Food and Nutrition

4 Reasons Why Your Salad Could Be Causing Digestive Distress

Photo: Getty Images/ Yagi Studio
Whether your go-to salad is a grain-based harvest bowl, a classic kale Cesear, or a hodgepodge of whatever happens to be in your crisper at the time, it's indisputable that salads are a meal that does the body a whole lot of good. As any health expert will tell you, plant-forward meals benefit every part of the body, particularly the brain, heart, and gut.

That's why it's particularly annoying if you polish off your salad and you feel the opposite of great, left with feeling bloated instead. You were trying to do something positive for your body. What gives? Here's the good news: According to gastroenterologist Robynne Chutkan, MD, FASGE, feelings of post-salad bloat and digestive distress are completely fixable—and since salads are an entree that is so nutrient-rich, it's definitely worth getting to the bottom of.

As with any gut health issue, it's always a good idea to book some face time with your G.I. doc to make sure an underlying health issue isn't the cause of your salad woes. But there are also four common reasons salad can cause tummy troubles, which Dr. Chutkan explains below. All it takes is a little intel and you'll be tossing together salads that'll make your tastebuds and GI tract equally happy in no time.

4 reasons why your salad could be causing digestive distress, according to a G.I. doc:

Photo: StockSnap/Martin Philpot
Photo: StockSnap/Martin Philpot

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. "You have to look at the [condiment] in terms of the amount of oil, salt, and sugar, because those are all things that can bloat you," she says.

When buying salad dressing, read the label and go for ones that are low in sodium, sugar, and aren't full of ingredients you have no idea what they are or how to pronounce. Dr. Chutkan says you can also always make your own salad dressing at home. "I love using just a little lemon juice because that can stimulate digestive enzymes and function as a 'de-bloater'," she says. And 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.

Photo: StockSnap/Sven Scheuermeier
Photo: StockSnap/Sven Scheuermeier

2. Your 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. While you're working up to eating more fiber-rich foods at once, she says lightly steaming or roasting some of your veggies before you toss 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. Dr. Chutkan likes steamed broccoli or roasted asparagus, for starters, which pair nicely with a bed of greens. And if you're looking for a salad base that has your back (er, gut), spinach is a great option. "It’s very soft and easy to digest," explains Dr. Chutkan.

Photo: StockSnap/Krzysztof Puszczyński
Photo: StockSnap/Krzysztof Puszczyński

3. Excess sugar and salt could be in your toppings

Remember how Dr. Chutkan said that excess salt and sugar in salad dressing can irritate the gut? The same logic applies for 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. 

While nuts are often a good source of healthy fats and protein, depending on how they're prepared they can be doused in oil or salt, which can be harsh on the stomach. "Salt, in particular, can make you puffy and retain more water," adds Dr. Chutkan.

The solution? Swap 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 nutrient benefits in their purest form.

Photo: Flickr/Personal Creations
Photo: Flickr/Personal Creations

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. But if your digestive system can't handle loads of raw veggies, legumes may be tricky for you too. It's another food Dr. Chutkan says you 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 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.

Dr. Chutkan also says canned legumes 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 don't go tossing the chickpeas or black beans just yet. Chutkan offers a simple solution to keep tasty legumes on your plate: soaking and cooking them. "[Cooked beans] taste better, they’re more nutritious, and they’re often less gas-producing than the canned beans," dishes the gut expert. 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.

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

It bears repeating that if salad causes you any bloating or 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 be able to enjoy your greens with no annoying after-effects. And of course, G.I. docs are always down to talk about gut probs, so don't hesitate to enlist their help as well.

Oh hi! You look like someone who loves free workouts, discounts for cutting-edge wellness brands, and exclusive Well+Good content. Sign up for Well+, our online community of wellness insiders, and unlock your rewards instantly.

Loading More Posts...