When you look at this salad you'll see a rainbow of colors, which is what makes it so nourishing for the gut. Why does gut nourishment matter? When your gut microbiome is flourishing and happy, your body is less inflamed, your brain functions optimally, and your mood is elevated (to name just a few benefits of gut health).
Nourishing the gut requires a few key ingredients:
A wide variety of plant-based foods that offer various types of fiber and phytonutrients
Probiotics, or living bacteria, that come from the plant-based foods you eat (naturally found on their surface, just like your skin has its own microbiome!) and from probiotic-rich sources of food, like kimchi, kraut, or plant-based yogurt with living cultures.
Minimizing foods and environmental toxins that can harm the gut, like sugar, processed foods, meat, alcohol, and pesticides, just to name a few.
You may be thinking, there's no way to avoid all of those things! I completely understand, it's tough to avoid everything that can disrupt a healthy gut microbiome (also called dysbiosis), but your body has this incredible innate intelligence and can bounce back pretty quickly. If you're taking care of it by adding a wide variety of plant-based foods to your plate most of the time, you'll be better equipped to deal with any toxins that may impact your gut microbiome. So don't stress (another thing that can negatively affect the gut microbiome) over the times when you may be at a birthday party and enjoy a piece of cake or sip on some wine at a social gathering or indulge in the occasional Oreo cookie(s). It's about balance and having a solid foundation of eating well most of the time so that those times when you may consume things that don't serve your best health don't make as big of an impact.
How to Love Leafy Greens
My husband likes to say that I'm the worse dietitian ever because I advocate fruit but I am, admittedly, terrible about eating it myself. The struggle is real. If you put a piece of dark chocolate in front of me and a cup of berries, chocolate wins every time. I try tactics like, "I can't have dark chocolate until I eat a cup of berries" or "I'll sneak some fruit into muffin recipes" (I actually dislike fruit even more when it's added to things). I did recently discover that I absolutely love pomegranate arils, especially added to salads. They offer a juicy pop of mild flavor, not too sweet and just the right amount of tart. So, pomegranate arils it is!
My point is, before giving up on a food, it might be helpful to try it a variety of ways or try different foods in one category. For example, leafy greens are probably the most difficult categories of food for most people to get for a few reasons:
They're not a convenient grab-and-go food, which seems essential in today's busy society.
Many come with bitter flavors, which isn't pleasant to some folks.
It's just not a part of daily routines.
But, if there's anything that gives you more nutritional bang for your buck compared to just about any food out there, it's dark leafy greens. In fact, some experts recommend four cups of leafy greens daily for optimal health. That might sound like a lot, but a huge salad with a variety of greens may help to get at least two cups. Also, if you steam or sauté leafy greens, you can squeeze in a much bigger serving since they shrink down so much.
Leafy greens are packed with nutrients like gut-loving fiber, folate, magnesium, vitamin C, vitamin K and vitamin A. Research shows that leafy greens also contain a specific type of sugar that helps fuel growth of healthy gut bacteria. The researchers suggested that leafy greens are essential for feeding good gut bacteria and limit the ability of bad bacteria to colonize in the gut by shutting them out of the prime 'real estate.' How cool is that?
If you traditionally haven't been a lover of leafy greens, I would like to invite you to try them a variety of ways before saying 'no' to these true superfoods. For example, my husband won't eat a kale salad unless the kale is chopped super duper fine. Big leaves just aren't his jam, but thinly sliced strips of kale make it palatable for him. Massaging kale, as you'll experience in the salad below, is a great way to tenderize the crisp leaves, break down some of that tough to eat fiber, and bring out some natural sweetness, minimizing the bitterness of the kale. You could also try tricks like chopping the kale leaves into pieces and stirring them into soups or stews or adding them to pasta or stir fries. I also like to hide some chopped leafy greens into my veggies burgers when making them by chopping the leaves small and mixing them into the burger mix before baking or grilling. You would never know the greens are there! If you try kale all the ways and it's still not doing it for you, try other leafy greens like arugula, watercress, chard, collards, and, of course, good ole spinach. But, before saying no to kale, try it all the ways first!
How to Make This Easy and Tasty Salad
One huge tip if you want to make this salad super simple to assemble: Make your pickled red onions and dressing ahead of time. Both recipes (listed below) take less than 10 minutes to make, but having them ready to go will be helpful when it comes to assembling this salad. The pickled red onions keep in the fridge up to a month and the dressing will keep for a solid week.
The next step in making this salad delicious is to add the kale leaves to a large salad bowl first, drizzle a bit of good quality olive oil over top and a squeeze of lemon, then massage the oil and lemon into the kale leaves. Once you're finished, sprinkle a little salt on top before adding the remaining ingredients. I love me a good massaged kale salad. The massaging process transforms the kale into a refreshing, clean flavor that makes it great on its own or as the base for anything you'd like to add to it. (By the way, adding pomegranate arils to massaged kale leaves is pretty darn delicious!)
From there, you'll assemble the salad by adding the remaining ingredients and drizzling the desired amount of dressing over top. It's simple and delicious!
