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The salad: Taking it from side dish to main dish

At some point in time the salad became the poster child for dieting and weight loss. And not even good salad – pale, iceberg lettuce with a few wanton cucumber and onion slices and fat-free dressing. Not exactly an exciting, filling, or all that nutritious meal – in fact it’s really downright disappointing and lacking.

If that’s your version of salad, no one can blame you for the lack of appeal. But it’s time to erase it! The reason behind incorporating salads into a weight loss plan (or just a healthy diet) is sound – they can be a fantastic source of vitamins, minerals, and satiating fiber while keeping calories within your goal range. But they don’t have to be bland, boring, or evoke a four-letter word along the way.

Salad boo-boo’s

The two mistakes I see people make most often when it comes to salads are:

1) Making them TOO simple for a balanced meal and not providing enough nutrients like vitamins, minerals, carbohydrates, fat, and protein; and/or

2) Overdoing it on high-calorie toppings and skimping on the veggies.

If you want to make a salad the main course you need to make sure it’s meeting all the nutrient needs of your meal in that one bowl. Growing up I had a friend that refused to eat something off her plate if it touched any other food – this “all-in-one” style of eating would probably make her pass out, but there is something to be said for the efficiency and variety of taste combinations.

Choosing salad ingredients

The next time you want to make salad the main course trying using this formula (and chart) for success. While everyone may have slightly different portion needs, this will give you some ingredient ideas to create well-balanced salads.

  1. Start with leafy greens. The darker the greens the better, but they can have a stronger taste so try combining with another lettuce if you’re just starting out. Spinach and kale are great sources of  beta carotene and lutein (good for the eyes!) and vitamin C.

  2. Add color with veggie toppings. Amp up the salad with a few cut up vegetables on top, and the more color the better. Fruit and vegetable color is an indication of nutrient content, so picking a variety of colors ensures a variety of nutrients in your diet. Aim for at least 1 cup of chopped veggies on top of the leafy greens. You can save prep time by buying pre-shredded carrots, broccoli, or cabbage, or cut up your own vegetables on the weekend and store in the fridge for easy use during the week.

  3. Pick a protein. Consuming protein in equal amounts periodically throughout the day is important for maintaining muscle mass and providing satiety. So don’t forget to add some protein to your salad. You can choose one source (such as only chicken) or a combination (beans and low-fat cheese) to meet your needs.

  4. Don’t forget carbohydrates. Many choose salads to AVOID carbohydrates, but this can backfire. Eating too few carbohydrates can leave you moody, fatigued, and likely to binge on high calorie sugar-laden items. Make the leafy greens the main attraction and give quality grains or starches a supporting role (1/4 to 1/2 cup will work for most but active individuals will need more to make the salad adequate for their energy needs). Try using leftover grains from other meals, such as rice, couscous, or whole wheat pasta.

  5. Round it out with healthy fats. Remember, fat doesn’t make you gain weight – excess calories contribute tyou gain weight. You need fat in your diet to do things like keep cell membranes healthy, pad internal organs, and absorb certain nutrients. But it can be easy to overdo it on salads – creamy dressings, bacon bits, and croutons can add up quickly. Try 1-2 teaspoons of an olive-oil based dressing (or make your own with olive oil, balsamic vinegar, Italian seasoning, salt, and pepper) and a sprinkling of nuts. These items should complement the salad, not overpower it.

  6. Get creative. Once you’ve mastered the above you may want to get more creative. Try adding fresh herbs such as cilantro or basil for a new flavor dynamic, or incorporate fresh fruits such as apple, pears or blueberries.

So you don’t HAVE to eat salads to maintain a healthy weight but really, with all the delicious possibilities, why wouldn’t you?

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