During the hot summer when we naturally want to eat lighter fare, salads can take the spotlight in meals more frequently. This is a good time to explore some different salad ingredients. Unlike the old days when iceberg lettuce held a monopoly on salad greens, we now enjoy romaine, leaf, and Boston lettuces which offer some variety and more nutrients. But there are still other salad greens available today that offer even more flavor and nutrition as well as interest and diversity.
A good example is arugula. It has a peppery flavor and is among the top 10 most nutrient dense foods. It’s almost 30 percent more nutrient dense than cabbage and nearly 50 percent more nutrient dense than cauliflower. Watercress is another good choice. Per calorie, it has more vitamin C than an orange and more calcium than milk.
Both watercress and arugula are members of the cruciferous family of vegetables such as broccoli and cabbage. These greens are rich in antioxidants that reduce cancer and heart disease risk.
Nutrient density refers to the amount of nutrients in a food compared to its calories. For example, a high calorie food with few nutrients such as a soda or chips has a low nutrient density. By contrast a low-calorie food with lots of nutrients such as broccoli, cabbage or salad greens has high nutrient density.
As we progress through the lifecycle, (that’s a nice way of saying as we get older), consuming fewer calories helps us to maintain a healthy weight. Choosing nutrient dense foods becomes more important in order to get the nutrients and antioxidants we need to balance cellular damage that comes with aging.
In our body with millions of chemical reactions going on, damage occurs as part of everyday living. Pieces of molecules called free radicals are generated by metabolism and are very destructive causing oxidative damage to our cells. A microscopic blemish in a blood vessel wall develops into a clogged artery. A damaged cell replicates itself incorrectly and grows into a tumor. Think of what happens when we leave an iron tool in the yard. In a few days, it begins to rust. Oxygen and moisture interact with the metal to degrade the tool. In our bodies, oxidative damage causes cellular changes as we age. This oxidative damage can be partially neutralized by molecules in plant foods called antioxidants.
We can’t stop the aging process. But we can slow it down by eating foods that are rich in antioxidants. This is why the American Cancer Society advises people to eat a plant-based diet and why the American Heart Association recommends modest meat portions with lots of vegetables, fruits and whole grains. There are no antioxidants in animal foods, meat or dairy or in highly processed foods like sweets, chips and sugary cereals.
Fresh salads offer flavor, texture and variety as well as generous nutrients in low calorie packages. Remember to manage portion size on dressings. Incidentally, these different salad greens go very well on sandwiches. If you are stuck in the meat, mayo and cheese rut, try improving the balance of the sandwich by adding vegetables – not just lettuce, tomato and onion. Arugula with its peppery flavor pairs well with lean sandwich meats. The watercress salad featured this month actually makes a delicious sandwich just by itself. Put it on a hearty whole grain bread or a fresh ciabatta roll. The fresh lemon flavor of this salad makes the perfect sandwich on hot summer days.
Tim Scallon is a registered dietitian nutritionist with many years’ experience practicing nutrition therapy in local hospitals and clinics, teaching nutrition and developing healthy recipes. He helped create the popular TV show Memorial Cooking Innovations celebrating the world of food and health. Memorial Cooking Innovations is produced by St. Luke’s Health and the City of Lufkin. It currently runs in 62 cities and is locally available on Sudden Link cable TV channels and online at www.chistlukeshealthmemorial.org.