Power Up Your Summer Salads

Power Up Your Summer Salads

Last time you had a salad for your main meal, did you leave the table hungrier than a wolf in a cabbage patch? Sure, a big bowl of greens is good for you, but you'll be raiding the refrigerator an hour later if it doesn't have more going for it than that. Yet if it does, a salad can be seriously satisfying, even for you carnivores out there.

Sure, salads keep you looking good in your Speedo or tankini and give your brain and body a big-time nutrition bump: You're significantly more likely to get your fill of vitamins if you're a salad hound, according to a joint UCLA/Louisiana State University study (we don't have a clue how those two got together). What's more, feasting on veggies (plus some lean protein) helps you fend off cancer, osteoporosis, stroke, and ordinary aging.

Before you start loading up the crisper, keep in mind that the best salads are real meals: lean protein, complex carbs, and healthy fats. The worst? They're usually restaurant salads masquerading as health food but actually oozing fat and calories. Take a Chili's Southwestern Cobb Salad: Without dressing, it has 650 calories and 32 grams of fat. With dressing? A Speedo-busting, heart-stopping 970 calories and 60 grams of fat.

For the best salads -- the kind that make your taste buds zing, your belly smile, and your cells young -- toss these ingredients into your bowl:

  • Big and little greens: We probably don't have to tell you that richly colored greens (baby spinach, arugula, romaine, watercress, radicchio) are the foundation of a great salad. They're packed with nutrients that inhibit cancer and help bones stay strong. But don't stop there. For a clean, bright flavor -- and a serious phytochemical boost -- add some fresh herbs. Go for mini powerhouses like mint (filled with cancer-busting monoterpenes), basil (packed with inflammation-fighting volatile oils), or cilantro (it goes after bad cholesterol). 

  • Powerful proteins: Protein keeps your stomach busy for a long time. It responds by telling your brain that you're full. Smart diet move. Instead of sodium-socked deli meats or full-fat cheese, aim for lean fixins like 3 ounces (about the size of a tin of Altoids) of canned salmon, skinless chicken or turkey breast, chopped egg whites, low-fat cheese, or cubed tofu. A quarter cup of walnuts or a half cup of lentils, chickpeas, or beans will also kick up your protein count.

  • Major flavor boosters: We've got no beef with the old salad standbys, like carrots, tomatoes, and cucumbers. But to really punch up the flavor, toss in asparagus, corn, black beans, zucchini, portobello mushrooms, red and purple peppers, or baked sweet potatoes. Even better, lightly roast the veggies in a little olive oil first. The deep smoky flavor is to drool for.

  • Complex carbs that aren't oil-soaked croutons: Anytime you're cooking up some brown rice, barley, or whole-wheat couscous or pasta, make extra and save it for your salads. Ditto for quinoa (it's like fluffy rice but high in both protein and fiber) or chia (a grain that's a good source of healthy omega-3s). Crave crunchy croutons? Toast and cube some rye bread.

  • Dressings that aren't fat phobic: Your salad needs some heart-friendly omega-3 (or omega-9) fats to help your body soak up fat-soluble vitamins like A, D, and K, and it needs disease-fighting carotenoids such as lycopene and beta carotene. Enter real dressings. It's hard to beat balsamic vinegar and a little olive or walnut oil. Swirl in some mustard, ginger, or herbs; if the seasonings are likely to overwhelm the olive or walnut oil, switch to canola oil -- it's less expensive. If you prefer store-bought, check labels to avoid inflammation-encouragers (most other oils, added sugars). Your goal: a dressing that's thin and slippery enough to coat your salad easily. Drizzle on about half as much as you think you need (roughly 2 tablespoons for a meal-sized salad; add extra balsamic if needed). Then, toss like crazy to coat every last lettuce bit. Dig in.

Learn how fruits and veggies help prevent osteoporosis.

Medically reviewed in September 2018.

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