carotenoids that help protect your vision and function as antioxidants.
Research also shows watercress protects DNA, a cell’s genetic material, against damage that could lead to cancer. How powerful are the health benefits of watercress? Hippocrates built his first hospital near a stream so he could use watercress to help his patients. You can get the benefits too by adding watercress to your next garden salad. Enjoy a watercress salad with a zesty lime or citrus dressing. Yummy! Salads are the best way to enjoy the health benefits of watercress since cooking it inactivates some of its anti-cancer chemicals.
Salad Greens: Spinach
Spinach is unusually rich in potassium, a mineral important for blood pressure control. Potassium-rich foods help to lower blood pressure by counteracting the effects of sodium and by helping your body maintain a healthy fluid balance. It’s also a good source of calcium and iron, although these minerals aren’t easily absorbed due to the oxalates in spinach. Spinach is also a good source of vitamin K. Vitamin K is important for healthy bones.
Can spinach improve your exercise performance? According to some studies, it can. Spinach is a good source of nitrates. Your body converts nitrates to a chemical called nitric oxide. Nitric oxide helps to open up blood vessels to deliver more oxygen to working muscles. One study showed participants that consumed nitrates required less oxygen delivery during exercise. That means greater endurance!
According to researchers, nitrates from foods like spinach help mitochondria, the cellular organelles that produce ATP to fuel workouts, more efficient. How much do you need? The amount in a plate of spinach is enough to get this benefit. Pretty good reason to eat a spinach salad, isn’t it?
It’s easy to add spinach to your next garden salad. Start with a bed of spinach. Baby spinach is a good option. Then sprinkle in blue cheese crumbles, berries, and nuts for a tasty and nutritious salad. Buy organic spinach whenever possible since it’s on the list of “dirty dozen,” fruits and vegetables that are heavily sprayed with pesticides.
Salad Greens: Choosing More Nutritious Lettuce
If you’re like most people, you build a salad from a base of lettuce – but you don’t have to. You can always substitute more nutritious salad greens like kale or spinach. If you’re set on using lettuce, make sure you’re choosing the healthiest kinds. Iceberg lettuce is light on nutrition. For one, it’s mostly water. Good for hydration but not much else. Better choices are romaine lettuce, a good source of vitamins A and K or red leaf lettuce, another super source of A and K.
The Bottom Line?
Don’t assume a salad is healthy because it’s a salad. If it’s mainly iceberg lettuce you’re not getting much in the way of nutrition. Think dark when it comes to salad greens. Darker leaves are more nutritious than their lighter counterparts. For more nutritional benefits, sprinkle on chopped broccoli, cauliflower, red peppers, celery, artichoke hearts, onions, tomatoes, radishes, and mushrooms. For a touch of natural sweetness, add your favorite fruits. Berries, kiwi, grapes, melon or apples all add a hint of sweet to a salad.
Then add nuts, boiled egg whites, roasted tempeh, edamame, unprocessed turkey or beans for protein and chopped avocado for healthy fats. You need good fats to absorb the fat-soluble nutrients in the salad greens. Sprinkle on herbs for more flavor and antioxidants. Make the dressing a healthy one too, preferably something vinegar and olive oil based.
Enjoy your salad creation – and the incredible diversity of nutrients you’re getting!
NEJM Journal Watch. “Carotenoids Found to Lower Risk for Macular Degeneration”
Medical News Today. “Watercress: Anti-Cancer Superfood”
Am J Clin Nutr February 2007 vol. 85 no. 2 504-510.
Medical News Today. “What are the health benefits of spinach?”
Harvard Medical School Family Health Guide. “Potassium lowers blood pressure”
Science Daily. “Want more efficient muscles? Eat your spinach”
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