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How to Build the Ultimate Healthy Salad

By Molly Hurford | May 9, 2019 | Rally Health

Everyone knows that one pillar of a healthy diet is eating plenty of fresh vegetables. Building a salad for lunch is one easy way to raise your daily intake. But choosing a salad can have other benefits, too. With the right mix of healthy proteins and carbs, says Dana Lis, PhD, RD, the high performance sport nutritionist who supports the women on the Rally UHC Cycling Team, “salads can pack a huge amount of nutrients into a well-rounded, post-workout meal.”  

For Rally UHC’s cycling pros, hitting the salad bar isn’t just about refueling, post-ride — it’s a bonding experience. They’ve even started their own Instagram hashtag, #saladclub, to capture their picture-perfect, nutrient-packed, rainbow-colored concoctions. We asked nutrition experts and our cycling pros for their tips for building hearty, healthy, Insta-worthy salads. Here’s how they load their plates.

Pick a nutrient-packed base

Dark, leafy greens such as spinach, kale, or arugula are great foundations for your salad. Compared with iceberg and romaine, they’re better sources of iron, says Lis, “and pack a lot of fiber, which is super important for your gut health.” Salad Club co-founder Abby Mickey loves starting with a base of peppery arugula.

Add lean protein 

“The amino acids found in protein help cells recover and promote muscle growth,” says nutritionist and professional cyclist Lori Nedescu, RD. Opt for sources of complete protein (meaning they contain all nine essential amino acids) that are low in saturated fat. Krista Doebel-Hickok, one of the top climbers on the team, prefers chicken — but there are plenty of other alternatives to choose from, from tofu, one of Mickey’s favorites, to lean steak, Salad Club co-founder Rob Britton’s go-to.  Your daily protein needs will vary depending on your sex, weight, activity level, the type of workouts you’re doing, and your fitness goals; athletes striving to gain muscle, for example, will want to consume more than most casual exercisers. If you’re a relatively active person, shooting for 20 grams of protein per meal — the standard recommendation, per the International Society of Sports Nutrition — makes sense. If you work out 30 minutes or less a day, on the other hand, visit choosemyplate.gov to find out how much you should aim to eat daily.

Throw in some healthy fat

Adding sources of nutritious fats like olives or avocado to your salad can help you feel more satisfied with your meal. Research also suggests that consuming fats with raw veggies can “help you absorb certain vitamins and minerals in the veggies,” says Nedescu. That includes carotenoids found in green and yellow veggies such as carrots, broccoli, and kale. For healthy fats with a satisfying crunch, Britton likes nuts, while Mickey opts for seeds or roasted chickpeas tossed in olive oil and savory nutritional yeast. Rally UHC Cycling’s criterium expert Sara Bergen prefers her fats in the form of cheese, reaching for bold options like feta or blue cheese. Avocado is another great choice, and a personal favorite of Nedescu’s.

Be careful not to overdo it on these toppings, though. “A serving is around the size of your thumb, and a good salad shouldn’t have much more than two servings at most,” Lis says. Dressing counts as one of your servings, mind you, so go light.

Experiment with color

Colorful vegetables are brimming with micronutrients, antioxidants, vitamins, and minerals, says Lis. Throw in asparagus for a dose of folate, a B vitamin that helps grow tissue and and aids red blood cell production; juicy red tomatoes for lycopene, an antioxidant that protects cells; and red cabbage for anthocyanins, a type of flavonoid, or phytonutrient, that may guard against cancer. Plus, adding color to your salad is fun. Mickey likes to play with the hues on her plate: “If I’m adding red cabbage, I skip beets. If I do zucchini, I skip broccoli. I want my salads to cover the full rainbow.”

Layer in smart carbs

“During high-intensity exercise, our bodies use carbohydrates as fuel in the form of muscle glycogen,” explains Lis. “We need to refill those stores." Adding healthy carbohydrates to a post-workout salad can help replenish our energy reserve. Britton and Bergen both love a scoop of rice or quinoa, and Mickey likes millet, a round grain with a milder taste. Bringing in some whole grains can also make a salad feel like a richer, more satisfying meal, says Nedescu. While vegetables should be the primary base, rounding it out with all the macros — fat, protein, and carbohydrates — is key to creating the perfect plate.

Dial up flavor

Spices are a salad lover’s secret weapon. Adding a sprinkle can take a relatively bland bowl and transform it into something way more exciting with almost no added calories. “I add cumin for a Mexican flavor profile, and curry and turmeric for Indian-style bowls that are great for reducing inflammation,” Bergen says. When she’s craving heat, she keeps it simple: “My go-to is Sriracha sauce.”

Incorporating roasted or pickled veggies can add even more flavor and dimension to your dish. Mickey likes roasted cauliflower in the winter. She also roasts beets after marinating them in tart, tangy apple cider vinegar. Bergen likes roasted root veggies, too. “Carrots spiced with cinnamon, a little maple syrup and a touch of nutmeg is my go-to,” she says. Try it: Chop carrots and soak in the marinade for about 30 minutes. Then roast for an hour and 20 minutes at 350 degrees

Dress it up

Store-bought dressings can be packed with preservatives. If you’ve got a couple of extra minutes, it’s worth it to skip those additives by whipping up your own fresh version. Aim for a ratio of three parts oil to one part vinegar, Lis says, adding other ingredients to taste. Rely on heart-healthier oils such as olive oil, and go light when you pour it on: women ages 31 and over should have no more than 5 teaspoons of oil total a day, while men 31 and over should top out at 6. Britton shakes up a traditional vinaigrette with "extra-virgin olive oil, maple syrup, balsamic vinegar, a little spicy dijon mustard, and salt and pepper,” he says. Bergen, meanwhile, has perfected her own a spicy peanut variety featuring Sriracha, soy sauce, garlic, and peanut butter. 

When it comes to dressing your salad masterpiece, keep an eye on calories. Kathy McManus, MS, RD, LDN, director of the department of nutrition at Harvard-affiliated Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston, recommends making sure you’re using only 120 calories’ worth (and if you’re choosing a bottled variety, checking that it contains no more than 200 mg of sodium, 2 grams of sugar, and 1 gram of saturated fat per serving). Two tablespoons is a standard serving size. “Don’t go overboard,” Lis says. “You can easily accidentally add hundreds of calories to your salad by pouring on too much.”

Now that you know how to build the perfect salad...

Make assembling your next one super easy with meal prep. Bergen is a huge proponent of planning meals ahead: It’s how she's handled a work and racing schedule that got hectic, and how she’s able to come home from a hard workout and dig into her recovery meal within minutes. Once a week she chops up peppers, tomatoes, and her other salad must-haves, cooks proteins like chicken, and pre-roasts her favorite root vegetables. Give her strategy a try. That way, you’ll only ever be a mixing bowl away from a ready-to-eat, #saladclub-worthy meal.

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Molly Hurford
Rally Health