4 Reasons Why Your Salad Could Be Causing Digestive Distress

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Whether your go-to salad is a grain-based harvest bowl, a classic kale Caesar, or a hodgepodge of whatever happens to be in your crisper drawer at the time, it's indisputable that salads are a meal that does the body a whole lot of good. In fact, many health experts agree that plant-forward meals benefit just about every part of the body, particularly the brain, heart, and gut.

That said, why is it that some of us may polish off a delicious salad, yet feel a little crummy after the fact? Although salads may be great on paper, for some, it may be the root cause of some digestive discomfort. What gives? According to gastroenterologist Robynne Chutkan, MD, FASGE, post-salad digestive distress is completely avoidable and certainly isn't a reason to give up on this food type altogether by any means, especially considering that salads are an entree packed with nutrient-rich ingredients. So, let's get to the bottom of how much salad is too much salad.

Experts In This Article

4 reasons why salads could be causing digestive distress, according to a gastroenterologist

First things first: As with any gut health issue, it's always a good idea to book some face time (or even FaceTime) with your G.I. specialist to make sure an underlying health issue, like stress and IBS, isn't the cause of your salad-eating woes. But once that's been ruled out, there are four common reasons why salads may be causing your tummy troubles, which Dr. Chutkan explains ahead. Fortunately, in most cases, all it takes is a little intel to remedy the problem, so you'll be back to tossing together delicious salads that'll make your tastebuds and GI tract equally happy in no time.

1. The dressing could have ingredients that irritate the gut

Dressing absolutely makes salads taste even more delish, but Dr. Chutkan says there are some common ingredients in them that can cause irritation to the gut. Keep in mind, this is especially important when it comes to buying store-bought salad dressing, and why it's so important to always read the nutrition label to learn what's actually inside the product. To that end, Dr. Chutkan says that the amount of oil, salt, and sugar can impact your gut health.

As such, when buying salad dressing, read the label and go for ones that are low in sodium, sugar, and aren't packed with any questionable ingredients known to cause digestive distress. On the flip side, Dr. Chutkan says you can also always make your own salad dressing at home instead, that way you know exactly what's going into it. "I love using just a little lemon juice because that can stimulate digestive enzymes," she says. Plus, if you're looking for a bit more flavor complexity in your dressing, DIY-ing it is your best bet. These simple salad dressing recipes are an excellent place to start.

2. You might be eating too many raw veggies at once

Again, it's important to call out that vegetables in all their glorious forms—including baked, steamed, or raw—are full of amazing nutrients the body loves, chief among them fiber. Though your gut loves the macronutrient, if you aren't used to eating a lot of fibrous foods at once, Dr. Chutkan says you could be overloading your gut."Even though fiber is great for you, too much in one sitting can kind of get stuck in your digestive tract," she says. 

The key, she says, is increasing the amount of fiber you eat slowly. Pro tip: While you're working up to eating more fiber-rich foods at once, she says lightly steaming or roasting some of your veggies before tossing them in your bowl can help too. This is because cooking breaks down some of the fibers so that they're easier on your digestive system.

According to Dr. Chutkan, steamed broccoli or roasted asparagus paired with a bed of greens is a match made in heaven. And if you're looking for a salad base that has your back gut, spinach is a great option. "It’s very soft and easy to digest," Dr. Chutkan says. Although, if you ever find yourself wondering what to eat when constipated, foods like oatmeal, yogurt, and even coffee (!) can help get things flowing. (Or these top foods that prevent gas—and the ultimate worst... stinky farts—can help too.)

3. Excess sugar and salt could be in your toppings

Do you recall how Dr. Chutkan said that excess salt and sugar in salad dressing can irritate the gut? Well, the same logic applies for other common salad ingredients, including nuts and dried fruits. "The sugar can encourage the growth of the wrong kind of bacteria," Dr. Chutkan explains, adding that said bacteria often leads to a higher production of gas. Not to mention, cause inflammation

While nuts are often a good source of healthy fats and protein, depending on how they're prepared they can be doused in excessive amounts of oil and/or salt, which can be harsh on the stomach. "Salt, in particular, can make you retain more water," Dr. Chutkan says. As such, like most things in life, it's important to consume both of these ingredients in moderation. 

The solution? Dr. Chutkan suggests swapping dried fruits for some fresh papaya, which contains a digestive-aiding enzyme called papain. And if you have a favorite nut or seed, look to buy them raw, unsalted, and—whenever possible—sprouted to get the most nutrient benefits. Plain and simple.

4. Legumes could be adding more fiber than your gut is used to

Pulses are all the rage, and for good reason. They're nutritious sources of plant-based protein, full of micronutrients—iron, in particular—and pack a major fiber punch. (Not to mention, a key ingredient for healthy aging, longevity experts say.) But if your digestive system can't handle loads of raw veggies, legumes may be tricky for you too. As such, it's another food Dr. Chutkan says you'll want to rev up slowly.

If you aren't used to eating a lot of fiber, consuming legumes and raw veggies at the same time could make your gut work harder (not smarter) than it's used to. Again, that doesn't mean you should avoid either food. It just means you may want to increase the amount you eat slowly and steadily.

Dr. Chutkan also points out that opting for canned legumes (albeit convenient) can sometimes cause digestive distress. "This is because they have higher quantities of raffinose," she says, explaining that raffinose is a sugar that our bodies struggle to break down. But wait! But don't toss the chickpeas or black beans just yet. Instead, Chutkan says a simple solution to keep tasty legumes on your plate is by soaking and cooking them first. "[Cooked beans] taste better, they’re more nutritious, and they’re often less gas-producing than the canned beans," the gut expert says. Phew. Though it'd be so much easier to just use your can opener, soaking legumes at home predigests some of the raffinose, making them much more gut-friendly and worth the extra effort.

If your digestive issues persist, enlist the help of a gut health specialist

Keep in mind: It bears repeating that if salad causes you any digestive distress, it doesn't mean you should avoid big bowls of greens forever. It just means you have a little investigative work to do. Once you've pinpointed the reason for your discomfort—whether it's getting more fiber than you're used to at once or excess salt or sugar—you'll soon be able to (hopefully) enjoy your greens with no uncomfortable side effects. Fingers crossed. 

Watch the video below to learn about the benefits of chickpeas:


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