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Make Veggies Your Meal Mainstay: Top 5 Salad Toppings!

Many people scoff at the idea of a salad as a meal. I would like to change your mind about salad. I would like to change your mind about the composition of your every meal. See, salad can be a filling, not to mention incredibly nutritious, way to structure your meals. Most North Americans get far too many carbohydrates, so instead of getting your complex carbohydrates from the typical fillers (rice, pasta, potatoes...), why not fill that space with heaps of greens, or bunches of bright and beautiful vegetables? The nutrient density of your meal will shoot through the roof and that should leave you feeling great. Sometimes, though, veggie-only meals can leave you feeling a bit unsatisfied.

So how do we make salads that can act as meals? Why, with the top 5 salad toppings, of course!

1. Nuts and Seeds!

Keeping on hand jars full of nuts and seeds can easily make any salad a meal. Nuts and seeds, if left unattended with the earth, create life- so you know they're harnessing lovely goodness! In general, nuts and seeds are high in healthy fats, protein, fibre, antioxidants, and many beneficial vitamins and minerals. So adding walnuts, pecans, almonds, hemp seeds, chia seeds, sunflower seeds, pepitas (pumpkin seeds), etc to your salads is always a plus! To make them more digestible and to remove enzyme inhibitors, try sprouting/soaking them!

2. Beans and legumes!

(FYI Beans are actually a type of legume) Bean salad may be a common concept to you, but how about adding beans to your other salads, as well? Beans are fairly high in carbohydrates so they can easily replace other carbs in your salads (rice, pasta, etc.) while having much higher protein, fibre, vitamin and mineral content to balance out the carbs and lower the glycemic index. Black beans, lentils and garbanzos (chick peas) are my favourite, but there are hundreds of different options. Also, try cooking dried beans instead of using canned beans to conserve cans, the waste of gas (the difference in weight and volume of dried beans versus canned is enormous), and the addition of preservatives and harmful chemicals (such as BPA liners) in canned goods. In addition, it is unbelievably cheap to use dried beans. After overnight soaking (this reduces gas-producing oligosaccharides, as well as cooking time), strain and put beans directly in pot on high heat, without the addition of water. Add some baking soda (1 tsp per 1.5 cups of dried beans) and "dry fry" the beans for a few minutes from the time they start bubbling and sizzling. This softens the bean and greatly reduces the cooking time. Then add the appropriate amount of water to cook, it should take 20-40 minutes. Note that lentils, split peas, and black-eyed peas do not require soaking, nor the baking soda dry fry. Frozen edamame (soy beans) is also a very quick (about 4 minutes) way to add delicious beans to your meal, just opt for organic and GMO-free (see next point).

3. Tofu and tempeh!

Tofu and tempeh are products made from the soybean, so this could actually be under #2, but we're going to give it a bullet of its own. The information from #2 still applies, though. Soy is a common allergen, but if you're not sensitive to it, it's a filling and versatile protein. Tempeh is actually fermented soybean, so it is more readily digestible than tofu. An important note is that you should definitely opt for organic, GMO-free soy products, as the soy market is massive (soy is in EVERYTHING), and when a market is massive, corporations gets greedy and quality and safety take second priority. The soy that is mass-produced is heavily genetically modified and buying organic, non-GMO soy isn't even that much more expensive, so I would highly recommend making that choice.

Additionally, soy acts as a partial agonist on estrogen receptors, which means that it binds lightly to the receptors and modulates estrogenic effects in the body. When one has too much estrogen in their body, as many menstruating females do, soy isoflavones will bind to the receptor yet only lightly stimulate it, thus blocking the binding of a strong stimulator like estrogen while only producing a small estrogenic effect. If one is deficient in estrogen, such as in menopause, the binding will stimulate it less than if estrogen bound to the receptor, but since they're deficient anyway the binding is still increasing the estrogenic effects more than if nothing bound at all. So either way, soy will balance estrogen in the body. As for concerns and safety about the phytoestrogenic qualities of soy, I will forward you to a well-researched and well-articulated article by Dr. Aviva Romm MD.

Tip: Combine # 1 with #2/3! Nuts or seeds combined with legumes will usually create a meal with complete protein! Complete protein is when a food contains all the essential amino acids. With sufficient levels of all the essential amino acids, you can create any protein you need. Protein is crucial for everything from the immune system to tissue repair, and is involved to some degree with nearly every physical aspect of health.

4. Eggs!

Eggs are also a common allergen, but if you are not sensitive to eggs then they are a great way to add a boost of complete protein to your meals. Hard-boiled eggs maintain their intact yolk, so the cholesterol is not oxidized, and they can be cooked and kept in the fridge for more than a week, making it a very accessible addition. Also, note that the high cholesterol contained in eggs was formerly believed to greatly increase LDL ("bad" cholesterol) and thus risk of heart disease, but this is false. Eggs may affect cholesterol levels in 30% of the population, but they actually decrease the number of LDL particles which will decrease risk of heart disease, and their nutritional benefits further decrease said risk ( If you have access to grass-fed chicken eggs, the health benefits increase even more. The omega-3 fats and nutrient levels increase in these eggs, inflammatory omega-6 content decreases, not to mention they will be happy, healthy (no antibiotics or hormones) chickens if they're ranging on grass.

5. Fish, meat, and poultry!

These are excellent additions to any salad as they greatly increase the complete protein and fat in the meal to keep you healthy and satiated. Fish is excellent- full of omega-3 fats to balance our omega-6-heavy diets, just beware the heavy mercury fish: tuna, swordfish, shark, and sole. And if you're still going to buy tuna, buy "light, not white" tuna, which contains less mercury. In terms of meat and poultry, if possible, buy grassfed, which contains much more omega-3 fats, antioxidants, vitamins, and minerals than grain-fed meat and poultry, plus skips the antibiotics and hormones (hormones are not permitted in Canadian meat, but are elsewhere). Plus, you are ensuring that the animals have ranged freely (and thus more likely to have been treated humanely) if they're consuming a grass diet. Most of the protein in fish, meat, and poultry is complete protein, which ensures you're getting all of your essential amino acids.

Protein, fiber, and fat keeps us satiated, grounds us, and keeps our blood sugar stable, and all of the above options contain great amounts of at least one of these macronutrients. There may be a transition period where your body misses its normal heavy-carb load, where blood sugars would normally spike due to simple carbohydrates like pasta, rice, potatoes, etc... but you will adjust, I promise (and if you don't, then definitely come see me!). Reducing the carb load slowly will help, or replacing the usual carbs with beans and legumes, as noted above.

While these toppings were provided to help balance your meals in fat and protein (and thus filling you up), I ultimately hope that these toppings help inspire you to base your meals in vegetables! It really just takes a slight perspective shift to change seeing salad as an unfulfilling side to an amazing and nutrient-dense meal. Plus, it's going to make you feel so good, flooding your body with antioxidants, vitamins, and minerals! So give it a shot, and let me know how it goes!

P.S. If you feel like your system cannot handle raw vegetables, try lightly steaming or sauteeing them for your salad! See my post on Sweet and Spicy Blackberry Salad for a hint as to why raw may not always be right.

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