By Dr. Mercola
A salad can make a great meal, but not all salads are created equal. Just because it has lettuce as its base or "salad" in its name doesn't automatically make it healthy, and many salads at fast-food restaurants are examples of that.
You're better off avoiding salads topped with fried meats (often sold as "crispy"), croutons, or tortilla strips (which are sometimes added to taco salads)… and you'll also want to avoid most store-bought dressings – especially the low-fat and fat-free varieties.
A healthy salad must have a source of high-quality fats to help your body absorb its beneficial nutrients. You can get these from your dressing and also by selecting your toppings wisely. One of the best salad toppings of all? Eggs!
Adding Eggs to Your Salad Helps Your Body Absorb Nutrients
When you eat a salad you want to absorb as many of the beneficial nutrients as you can. But some nutrients and antioxidants are fat-soluble, which means you must eat them with fat to properly absorb them.
A simple way to enhance your nutrient absorption is to add whole eggs to your salad (hard-boiled, soft-boiled or, preferably, poached). When men added 1.5 to 3 eggs to their salads, they increased their absorption of lutein and zeaxanthin by four to five-fold.1
Other carotenoids, including beta-carotene and lutein, increased three to eight-fold compared to the no-egg salad. The researchers noted:
"…co-consuming cooked whole eggs is an effective way to enhance carotenoid absorption from other carotenoid-rich foods such as a raw mixed-vegetable salad."
The men who added three eggs to their salad had higher levels of carotenoids in their system than men who added 1.5 eggs, but two eggs would probably be a happy medium for most people.
When I eat eggs in my salad, I typically use about four of them. Be sure you are consuming the yolk portion of the eggs. Egg whites alone won't cut it, as it's the fat in the yolk that's responsible for the increased nutrient absorption.
Poaching: One of the Healthiest Ways to Prepare Your Eggs
Eggs are a phenomenal source of protein, fat, and other nutrients, including choline and the antioxidants lutein and zeaxanthin. They are so good for you that you can easily eat one dozen eggs per week, which is actually a simple and cost-effective way to add valuable nutrition to your diet – provided you cook them properly.
The best way to consume eggs, provided they come from a high-quality source, is to not cook them at all, which is why my advanced nutrition plan recommends eating your eggs raw. In the beginner plan, however, eggs are still included and you can prepare them anyway you like them. Less "well done" eggs are vastly preferable, such as poached, soft-boiled, or over easy with very runny yolks.
It's important to consume egg yolks that are only lightly cooked, as the heat will damage many of the highly perishable nutrients in the yolk. Two raw egg yolks have antioxidant properties equivalent to half a serving of cranberries (25 grams) and almost twice as many as an apple.
But the antioxidant properties are reduced by about 50 percent when the eggs are fried or boiled, and reduced even more if they're microwaved.2 Additionally, the cholesterol in the yolk can be oxidized with high temperatures, especially when it is in contact with the iron present in the whites and cooked, as in scrambled eggs, and such oxidation contributes to chronic inflammation in your body.
For this reason, scrambled eggs are one of the worst ways to prepare eggs if you want them to be healthy. Non-stick cookware may offgas dangerous fluoride vapors at temperatures as low as 325°F-400°F,3 I recommend avoiding it.
To poach eggs, you can cook them by dropping into a pot of barely simmering water, fewer bubbles means less agitation of water that can separate the egg. Crack the egg into a ramekin or small cup, then gently slide it into the water.Next, turn off the heat, set a timer to let them cook for three to five minutes. You can remove carefully from the pan with a slotted spoon.
Organic and Free-Range: Choose Your Eggs Wisely
Even before you master how to cook your eggs properly, it's important to choose eggs from a high-quality source. Free-range or "pastured" organic eggs are far superior when it comes to nutrient content, while conventionally raised eggs are far more likely to be contaminated with disease-causing bacteria such as salmonella.
An egg is considered organic if the chicken was only fed organic food, which means it will not have accumulated high levels of pesticides from the grains (mostly GM corn) fed to typical chickens. Ideally, the chicken should have access to the outdoors where it can consume its natural diet.
Testing has confirmed that true free-range eggs are far more nutritious than commercially raised eggs, likely due to the differences in diet between free-ranging, pastured hens and commercially farmed hens.
In one egg-testing project, Mother Earth News compared the official US Department of Agriculture (USDA) nutrient data for commercial eggs with eggs from hens raised on pasture and found that the latter typically contains:4
- 2/3 times more vitamin A
- 2 times more omega-3 fatty acids
- 3 times more vitamin E
- 7 times more beta-carotene
If you're purchasing your eggs from a supermarket, be aware that labels can be very deceptive. The definitions of "free-range" are such that the commercial egg industry can run industrial farm egg-laying facilities and still call them "free-range" eggs, despite the fact that the birds' foraging conditions are far from what you'd call natural.
The key to finding truly free-range, pastured eggs is to buy your eggs locally. This is typically even preferable to organic eggs from the grocery store. If you live in an urban area, visiting the local health food stores is typically the quickest route to finding the high-quality local egg sources.
You can tell your eggs are free range or pastured by the color of the egg yolk. Foraged hens produce eggs with bright orange yolks. Dull, pale yellow yolks are a sure sign you're getting eggs from caged hens that are not allowed to forage for their natural diet.
Your Dressing Can Make or Break the Health of Your Salad
One of the most important toppings on any salad is the dressing, and here you'll want to avoid most store-bought brands. Commercial salad dressings often contain soybean oil, corn syrup, preservatives, monosodium glutamate (MSG), sugar, and even artificial flavors and colors.