Normally, I'd encourage you to make this salad your own by swapping out any of the veggies for one of your personal favorites or omitting something you don't love on the ingredient list. However, I have one big tip with this salad — don't omit the pickled red onions. They really make this dish extra tasty. I mean, I suppose you could simply use chopped red onions, but the pickled version really does take this salad to the next level.
Why This Salad is So Good for You and Your Gut
Incorporating a rainbow of plant-based colors to your plate helps to ensure a few things:
Getting various types of fiber that your gut bugs love: Adding a variety of plant-based foods means adding various types of fiber. When bacteria in your gut munch on fiber they produce something called short chain fatty acids, which support healthy metabolism, production of feel-good neurotransmitters, and reduced inflammation.
Getting a wide variety of phytonutrients: These are compounds that plants make to protect them from environmental threats and are healing to you when you eat them. There are thousands of phytonutrients, many of which act like antioxidants, supporting gut, brain, heart, and overall health. For example, red onions are an excellent source of phytonutrients called anthocyanins, which help to feed healthy gut bacteria, fight inflammation in the brain, and reduce cholesterol levels. To ensure you're getting a wide variety of phytonutrients, eat lots of colorful plant-based foods.
Getting a wide variety of essential vitamins and minerals: For example, kale is a powerhouse source of calcium and magnesium, two minerals needed for bone health. Carrots are an excellent source of carotenes (so is kale!), which are the plant-based version of vitamin A and essential for healthy skin, eyes, and reducing the risk of certain types of cancer. Red onions and garlic are also sources of prebiotic fiber, the type of fiber that good gut bacteria love!
Getting healthy fats that support a flourishing gut: Hemp seeds provide even more essential minerals, plus protein and omega 3 fatty acids. Saturated fat, found mostly in animal products, disrupt the gut microbiome, whereas omega 3 fatty acids help healthy bacteria flourish.
Then there are some additional bonuses in this salad. The ginger in the salad dressing contains a compound called gingerol, which encourages gastrointestinal motility and efficient digestion. Radishes are a source of sulforaphane (also present in other cruciferous veggies, like kale, broccoli, and cabbage), which is protective against certain types of cancer and aids in liver detoxification and digestion.
Not only are you getting boatloads of energizing nutrition in this salad, but you'll also get lots of satisfying textures and flavors.
To make it a full meal, add your favorite plant protein, like chickpeas, edamame, grilled tofu or tempeh. You can also add a cooked whole grain, like quinoa, buckwheat, bulgur or another grain of choice. Adding these two will add even more fiber, phytonutrients, vitamins and minerals and make the salad a full, satisfying meal.
Okay, let's make the salad!😃
Gut-Nourishing Salad with Creamy Peanut Dressing
Serves: 2 as a full meal or serves 4 when served as a side salad
Prep time: 15 minutes
Cook time: None
¼ cup unsweetened peanut butter*
2 Tbsps reduced sodium tamari or coconut aminos
2 Tbsps rice vinegar
2 Tbsps lime juice
1 Tbsp maple syrup
1 Tbsp gochujang (optional) or other chili paste
2 cloves garlic
2 tsps roughly minced ginger
4 cups chopped kale (middle stems removed, leaves chopped)
2 tsps extra virgin cold-pressed olive oil
1 Tbsp lemon juice
¾ cup shredded carrots
¾ cup shredded cabbage
⅓ cup pickled red onions (see below!)
½ cup thinly sliced radish
2 Tbsps hemp seeds
Salt and pepper to taste
Optional (to make it extra nourishing):
1 cup cooked buckwheat, quinoa, or other whole grain of choice
1 cup plant-based protein, like cooked chickpeas, edamame, or tofu
*for peanut-free, use almond butter in place of peanut butter or use tahini to make it nut-free.
Make your dressing: Add all ingredients to a blender and blend until creamy smooth. Set aside.
Make the pickled red onions (see recipe below) and set aside.
Add the kale leaves to a large salad bowl. Drizzle the olive oil and lemon juice over top. With clean hands, massage the kale until tender, about 30 seconds.
Assemble your salad: Add the carrots, cabbage, onions, radish and hemp seeds to the kale and toss to combine.
Drizzle the desired amount of dressing over top. (I recommend starting with half, tossing, then taste to see if you’d like more.)
Taste for salt and pepper.
How to Make Pickled Purple Onions for Any Meal
Prep Time: 15 minutes
Cook Time: None
1 medium red onion, sliced thin on a mandolin or manually with a Chef’s knife
½ cup red wine vinegar
½ cup water
½ tsp dried oregano (optional)
¼ tsp salt
Add the onion to a bowl or storage container. Add 1/2 cup red wine vinegar, 1/2 cup water, optional oregano and 1/4 teaspoon salt. With your hands, massage the onion and vinegar mixture for about 30-60 seconds. Store the onion in a sealed container or mason jar for up to one month (if you don’t use them up before then since they’re so yummy!). Use them on top of avocado toast, sandwiches, stir fries and pretty much anything but your morning oatmeal! P.S. You can pickle other purple and red veggies this way as well, like sliced radish, cabbage, and beets.
As always, please let me know if you make this salad! I'd love to hear about your experience.