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What are the health benefits of eating salads?

A salad is not only a low-calorie, high-fiber meal. It also comes packed with vitamins and nutrients. See more salad pictures.
Photo courtesy of U.S. DOD

You know salad has arrived when you see it on the menu of almost every fast-food restaurant in the developed world. Why has it joined the ranks of the most popular meal items? It could be the "you made me fat" lawsuits against the food chains - they need to cover their behinds. It could be the apparent tendency among single women to eat salad whenever men are around (a study at a university in Canada actually proved this). Or, it could be as simple as self-preservation: Salads can make us live longer. And better.

They're that healthy. Most of us are aware of this in a general sort of way. The specifics of their healthfulness are a bit less widely known, and specifically, salads are both full of heart-healthy, cancer fighting, cell-building ingredients and are fantastic weight-loss and weight-maintenance tools.

Really, it's hard to beat salad for slimming down. Leafy greens are one of the lowest-calorie foods out there -- one cup of romaine lettuce has 10 calories, and spinach has 7. Other raw vegetables are pretty impressive, too: Red peppers, carrots, and cucumbers have 20, 17 and 8 calories per 1/2 cup serving, respectively.

If you're aiming for weight loss, a salad can be one of the most satisfying ways to spend a couple hundred calories. It'll cost you about as much as one large slice of bread, won't cause a blood-sugar spike, will help prevent obesity and its health complications and will be a whole lot more filling.

It's filling partly because vegetables contain a lot of water, but also because salads tend to be high in fiber, which makes you feel full. Some particularly high-fiber salad ingredients include beans, peas, artichoke, broccoli, and apples.

Fiber's filling nature is only the beginning, though. It's also one of salads contributor's to general health: Fiber prevents constipation and can lower cholesterol levels for heart health.

Salad's other contributors to heart health include the ever-useful antioxidants, like vitamin C in broccoli, strawberries and bell peppers; vitamin E in sunflower seeds and spinach; folate in romaine lettuce and asparagus; and beta-carotene in orange veggies like carrots and sweet potatoes. Antioxidants may also play a role in preventing cancer. One study by the American Cancer Institute found that a diet heavy in fruits and vegetables can even reduce cancer risk in smokers [source: Magee].

All this salad healthiness isn't a given, though. Salad isn't going to help you slim down if it's got a half-pound of cheddar on it. Same goes for salads with a pint of croutons, swimming in creamy dressing, loaded with calorie-dense dried fruit or chock full of high-fat nuts.

Still, you can eat a healthy salad even if you're not head-over-heels for the taste of spinach and straight lemon juice. Just follow a few guidelines:

  • Extras -- Keep the high-calorie stuff light -- a sprinkle of crumbled feta cheese or raisins, a tablespoon of sunflower seeds, a half-cup of croutons.
  • Dressing -- Choose up to 100 calories of low-fat or fat-free dressing, or put full-fat dressing on the side and dip each bite conservatively. For oil-based dressings, choose healthy oils like olive or flax seed.
  • Protein -- Keep it lean (skinless chicken, fish, or ham) and small (3 ounces is a serving).

If you're thinking, "Sounds great -- if I had the time," you're in luck. If you spend a little bit more for prewashed romaine or spinach and prewashed, pre-chopped veggies, you're looking at a heart-clearing, cancer-fighting, skinny-jeans-friendly salad in about five minutes.

For more information on salad and healthy eating, look over the links on the next page.