Low-fat dressings particularly need to be avoided. When fat is removed from a food product, it's usually replaced by sugar/fructose in order to taste good, and this is a recipe for poor health. Excess fructose in your diet drives insulin and leptin resistance, which are at the heart of not only diabetes but most other chronic diseases as well.
Homemade salad dressing is surprisingly easy to make using a combination of healthy fats, such as coconut oil, raw yogurt or kefir, or olive oil, vinegar, and herbs and spices. Coconut oil may make a particularly good choice, as like eggs it's been found to increase the absorption of nutrients.
In an animal study that compared the effects of feeding coconut oil versus safflower oil on the absorption of carotenoids from tomatoes, coconut oil enhanced tissue uptake of tomato carotenoids to a greater degree than safflower oil.5
I personally do not use any salad dressings. Instead I use several ounces of fermented vegetables made with our Kinetic Starter Culture, so not only am I getting the lactic acid vinegar like flavor but trillions of beneficial microbes and a very significant dose of vitamin K2.
Eating fermented vegetables, and other fermented foods, like kefir, regularly is also one of the best ways to nourish your gut flora for optimal nutrient absorption, as a healthy gut is conducive to this. Without the proper balance of gut bacteria, your body cannot absorb certain undigested starches, fiber, and sugars.
The friendly bacteria in your digestive tract convert these carbohydrates into primary sources of important energy. These bacteria also produce a secondary layer of indispensable fermentation byproducts such as bacteriocins (which fight infection), beta glucans (which modulate immunity), and the entire B group vitamin series, to name but only a few of the nutrients they are capable of producing for us.
3 Additional Ingredients to Supercharge Your Salad
We've covered eggs and a healthy homemade dressing, but what else turns an ordinary salad into a superfood?
1. A Mix of Leafy Greens
Start your salad off not only with romaine, spinach, and red- and green-leaf lettuce but also mix in some of the lesser-used leafy greens. Watercress is actually one of the most nutrient-dense vegetables out there, scoring higher on nutrient-density scores than both broccoli and sunflower sprouts. It's also a cruciferous vegetable, which means it has cancer-fighting properties.
Part of the cancer-fighting powers of cruciferous vegetables comes from an enzyme called phenethyl isothiocyanate (PEITC). PEITC is naturally produced when you chew cruciferous veggies, and when researchers exposed human cervical cancer stem cells to PEITC, 75 percent of them died within 24 hours.6 Other cruciferous veggies that make a wonderful addition to salads include arugula, kale, and cabbage. You can also throw in some broccoli, radishes, and cauliflower, if you like.
Avocados provide close to 20 essential health-boosting nutrients, including potassium, vitamin E, B vitamins, and folic acid, and, according to research published in the Nutrition Journal, eating just one-half of a fresh avocado with lunch may satiate you if you're overweight, which will help prevent unnecessary snacking later.7 Those who ate half an avocado with their standard lunch reported being 40 percent less hungry three hours after their meal and 28 percent less hungry at the five-hour mark compared to those who did not eat avocado for lunch. The study also found that avocados appear helpful for regulating blood sugar levels.
Avocado is also beneficial for maintaining optimal cholesterol levels. Healthy individuals saw a 16 percent decrease in total cholesterol level following a one-week-long diet high in monounsaturated fat from avocados. In those with elevated cholesterol levels, the avocado diet resulted in a 17 percent decrease of serum total cholesterol, and a 22 percent decrease of both LDL-cholesterol and triglycerides, along with an 11 percent increase of the so-called "good" HDL cholesterol.8
Sprouts may be small, but they are packed with nutrition, including vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and enzymes that help protect against free radical damage. Many of the benefits of sprouts relate to the fact that, in their initial phase of growth, the plants contain more concentrated amounts of nutrients. As a result, you need to eat far less sprouts, in terms of amount, compared to a mature plant. For example, when sprouting seeds, nuts, beans, and grains you get higher vitamin and enzyme content, increased essential fatty acid and fiber content, and increased bioavailability of minerals and protein.
Two of my personal favorites are sunflower seed and pea shoots—both of which are typically about 30 times more nutritious than organic vegetables. They're also among the highest in protein. In addition, sunflower seeds contain healthy fats, essential fatty acids, and fiber—all of which are important for optimal health. Best of all, sprouts are incredibly easy to grow and home, and you can harvest them within about a week of starting the process. I typically have three trays of sunflower sprouts growing whenever I'm not travelling and usually eat them nearly every day when I'm at home.
Try to Make Your Salad Organic
If you can find them, make all of the ingredients for your salad organic. The largest study of its kind found that people who "often or always" ate organic food had about 65 percent lower levels of pesticide residues compared to those who ate the least amount of organic produce.9 Research also found that organic produce had, on average, 180 times lower pesticide content than conventional produce.10 In addition to lowering your pesticide load, organic produce is more nutritious. For instance, organic fruits and vegetables can contain anywhere from 18-69 percent more antioxidants than conventionally grown varieties.11
And growing tomatoes according to organic standards results in dramatically elevated phenolic content and vitamin C compared to tomatoes grown conventionally.12 In 2010, PLOS ONE also published a study that was partially funded by the USDA, which found organic strawberries were more nutrient-rich than non-organic strawberries.13 So by starting off with organic ingredients, your salad will be more nutritious right off the bat. As you add in even more healthy options… like eggs, sprouts, avocado, and your own homemade dressing rich in healthy fats, you'll have elevated your lunch or dinner from an ordinary salad to a veritable superfood.