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Health Benefits of Salad Greens

Reviewed by Dan Brennan, MD on May 13, 2021

When you think of salad greens, iceberg lettuce or romaine may come to mind. But there are hundreds of varieties of salad greens. 

Adding more varieties of greens can increase the nutritional value of your salad.

Different Types of Salad Greens

You can find several types of salad greens at your grocery store. Some of these varieties include: 

  • Iceberg. This lettuce has a very mild flavor and a crisp texture. 
  • Romaine. If you enjoy Caesar salads, this is the main vegetable. It has long firm leaves and a crisp texture.
  • Arugula. This salad green has a peppery, pungent flavor.
  • Spinach. There are two types of spinach. The Savoy spinach has wrinkled leaves.  
  • Radicchio. This is a red broadleaf lettuce. When eaten raw, it has a bittersweet flavor. This green is good for grilling or roasting.
  • Butterhead. This lettuce has a mild flavor, bright green leaves and a buttery texture. 
  • Watercress. This vegetable has a spicy flavor.
  • Green leaf and red leaf. These loose leaves are more perishable than other lettuce. 
  • Curly endive. Also known as frisée, this has a bitter taste. 
  • Bok choy. The crunchy leaves have a celery-like taste.
  • Belgian endive. This plant is grown in the dark to prevent bitter flavor and dark leaves.
  • Escarole. It’s part of the endive family and has a slightly bitter taste.

Does Salad Count as a Serving of Vegetables?

Experts recommend that adults eat 2 to 3 cups of vegetables and 1½ to 2 cups of fruits every day. But only 1 in 10 Americans meet these recommendations. 

When it comes to salad greens, you’ll need to eat 2 cups to make a 1-cup vegetable serving.

What Are the Health Benefits of Salad Greens

The nutritional value of salad greens depends on the variety. Those with red or darker green leaves are generally higher in nutrients and vitamins. 

Rich in Vitamin A. Vitamin A plays an important role in eye health, cell division, immunity, growth, and reproduction. The daily recommended intake of Vitamin A is 2,330 to 3,000 IU (700 to 900 micrograms). 

A 100-gram serving of romaine or red and green leaf lettuce gives you more than twice the amount of Vitamin A you need everyday. 

Good source of Vitamin K.Vitamin K is important for blood clotting, helps build strong bones, and keeps your blood vessels healthy. Your body only stores small amounts of Vitamin K, so you need to get it from the foods you eat. Adults need about 90 to 120 micrograms of Vitamin K per day. 

A 100-gram serving of romaine, butterhead, or red and green leaf lettuce contains more than 100 micrograms of Vitamin K. 

Rich inphytonutrients. Salad greens contain these unique compounds that act as antioxidants. Antioxidants can help prevent chronic diseases. Red leaf lettuce in particular is high in antioxidants. 

Escarole is listed as one of the top 100 richest food sources of polyphenols (another name for phytonutrients). Other salad greens on the list include curly endive, green leaf, and red leaf lettuce.

May help protect your brain. Researchers studied 960 people with an average age of 81. They found that those who ate leafy green vegetables daily had better brain health. The rate of cognitive decline for those who ate the most leafy greens was equivalent to being 11 years younger.

How to Make a Healthier Salad

Add protein. Adding some lean protein can help you feel fuller for longer. Add fish, egg, or skinless poultry to your salad. You can also try adding some beans and legumes like chickpeas, black beans, or kidney beans. Nuts like almonds and walnuts increase protein and add healthy fats.

Add grains. Whole grains help to bulk up your salad. Give it a try with quinoa, whole wheat couscous, or wild rice.

Add other vegetables. Salad leaves aren’t the only vegetables that can go into a salad. Roasted beets and squash add some sweetness. Raw carrots and cucumbers add crunch. 

Watch your dressing. However healthy your salad may be, dressing can add extra calories and fat. Adding some fat to your salad can help your body absorb the nutrients better. But try not to add more than 2 tablespoons of dressing. Choose a vinaigrette instead of a creamy dressing. 

Salad Greens and Contamination

If it seems like there’ve been more frequent outbreaks of salad-related illness in recent years, it’s because there have. Between 2006 and 2019, there were at least 46 multi-state E. coli outbreaks involving romaine and other leafy greens. Greens may be the cause of more cases of food poisoning than other foods.

This may be due to the high volume of salad greens Americans are eating these days. Also, salad greens are almost always eaten raw. For other foods that can be contaminated, like beef and eggs, bacteria is destroyed during the cooking process. Washing contaminated leaves can remove most of the bacteria, but only a small amount of bacteria is needed to make you sick. 

Bagged salads may mean more contamination because the leaves may be from different farms and mixed at a processing plant. If the leaves are shredded or cut, this means bacteria have more places to enter. 

Some of the bacteria found on leafy greens that can make you sick include:

How to Safely Handle Salad Greens

Here are some tips to get the best out of your salad greens: 

  • Put your salad greens in the fridge within 2 hours of purchasing. 
  • Wash the lettuce just before using it. Run cold water over the leaves. 
  • Separate the leaves so that you can remove dirt more easily. 
  • Use your salad greens within one week of purchase. 

Show Sources

SOURCES: 

American Heart Foundation: “How to Make a Hearty, Healthy Salad.”

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC): “Disparities in State-Specific Adult Fruit and Vegetable Consumption - United States, 2015.”

Colorado State University Extension: “Health Benefits and Safe Handling of Salad Greens.”

Consumer Reports: “Leafy Greens Safety Guide,” “What 100 Calories of Salad Ingredients Looks Like.” 

European Journal of Clinical Nutrition: "Identification of the 100 richest dietary sources of polyphenols: an application of the Phenol-Explorer database."

Harvard Health Publishing: “Salad greens: Getting the most bang for the bite.”

Mayo Clinic: “Vitamin A.”

Network for a Healthy California: “Harvest of the Month.”

National Institutes of Health (NIH): “Vitamin K.”

Neurology: “Nutrients and bioactives in green leafy vegetables and cognitive decline: Prospective study.”

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