The Secret to a Healthier Business Lunch: Forget the Fat-Free Salad Dressing

Posted by on Wednesday, July 30th, 2014 with Comments Off on The Secret to a Healthier Business Lunch: Forget the Fat-Free Salad Dressing Comments

Salads seem like the perfect choice for a business lunch or conference meal: they won’t weigh you down or make you sleepy like a heavy sandwich or pasta dish, they’re easy to eat while you carry on a conversation, and they’re good for you. But is your salad really as healthy as you think it is? Not if you’re ordering one of those ubiquitous fat-free vinaigrettes.

In yet another example of how the fat-phobic diets of the 1990s were a terrible idea, the habit of choosing low-fat or fat-free salad dressing — or skipping it altogether — is actually making your salad less good for you. Fat-free dressings may mean you’re consuming fewer calories, but they also are missing a key component that vegetables need to do their work… which is improving your health and wellness, probably the whole reason you’re ordering a salad in the first place.

salad with avocado and balsamic dressing

A little fat can do your salad a lot of good.
Image source: Flickr user Ewan M

It works like this: certain carotenoids — the pigments that give vibrant vegetables like bell peppers, tomatoes, and spinach their rich colors, and also happen to be potent antioxidants that can reduce your risk of cancer and cardiovascular disease — are fat-soluble. That means they need a certain amount of fat along for the ride during digestion so that they can be properly absorbed by our intestines. So when you eat a big spinach salad with lots of colorful veggies but no fat, those carotenoids can’t actually be used by your body.

And over the last decade, researchers have been really specific about focusing on the interaction of salads and dressings! In 2004, a study out of Iowa State University determined that carotenoids in salad vegetables were more bioavailable – that is, readily absorbed – when paired with a full-fat versus a low-fat or fat-free dressing. Taking it to the next level, in 2012, a salad study from Purdue University found that certain kinds of dressings, depending on the type of fat they contained, were more efficient than others at making carotenoids bioavailable.

In the Purdue study, dressings made from heart-healthy monounsaturated fats (specifically, canola oil) promoted carotenoid absorption at the same significant rate, regardless of whether participants ate salads with three grams of fat or twenty. By comparison, dressings made from saturated fats (like butter) and even polyunsaturated fats (like corn oil) were much more dependent on dose: you need to eat higher grams of fat to get higher levels of carotenoid absorption. Eating 20 grams of fat meant you got significantly more carotenoids — but, of course, a significantly higher number of calories, which is not ideal for diners who are trying to lose or maintain weight.

So what does that mean for your go-to salad order during a typical business lunch? Essentially, if you’re trying to eat fewer calories but still retain the health-boosting benefits of your veggies, pair your salad with a monounsaturated fat to get the biggest nutritional bang for your caloric buck. In addition to canola oil, dressings made from olive oil, peanut oil, sesame oil, and safflower oil fall under the monounsaturated fat banner. If the only dressing options are creamy ones (like ranch and blue cheese), or even fat-free vinaigrettes, think of including other salad-friendly additions that are also rich in monounsaturated fats: sliced avocado, hazelnuts, peanuts, pecans, almonds, cashews, sunflower seeds, and pumpkin seeds all fit the bill.

And don’t just stop at salad! Think about the fat-carotenoid pairing with other veggies: add a scoop of guacamole to your roasted sweet potato, cashews to your stir-fried broccoli, and even some sliced pecans to your morning oatmeal with fresh berries (deeply colored fruits have carotenoids too).

A little fat — especially the right kind — might just be the key to unlocking the full potential of your business lunch. And when you need a healthy, hearty salad delivered right to the office, is ready. With easy online ordering and prompt delivery, eating healthy at the office has never been easier!

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