Don’t freak out.
Not all salads are a complete sham. It’s just that all salads aren’t created equally, and there are many that are shockingly low in nutrient-rich ingredients that your body can actually benefit from.
For example, Billy Polson, a C.S.C.S. trainer and owner of DIAKADI Fitness Performance Facility in San Francisco, points out why a typical salad is actually much less nutritious than we’re often lead to believe.
“A light-colored salad with chicken isn't necessarily bad to eat, but adding in processed, fat-free dressing will leave your body with a lack of nutrients and healthy fats, making this dish a poor choice,” he explains.
Also noting that nutritionally-void lettuces like iceberg, butter and romaine (some of the most commonly used in salads) are essentially “useless.”
“Dark, leafy greens offer more nutrients than lighter greens and are packed with vitamins A, C, E and K,” says Polson. “Also, keeping the salad dressing simple with a healthy fat, like olive oil and vinegar, will digest all fat-soluble vitamins in the greens. This will also bring out the rich flavor of a clean-source meat. For example, top the salad off with fresh, wild caught salmon or white fish and you'll notice that 'fat-free' dressing is uncalled for.”
In other words, salad can certainly be healthy, it just depends what you put in it.
But don’t forget about the salads you order when dining out. In those instances you have much less control over what it's made of, and, as a recent Washington Post story about salad (and why it’s overrated) points out, is likely created by a chef who’s main goal is make meals that “customers want to buy.”
“Chefs are cognizant of what’s going on in the psychology of diners,” Bret Thorn, columnist at Nation’s Restaurant News and longtime observer of the restaurant industry told Washington Post reporter Tamar Haspel. “They’re doing a kind of psychological health washing. A chef is not a nutritionist, or public health advocate.”
The takeaway here: don’t assume you’re meal is the healthiest choice on the menu just because it’s a salad. Pay attention to what it’s actually made up of.
“Lots of what passes for salad in restaurants is just the same as the rest of the calorie-dense diabolically palatable food that’s making us fat, but with a few lettuce leaves tossed in,” Haspel writes. “Next time you order a salad, engage in a little thought experiment: Picture the salad without the lettuce, cucumber and radish, which are nutritionally and calorically irrelevant. Is it a little pile of croutons and cheese, with a few carrot shavings and lots of ranch dressing?”
Another important point of Haspel’s argument includes the fact that compared to the nutritional value of lettuce (iceberg lettuce is 96 percent water, so it has almost no value at all) the resources exhausted just to get it on our tables are far too excessive.
“Lettuce is a vehicle to transport refrigerated water from farm to table,” she writes. “When we switch to vegetables that are twice as nutritious — like those collards or tomatoes or green beans — not only do we free up half the acres now growing lettuce, we cut back on the fossil fuels and other resources needed for transport and storage.”
So by opting for darker, more nutritionally-dense greens and other similar veggies, not only are you making a better choice for your body, but likely for the planet, too.