Turn over a new leaf: eat a salad every day

Woman carying produce

Part 7 in our 12-month series on resolutions for real health improvement

By Dr. James Beckerman, M.D., Providence St. Vincent Heart Clinic - Cardiology, part of Providence Heart and Vascular Institute

If you're looking for an easy way to improve your health, your weight and your diet, make a resolution this month to turn over a new leaf. Here are a few of my favorites: arugula, butter lettuce, endive, frisée, kale, mâche, mizuna, oak leaf, radicchio, romaine, spinach and watercress. Lush, leafy greens are all over the farmers markets right now, so get out there and get your salad on.

As a heart specialist, I encourage everyone to eat a salad every day. A large study showed that people who eat salad have significantly and consistently higher blood levels of key nutrients that protect against heart disease, as well as cancer, diabetes, high blood pressure, immune system problems, eye and skin disorders – even wrinkles.

In addition, salads are a great way to control weight – another way to help your heart – without feeling hungry. In one small study, people who ate a low-calorie salad as the first course in a meal reduced the total number of calories eaten during the meal by as much as 12 percent.

According to the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, half of what we eat should be fruits and vegetables. That may sound like a lot more than you're eating now, but upping your intake is easy when you start eating a salad for lunch, or filling half your dinner plate with salad, every day.

Here are several ways to get the most nutrition and taste, not calories, from your salads:

Shop at a farmers market once a week
It's hard to get creative with your salads when you see the same old, same old in the grocery store, week after week. At the farmers markets, there's always something new in season to inspire your salads. Small farms that grow for local markets tend to offer a wider variety of greens and vegetables chosen for their flavor and nutrition, rather than for their ability to withstand shipping across long distances. And since it hasn't been trucked from another state – or country – the produce at farmers markets is about as fresh as it gets. Nutrients that would otherwise be lost through shipping and shelf time are still abundant in foods that are sold within hours of harvest.

Think bright and dark
Brightly colored vegetables and darker-colored greens are nutritional powerhouses. Skip the pale iceberg, and double your fiber with fresh spinach or romaine, instead.

Avoid meats and cheeses
Remember, it's a salad, not a sandwich. You can add protein by sprinkling on small amounts of nuts and seeds (they're high in calories, so a sprinkle is plenty), garbanzo beans or quinoa. If you do want to add a little meat now and then, use grilled chicken or fish rather than fried or processed meat. And if you're watching your waist, keep an eye on the cheese, or better yet, leave it off entirely.

Dress it down
Don't sabotage your healthy, low-calorie salad by swamping it in creamy, high-fat dressing. Find a fat-free or low-calorie dressing that you like instead, and request low-cal dressings in restaurants. This can reduce the calories and fat in your salad by up to 80 percent, saving you 1,000 calories or more per week.

Dress with less
It's handy that bottled salad dressings list the calories and grams of fat per tablespoon, but when was the last time you measured out your dressing? Chances are good that you're using more than that. To cut the amount of dressing that you use by about two-thirds, have your dressing on the side, and dip your fork into the dressing before you grab each bite of salad. You'll get dressing in every bite, but a lot less of it overall.

Dress it up
Adding grapes, orange or grapefruit segments, peaches, pears, apricots or apple slices to your salads will boost the flavor so much that you won't even need – or miss – a high-calorie dressing.

Don't forget slaw
For crunchier salads, think slaw – but hold the mayo. Shred or thinly slice cabbage, carrots, broccoli, cauliflower, apples, pears, or any combination of these, and toss with your favorite low-cal dressing (mustard-, lemon- and vinegar-based dressings work great) for a crisp, cool switch from the usual. Get fancy by tossing in a few toasted, slivered almonds and dried cranberries.

If you've never been big on salads, try harder. This is really important to your health. There are dozens of fruits and vegetables out there that can be combined in thousands of delicious ways – surely there's a salad out there for you. Be bold. Try something new. Go online and search for recipes that incorporate the fresh ingredients that you like the most. These are your salad days. Enjoy them in good health.

James Beckerman, a cardiologist with the Providence Heart and Vascular Institute in Portland, Ore., is the author of “The Flex Diet.” You can learn more about him and his weight-loss philosophies at www.theflexdiet.com.