Where your salad is going wrong.
Chances are, if you are making a ‘healthy’ salad lunch choice today you are already feeling virtuous. How could there be anything wrong with the container of leaves, tuna and dressing? The interesting thing is that both the physiological impact of eating a salad, and the psychology of doing so may not be impacting your diet in the positive way you think it is.
Salads isn’t always healthy.
A salad technically refers to small pieces of cut up food served with a sauce. In real life terms this means that a salad can include anything from a varied mix of salad vegetables, leaves and olive oil to pasta with a few chopped vegetables served with pesto. The calorie and nutritional loads of these differ widely and mean a salad can range from an exceptionally low calorie meal choice to a complete calorie overload packed with fat, sugars and salt. This is especially the case in a food court scenario where the majority of salad options are significantly higher in calories than would be suggested for a nutritionally balanced meal choice.
Ideally a salad that is consumed as a meal will contain 2-3 cups of salad vegetables, a serve of lean protein such as chicken, tuna, egg or legumes, a serve of wholegrain carbs such as quinoa, sweet potato, corn or brown rice and a serve of fat via olive oil, avocado, cheese, nuts or seeds. Chances are unless you are ordering your salad in this specific way, or making it yourself your macronutrient targets and total calorie intake is way off track.
Salad vegetables are not as nutritious as we think.
The irony about traditional salad vegetables – leaves, tomato, cucumber, carrots, capsicum, is that while they are low in calories and contain some key nutrients including Vitamin C, folate and fibre, the truth is that salad vegetables are mostly water and the amounts of these key micronutrients are relatively small. This does not make them a poor choice, rather a meal addition unless they have carbs and proteins added for nutritional balance. Utilising cooked vegetables – pumpkin, carrots, zucchini, and mushrooms will help to boost the nutritional content of any salad, as well including a source of fat such as olive oil, avocado which will help with the absorption of a number of key nutrients from the vegetables themselves.
The psychology of eating salad.
We have all done it, ordered a boring salad only to finish the meal with a high calorie dessert that contains more calories than a regular meal would have. When we order a ‘salad’, two scenarios commonly evolve, one where we feel virtuous and then give ourselves permission to eat other high calorie foods as a meal addition or we feel deprived and end up eating more regardless. In both cases, some cognitive reframing is required to shift our beliefs about eating salad from that as a special weight loss meal to that of a nutrient dense but standard meal choice.
Firstly when a salad is well balanced, it is not overly low in calories, rather a nutritious meal choice. Once we understand this, a plain, dressing free salad loses its appeal.
Secondly, avoiding feelings of deprivation is dependent on ensuring that the salads we consume as meals are meals, not a pile of leaves with a few tomatoes. Remember a well-balanced salad requires carbs, proteins, fats as well as salad vegetables.
The carb balance tends to be all wrong.
The standard salad we order or prepare either contains too few carbs or too many – pasta salad, brown rice salad, quinoa salad versus plain tuna salad, Caesar salad or sashimi salad. In each of these examples the salad is either all carb, or contains literally none. Too much carbohydrate will not support weight or appetite control throughout the day, while too few will leave you hungry and cravings carbohydrates an hour or so after finishing your salad.
The key to salad success, particularly when salads are being consumed as a meal is to get the carb balance right. As a general rule of thumb a meal salad will require ½ – 1 cup total carbs – sweet potato, quinoa, brown rice, pasta to strike a balance between calorie control, satiety and blood glucose control.
On the other hand when the salad is being consumed as a side, plain leaves, salad vegetables and dressing will be a relatively low calorie addition to any meal.