How to Choose the Healthiest Salad Greens
Headed to a hoppin’ salad bar for lunch? Chances are there will be handfuls of fresh greens up for grabs, from romaine and iceberg to spinach and red leaf lettuce. But when it comes to choosing the healthiest salad base, which types of lettuce pack the biggest nutritional punch?
Seeing Green — The Need-to-Know
Sorry sandwich lovers, but a few shreds of lettuce on a bun won’t add up to the USDA’s daily recommended intake (2-3 cups for most adults). Instead, a big, healthy salad is one of the smartest ways to go green. Coming in at under 10 calories per cup, a big bowl of leaves can be a stellar source of vitamins A, C, K, and folate, among other essential nutrients.
But not all leafy greens will build a super-nutritious salad. In fact, America’s favorite lettuce, iceberg, ranks the lowest in nutritional value across the board (96 percent water content will do that!). Turbo-charged spinach, on the other hand, boasts nearly twice the recommended daily value of vitamin K, half the recommended value of vitamin A, and ample amounts of calcium and iron. Clearly, Popeye was on to something.
Prefer a crunchier base? A cup of romaine is a tasty alternative, with a huge dose of vitamin A and a variety of other nutrients. Or, for a mild but textured bed, red leaf lettuce clocks in at just 4 calories per cup, with nearly half of the daily recommended dose of vitamins A and K. Arugula (technically a cruciferous vegetable like broccoli, kale, and cabbage) also packs a healthy dose of nutrients and phytochemicals, which may inhibit the development of certain cancers. And for the non-committal types, mixed greens (typically a mix of romaine, oak leaf lettuce, arugula, frisée, and radicchio) offer, well, a mixed bag of nutritional benefits, depending on the batch.
Salad for Salad — Your Guide to Greens
Which greens are the best bet? Check out the infographic below for the nutritional low-down.
Consider visiting the salad bar a free pass to join the dark side. Research shows that darker “loose” or “open leaf" lettuces (such as romaine, red leaf, and butterhead) contain more antioxidants and nutrients than the typically lighter-colored, more tightly-packed heads (such as iceberg). The reason? The darker leaves are able to absorb more light and, in turn, synthesize more vitamins . And while there’s no good way to pick and choose a store-bought salad leaf for leaf, at home, opting for the tops and outer leaves can guarantee a more nutritious base.
Ready to go darker (and healthier) still? While they’re not stocked at most salad bars, check the produce aisle for tougher roughage like Swiss chard and kale, which beat out even spinach in the antioxidant game. Be sure to give the leaves a good cold rinse before serving raw, boiled, or steamed, as the folds in these greens tend to accumulate dirt more easily than other veggies. Also keep in mind that high heat can strip veggies of their natural vitamin content . The final key to becoming a lean, green fighting machine? Dress for success. Hold off on the creamy dressings, croutons, bacon bits, and layers of shredded cheese. Instead, opt for a lighter vinaigrette and a sprinkling of chopped walnuts or sunflower seeds for added crunch and protein.
What's in your go-to healthy salad? Will you rethink your choice of lettuce? Share your thoughts (and go-green tips!) in the comments below.
This article originally posted June 2012. Updated May 2013.
- Impact of light variation on development of photoprotection, antioxidants, and nutritional value in Lactuca sativa L Zhou, Y.H., Zhang, Y.Y., Zhao, X., et al. Department of Horticulture, Zhejiang University, Hangzhou, China. Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry 2009, Jun 24; 57(12): 5494-500.⤴
- Potential of commonly consumed green leafy vegetables for their antioxidant capacity and its linkage with the micronutrient profile.Tarwadi, K., Agte, V. Biometry and Nutrition Group, Agharkar Research Institute, Maharashtra, India. International Journal of Food Sciences and Nutrition 2003 Nov; 54(6): 417-25.⤴
Comments Leave a comment
I still don't get who decides what two cups is; it's such a vague measurement: Whole leaves packed tightly? Whole leaves packed loosely? Shredded coarse, or fine? Why not make this a weight based measurement, or if thats what you meant, say 16oz.
@datgnat Hi dagnat! We chose the amount based on what we felt was the typical lettuce portion in a medium-sized salad. Two cups medium-packed is about 2 big handfuls of leaves, if that gives you a better idea when measuring yourself. If shredding lettuce, I'd say the measurement would be most accurate with a coarse or medium size shred. The amount is not based on weight. Hope this helps!
I love,love ,love kale! I chop it really fine and incorporate into salads,pasta,coleslaw,even mashed potatoes!
What dried fruits would you add to a greatist green dalad?
How much nutrients will them contribute?
@Aldo Biondolillo Hey there, Aldo! I'd also highly recommend Goji berries and goldenberries. Two powerhouses of sweet, chewy, antioxidant-packed deliciousness.
I load my salads with veggies. Carrots, broccoli, tomato, cucumber, avocado, red and yellow peppers, and sprouts. I add walnuts or sunflower seeds and cranberries. A light vinaigrette on the side and Yummy!
My daily salad consists of: kale, mushrooms, peppers, carrots, cucumber, sunflower seeds, pumpkin seeds, cracked black pepper, cheese, and a scoop of hummus as "dressing." Yum!
love this! thank you Jordan! I try to have spinach with almost every meal :)
Love spinach. I'll pair it with almost anything I have on hand--tomatoes, strawberries, oranges, peas, green onions, etc. With fruit I usually use a dressing of apple cider vinegar and honey. I have always been a ranch lover, but lately I have found a yogurt-based ranch dressing with less than half the fat and a third less calories. 1 tbs is plenty!
What a great site. Check out this Recipe for Kale Chips: It is a great replacement for potato chips.
Makes 2 Servings
• 2 handfuls kale leaves
• 1 teaspoon cayenne pepper
• Cooking spray
• Sea salt
1. Preheat oven to 350°F.
2. Arrange kale on a non stick baking sheet.
3. Very lightly coat kale with cooking spray and a bit of sea salt.
4. Sprinkle cayenne pepper on top of the kale and bake for 10 minutes or until crispy.
For 10 more great recipes check these out.
Hope you enjoy,
To be honest being on a very limited budget and with health concerns meat protein is too expensive/could cause further problems so I have small portions and make it last over a number of meals. So many of my meals are fruit, grain/cereal and fruit based.
I try to make certain I get all the vitamins/minerals I am supposed to in my diet. Sadly, some of the food we are supposed to eat is not always easy to afford.
A lot of my meals are also the kind that take little preparation or often require cooking. And I like to use the slow cooker a lot. I am very much into comfort food and recipes I remember from childhood.
Ironically, we may have more choice these days but often people were healthier during wartime and when there was rationing.
Where possible(and they seem to be taking off again in the UK)I try to buy more of my food fresh and from markets or farmers markets.