Why people have came to view salad and leafy greens as essential parts of a healthy diet and a symbol of healthy eating is somewhat of a mystery. Salads are not that good for you and may even contribute to weight gain.
In Michigan leafy greens are generally available through late spring and summer, unless you find a local place growing them hydroponically or in a hoop house. That’s the first strike against salad- or at least the green portion of salad – it is most often not local or as fresh as it should be.
Even during the prime growing season for greens in Michigan most consumers aren’t eating greens grown in Michigan, especially if they favor head lettuce. We do grow salad greens in Michigan, but if you aren’t buying them at a Michigan farmers market you probably aren’t getting Michigan grown greens.
People have eaten greens in small quantities for thousands of years but it wasn’t until the last 50-60 years, when refrigerated shipping became common, that having a salad with a meal or as a meal became popular. Because it was expensive at first to have out of season items for a meal, it was probably a status symbol to have salad.
In earlier times the greens that were eaten were usually dark greens, often gathered from the wild and usually cooked. They were often considered a food of last resort, what you ate in the early spring when your stored food was used up and the new harvest not in. The wild gathered greens did replace some needed vitamins lost in long stored food and some greens added iron to keep people from becoming anemic until they got access to fresh meat.
But greens don’t give you energy to hunt or plant crops because there aren’t many calories there. Your ancestors would never have chosen them over more substantial food and neither should you.
While nutrition charts list many vitamins in leafy greens they really don’t stress the fact that those vitamins are present in miniscule quantities. You would have to eat leafy greens in huge quantities to make a difference to your body. And all of those vitamins are found in other foods. And greens offer nothing else but those miniscule doses of vitamins and some fiber.
(When talking about salad here, we are discussing leafy greens, not other vegetables or fruits that sometimes are added to salads. Those items; carrots, tomatoes, peppers, apples, pears, berries and citrus and so on, have more nutrition and can be a healthy part of a diet. )
Head lettuce has no nutritional value. The darker the green the more vitamins it has and the closer it becomes to being nutritionally relevant to any diet. If you consume kale and spinach, for example, you are at least getting more vitamins with the green water, although not in any significant amount that your diet couldn’t do without.
Some people chose leafy, fresh greens for the reason that they don’t have many calories. They are something to munch on that makes you feel you are eating and might make you feel temporarily full. Nutritionists probably recommend salad because they know Americans like to see a full plate and a half plate of salad might mean fewer calories on the plate.
But choosing salad greens as a weight loss device often leads people down a slippery slope. Most people don’t eat plain, fresh leafy greens. Let’s face it; the taste is too bland, even bitter and disgusting in many cases. So the greens are covered with fatty dressings and all sorts of calorie laden tidbits until often the salad has more calories than a hamburger or a nice roast beef sandwich.
And when people eat a big salad for lunch, even though it may have been a thousand calorie salad, they feel they are entitled to splurge a bit on dinner. And if their salad was a carefully regulated low calorie salad, their bodies are soon screaming for more substantial food and they are even more likely to over indulge.
If you must have greens drop the head lettuce and use kale, spinach or romaine lettuce. Lettuces that grow easily in Michigan gardens like leaf and bibb lettuce are better than iceberg or head lettuce although they don’t have much nutritional value either. Cabbage actually has less calories cup for cup than lettuce and many more nutrients. You may want to choose coleslaw if you must have a salad. Head lettuce should be left for lining the plate that true food rests on.
Most lettuce sold in Michigan is grown on the west coast, generally in California. It takes lots of scarce irrigation water to produce that blob of basically green water and a little fiber. It takes more water to wash it and lots of fossil fuel to ship it to Michigan in refrigerated trucks.
Salad greens take fertilizer- also made from fossil fuels in most cases and they are a crop that’s often treated with pesticides to get leaves without insect holes for fussy consumers. They are also a food that frequently transmits salmonella, shigella, E.coli and other food borne illness to people because of the way they are grown and processed. They can be deadly additions to your diet.
The key to good nutrition is to eat foods that have nutrients like fats, proteins and carbohydrates, as well as vitamins and minerals but to eat them in the proper amounts. While eating greens like lettuce may not harm you if you don’t get pesticide residue or food borne germs with it, it isn’t environmentally responsible to keep growing huge crops of this useless “food” and shipping it great distances.
Americans were taught to like or at least expect iceberg lettuce salads at most meals. It’s one of the best marketing schemes ever. Let’s hope that someday they realize that was a big mistake and learn to eat food that is better for them.