by Rachel Turiel

Perhaps you think salads are the unsexy, lackluster territory of dieters. Maybe you remember the decades of uninspired restaurant salads: pale wedges of iceberg lettuce rising above mealy companion tomato slices and ponds of cottage cheese; a cup of lab-white fat-free Ranch dressing congealing “on the side.”

But today’s salad possibilities are like an edible manifestation of diversity on an urban street corner: spicy arugula, ruffled kale, sharp mustard greens, fluffy sprouts, salty chard, sweet, mild lettuces, and spinach that melts in your mouth.

And yet, we’re still talking about, well, leaves, which don’t exactly light up anyone’s brain pleasure centers in the way as, say, bacon. But no one’s expecting you to be the salad monk, nibbling through bowls of austere and unadulterated leaves, becoming boringly healthier by the day. Salad is not the consolation prize for a bereft dieter. Tuck enough tasty and colorful nuggets of fat and protein between the leaves and it becomes a filling and festive meal.

Because really, what is a salad but a collection of nutritionally power-packed leaves flavored to your exact tastes? It’s like a choose-your-own-adventure book: will you add spicy arugula to your salad bowl? If yes, then proceed to your fridge for the balancing sweetness of chopped apples. Need a midday protein boost? Add crumbled blue cheese, turkey, or hard-boiled eggs (or all three). Vegan? Select walnuts or avocados. Drench with tasty dressing. Grab a fork. The end.

Oh, and would you like to prevent cancer as you chew? Arugula, bok choi, Swiss chard, spinach, kale and cabbage are all listed in the book The 150 Healthiest Foods on Earth by Dr. Jonny Bowden, due to tongue-bending cancer-fighters like sulforaphane (kale), isothiocyanates (arugula), indoles (bok choi), and dithiolethiones (cabbage). Also, each leafy green is its own complex multivitamin, walloped with vitamins A, C, and K, calcium, antioxidants, folate, and iron. Katrina Blair, proprietor of the Durango raw and wild foods restaurant Turtle Lake Cafe, notes that the enzymes found in raw greens are catalysts to all human bodily functions (respiration, digestion, elimination, muscle building, etc.).

On the day that salad greens get their own Walk of Fame, I would

 

like to nominate spinach for the first star. One cup of cooked spinach contains more than a quarter of the Daily Recommended Value (DV) of calcium, iron and vitamin C, and more than the entire DV of vitamin A and K. Thirteen different compounds, called flavonoids, have been discovered to function as antioxidants and anticancer agents in spinach. So impressive are these compounds, researchers have created spinach extracts to be used in controlled cancer studies. Research published in the 2004 issue of the Journal of Nutrition showed that these extracts slow cell division in stomach, skin, breast and prostate cancers. I’ll skip the extract and just eat the salad (with avocado, apple and feta, please).

It’s worth noting that in the nutritional parade of leafy greens, lettuces limp along at the end. The buzzword here is “nutrient density,” and according to Durango naturopath and midwife Joy Frazer, you’d have to eat more than twice as much lettuce to get the same nutrition as from the darker leafy greens (and forget about the anti-cancer compounds).

However, lettuce is a perfect “gateway green” (for children and some husbands) leading gently to the toothier salad options of kale and chard. If you hope to maximize your lettuce investments, Durango registered dietician Mikel Love suggests selecting the most colorful and strong-flavored lettuces. In my role as mother to two young ones, I consider it my job to instill kindness, generosity and an ability to enjoy salads.

And if my children want their salads to swim in a pond of salad dressing, studded with icebergs of avocados, olives and apples, I am no different. In my salad bowl, leafy greens shake hands with walnuts, avocados, hard-boiled eggs, blue cheese, apples and, yes, sometimes even bacon.

If you think adding bacon lowers the nutritional value of your salad, good news! On the Venn Diagram of diets, from Atkins to Vegan and everything between, the overlap of gastronomical correctness is undoubtedly, always, vegetables. The research shows over and over, in every way possible, this very simple fact: eating daily multiple servings of a diverse nation of vegetables will improve your health. (The occasional bacon slice riding the coattails of leafy greens? No problem).

But, did you need just one more reason to eat a daily salad? First, a new term: microbiota. Microbiota is the collective population of the several hundred microbial species that inhabit our bodies, which incidentally, outnumber human cells ten to one. New research indicates that the diversity and specific make-up of our microbiota (which differ tremendously from culture to culture and generally exist in symbiotic harmony with human cells) correlate with specific diseases. That is, people who have auto-immune disorders like rheumatoid arthritis, multiple sclerosis, type 1 diabetes, and fibromyalgia, share similarities in their gut microorganisms that unaffected people don’t. Microbiologists believe it is possible that our microbiota profile can protect us from, or predispose us to, disease.

We develop most of our microbiota by age three, but factors like diet and antibiotic use can alter populations. Eating the standard American diet (high in sugar, processed carbs and fat) seems to result in a low diversity of microbial species (which is less protective against disease). According to Stanford microbiologist Justin Sonnenburg, “The safest way to increase your microbial diversity is to eat many different complex carbohydrates and plant fibers.” Or as food writer and researcher Michael Pollan says, “The less a food is processed, the more of it gets safely through the gastrointestinal tract and into the eager clutches of the microbiota.”

Surely over the coming years, the micro-scrutinizing of our food will increase. Even more information will come clear. But, when our mothers told us to eat our vegetables, they knew.

Where tomatoes and stone fruit capture a particular gustatory season all their own, as evinced by farmers markets swelling with starry-eyed shoppers precisely as tomatoes and peaches ripen, salad greens span the entire Colorado growing season. Arugula, spinach, chard, bok choi, kale, lettuce, parsley and cilantro are the brave upstarts of the local food season, popping up through spring snow. At the season’s end, these same greens mingle in their no-fuss way with October’s potatoes and pumpkins.

It seems prudent to invest, gastronomically speaking, in the abundance of salad greens while they are locally available. The USDA recommends eating 2 ½ cups of vegetables a day (your neighborhood naturopath would undoubtedly recommend more). Eating one salad meal could cross “vegetable intake” off your daily to-do list. Your liver will thank you. As will your heart, lungs, blood, digestion, mouth and those 100 trillion or so bacteria that call your body home. `