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We’re approaching the end of another winter, and with it goes the bevy of soups, stews, and other heavy comfort foods we love to eat during colder weather. With a plethora of fresh greens and vegetables becoming available at the grocery store, farmer’s market, and home gardens in the weeks ahead, it’s a great time of year to get back into salads. But it can be confusing to know how to dress salads for optimal health benefits.
Salad dressing has developed a bad rap—and, in part, for good reason. If you drench your salad in a high-fat, high-sodium dressing, suddenly a healthy, vegetable-rich meal becomes as bad for you as a greasy cheeseburger. But salad dressing isn’t all bad either. In fact, you need to eat some fat with your vegetables to get the most health benefits out of your salad. Learn more about how to best dress your salad this summer, and try our recipes for healthy salad dressings below.
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Why Salads Are Important
Most Americans eat far fewer fruits and vegetables than recommended. Eating a salad with your dinner every night (or eating a large salad as your dinner) is a great way to incorporate more vegetables into your diet.
People who regularly consume salads are more likely to have sufficient intake of important nutrients like vitamin C, vitamin E, folic acid, and carotenoids. In fact, each additional serving of salad raises the likelihood of meeting the recommended daily allowance of vitamin C by 165 percent in women and 119 percent in men. Studies even show that people who eat a lot of raw veggies and olive oil (staples of most salads) have lower mortality rates.
Aside from providing your body with health-promoting nutrients, eating a salad as a first course can also help you to moderate your food intake and lose weight; low-calorie first-course salads tend to reduce calorie intake later in the meal by increasing satiety.
The Salad Dressing Debate
When you eat your salad, what do you top it with? Many popular dressings, like ranch or Caesar, aren’t healthy. They can be high in fat, sugar, and sodium; salad dressings are commonly one of the highest sources of sodium in foods, in fact. It is only logical that drenching your salad in these kinds of rich, fatty, salty, and even sweet toppings is counterproductive.
On the other hand, the benefits of fats in salad dressings aren’t to be underestimated; your body actually needs fat to be healthy. And previous studies have shown that salad dressing is a major source of fat, especially in women’s diets. Salad dressing oils are often a good source of healthy fats; for example, higher intake of oil and vinegar salad dressing (high in alpha-linolenic acid) is associated with a reduced risk for fatal ischemic heart disease.
Why You Need Some Fat
One of the major families of nutrients found in salad vegetables are carotenoids. Carotenoids are a class of powerful antioxidants that promote vitamin A activity, boost the immune system, and fight diseases like cancer and Alzheimer’s disease.8 Carotenoids are abundant in common salad ingredients like carrots, tomatoes, and green leafy veggies like kale or spinach. But there is just one catch: your body won’t absorb these important antioxidants if there is no fat on your salad.
Carotenoid absorption is significantly higher when salads are eaten with full-fat rather than reduced-fat dressings.[6,9] One study suggests that the optimal absorption of carotenoids occurs when the salad contains at least six grams of fat, if not more (although most recommendations state only three to five grams of fat per serving of salad).6 In another study, carotenoid absorption was highest for a salad with 20 g of fat compared to three or eight g of fat.
Other Good Fats
If you still prefer low-fat or fat-free dressings, there are other ways to include a little bit of healthy fat in your salad to help boost carotenoid absorption. In one study, the addition of 150 g of avocado (or 24 g of avocado oil) to a salad enhanced alpha-carotene, beta-carotene, and lutein absorption (all carotenoids).
Eggs are another healthy salad topping. Eggs contain carotenoids themselves, and they help increase the absorption of carotenoids in your salad ingredients because they contain healthy fatty acids. The carotenoid absorption of a salad with three eggs on top was 3.8 times higher than a salad without eggs in one study.
How to Best Dress Your Salads
The findings here show that fat-free salad dressings may not be as good for you as once thought. The key, as with most things, is a healthy balance.
- First, watch portion control. Only a few tablespoons of dressing are necessary, but people often use far too much of it. If needed, measure out your dressing to keep within the appropriate serving size.
- Try making your own dressings at home, where you can control what and how much, goes in your dressing. This will help you avoid super salty, fatty, and even sugar-loaded dressings. Try using healthy oils like extra-virgin olive oil or avocado oil. Check out our recipes below for fun, summertime salads.
- If you must buy dressings, read labels carefully. Make sure your dressing does provide you with some fat per serving, but also watch out for high sodium and sugar levels. Choose those with natural ingredients and no unnecessary additives.
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9. Mol Nutr Food Res. 2012 Jun;56(6):866-77.
10. J Nutr. 2005 Mar;135(3):431-6.
11. Am J Clin Nutr. 2015 May 27. pii: ajcn111062. [Epub ahead of print]
Originally published in 2015 and updated.