An attention-grabbing health headline that always drives me crazy is “the list of salads that are more unhealthy than a Big Mac.” They always reach this conclusion by comparing three numbers: total calories, grams of saturated fat, and milligrams of sodium. As I’ve said before, obsessing about certain numbers can cause people to lose track of the big picture and ultimately make counter-productive decisions.
While I’ll admit it is possible to make a pretty unhealthy salad, I would much rather people eat any high-calorie, fat-filled salad day after day rather than Big Macs. Yes, a Big Mac can ultimately have less calories and fat grams than a salad, but assuming lower totals on these three numbers means that it is the healthier option only injects more confusion into the already confused subject of nutrition.
We continue to discover all kinds of things about nutrition every day and I can tell you from my experience reading research papers everyday that ultimately we’re never quite sure if it’s the single nutrient being observed in the study that’s helpful (or harmful), some other nutrient we haven’t thought to look at yet, or the way they all work together synergistically to really create the observed effect. I can recommend a host of vitamin supplements to take to help mitigate the damage of a poor diet, but you’d be missing out on all the benefits from whole foods (not the store) that we don’t quite understand yet. You can focus on the little things like milligrams of sodium and grams of saturated fat, but these numbers are absolutely meaningless when taken out of the context of what else is on your plate (as well as within the context of your entire diet and exercise plan).
The reason it drives me so crazy is because I’ve dealt with many friends, family, and clients over the years that have an all-or-nothing attitude when it comes to nutrition. They see a salad as something to eat when you’re being disciplined and a Big Mac as something to indulge on when you’re not. They see a big, tasty but calorie-dense salad as a waste of time because it’s neither good for you or decadent enough. I don’t eat perfectly all the time either, and I have eaten many “unhealthy” salads when I feel like indulging because they will always be better for me than a Big Mac, plus they make it much easier to get back on track later.
There is more to nutrition than calories
I’ve said it over and over again, a calorie is not a calorie, and in this case, a calorie of Big Mac is most definitely not the same as a calorie of salad. We all get this to some degree. We’ve all heard terms like “empty calories,” “balanced diet,” and “essential nutrients.” Even if certain salads have more total calories, grams of saturated fat, and sodium than a Big Mac, they have less empty calories, more essential nutrients, and the balance of all those additional nutrients in that salad helps your body process those three “terrible” numbers more effectively (plus I’ll go into why they’re not so terrible later).
Our bodies need more than just calories to operate. We need fat, protein, a wide array of vitamins and minerals, and of course, frequent activity to keep our complex systems running smoothly. We get too focused on the idea of body fat percentage as a sign of health. It is possible for people to be obese and still maintain healthy measurements of blood sugar, cholesterol, and triglycerides (at least for a while). It’s also possible (and common) for obese people to be malnourished. In fact, it’s the lack of basic vitamins and minerals that causes obesity to spiral downward into a host of dangerous health conditions like diabetes and heart disease. We always think of starving people as the ones who are malnourished, but studies have shown that many people that are so obese they qualify for bariatric surgery are actually nutrient deficient before their operations.
How is this possible? Because there is more to food than just calories. We call processed food junk for a reason. To help it last longer on the shelf, manufacturers strip out many nutrients that are prone to rot, burn out others incidentally during processing, and then load it back up with sugar because it not only improves the taste but it acts as a natural preservative. You’d be shocked how little the processed version of food resembles it’s original, natural form. As a bit of an example, my son actually has a slight allergy to beef, but he can eat a Big Mac just fine. Makes me wonder what’s really left behind in that burger.
Don’t obsess about saturated fat and sodium either
I’ve already spoken at length about why saturated fat and sodium are unfairly vilified, so I won’t dwell on it too deeply here. I do want to focus on a few important factors on why the fat and sodium in a salad is far less harmful than it is in a Big Mac.
Saturated fats are not the cause of heart disease like we once thought, but I still recommend eating them sparingly because they are harder for your body to mobilize out of fat cells than unsaturated fats. That said, they still have additional benefits that make them part of a healthy diet, rather than an unhealthy one:
1. Vitamin Absorption. All those healthy vegetables in your salad may be loaded with important vitamins like vitamins A, E, and K, but you won’t be able to absorb them without the addition of some dietary fat. Vitamin D is another important nutrient and one found in a lot of those “unhealthy” saturated fat-laden dairy sources that we were previously told to avoid. As I mentioned in a previous article, a long-term study found that full-fat dairy does not cause weight gain because of the synergistic effects from consuming, fat, vitamin D, and calcium at the same time. You can overdo it of course, but if you need some cheese to enjoy your salad, don’t feel guilty, just enjoy.
2. Gastric Emptying. This is a fancy way of saying that fat slows down the speed at which food leaves your stomach and dumps into your small intestines. This not only helps you feel satisfied longer, but it also slows the release of sugar into your bloodstream. Too much sugar flooding your system too quickly is the cause of all kinds of problems and slowing down the release not only keeps your blood chemistry functioning properly, but it also helps control your appetite long term. Salads also have fiber which is another excellent source for slowing gastric emptying and stabilizing blood sugar. I personally prefer the taste of less-sugary salad dressings but I don’t swear people off of them if it’s what it takes to get them to eat more salads. While the sugar will cause your body to release insulin and store the fat, the fat itself (along with the fiber) slows the release of insulin so you won’t store as much.
Salads counteract sodium
Controlling the release of sugar into your system (particularly fructose) also helps control your blood pressure. Fear of chronic high blood pressure is why we’re so concerned with sodium levels, but the reason the sodium in that Big Mac is more impactful than the sodium in a salad is because the high-fructose corn syrup found in that bun increases blood pressure all on its own. Fructose produces uric acid as a by-product as it’s metabolized in the liver, so a lot of fructose (like in that processed hamburger bun) produces a lot of uric acid, which raises resting blood pressure. Combine that with a ton of sodium and nothing else to counter the effect and a Big Mac will be pretty impactful on blood pressure. A salad won’t (depending on the ingredients of course).
As I mentioned before, potassium works as the counter balance to sodium when it comes to blood pressure and many researchers recommend increasing potassium-rich foods like bananas, avocados, and spinach to protect against high blood pressure rather than simply focusing on sodium restriction. Speaking of spinach, it also contains another blood pressure-lowering compound called nitrates. I talked about it a little before concerning how it can boost your performance, but it’s another example of the synergies found in whole foods, and the benefits you’ll stumble across when you don’t focus on the little details like sodium levels.
Easier to take small steps than big ones
It’s true that some salads are healthier than others, but ask yourself, when you finally decide to get serious and switch to a healthy diet, which is going to be easier to transition from, the Big Mac or the “unhealthy” salad? To make real changes, experts recommend smaller changes you can live with versus drastic changes that you’ll quickly abandon. It’s a lot easier to skip the croutons than to switch over from a pizza. Figure out the items you enjoy and the ones you can live without. You can also experiment with keeping some of the more “unhealthy” items in and seeing if it actually impacts your weight or not. We all respond a little bit differently, and having a few croutons on your salad may satisfy little cravings that would have otherwise caused you to eat later. The more you can be satisfied with your meals, the less likely you are to cave-in later and overeat.
Enjoy your taco salads and crouton-filled Caesars when you want to indulge, but when you’re ready to step up the health content of your salads, try these simply little changes:
1. Anything but iceberg. Iceberg lettuce isn’t completely fiber and nutrient free, but it’s mostly just crunchy water. If you want a salad base that is rich in fiber, vitamins, minerals, and a host of cancer-fighting phytonutrients, the best greens tend to be the darkest green. Try spinach, kale, watercress, or swiss chard to really up the power of your salad. If these are a little too strong for your tastes, arugula, red-leaf lettuce, and romaine lettuce are some milder choices.
2. You’re allowed more than one vegetable. I’ve noticed that a lot of salads pretty much stop at the lettuce and move on to meat, cheese, and dressing to liven it up. While those ingredients really are fine in a healthy salad, there are plenty of other vegetables you can and should throw in to not only add all kinds of additional nutrients, but add some crunch and flavor. I’m a big fan of broccoli as a crunchy little nutrition powerhouse, and I mix it with plenty of onions and peppers to add some pop to that crunch.
3. Anything but deep fried. In general, my advice on any kind of food is that the deep fried version is never good, so I do agree with the “worse than a Big Mac” crowd that the crispy chicken on top of the salad is a bad choice. They’re all fried in soybean oil which leads to a host of problems like weight gain, heart disease, and liver damage. Throw that out and look for lean sources of protein like I mentioned in the Fat Fighting Foods article such as fish, grass-fed beef, nuts, and grilled chicken.
4. Natural sugar. The fat, fiber, and protein will slow the release of sugar into your system, but it can only do so much. The more crispy noodles, croutons, and candied nuts you add to the mix, the more you’ll raise your insulin levels, which causes you to store the accompanying fat that was in your salad. If you want to add some sweetness, throw fruit into the mix. Whole fruit also has fiber that slows the release of sugar, plus fructose does not raise insulin levels. Even though it’s sweet, whole fruit does not have nearly the amount of sugar found in processed foods.