Beware of the Salad
Microbial Explorations

NikitaDeshpande_SketchEating healthy can be one of the biggest social exclusions. When you are determined to eat well but have friends who scarf down pizza by the minute, it’s hard to finish a bowl of greens in front of them. Lucky for us, Georgetown’s culture is slightly anomalous — we love our health food. It’s common to see hungry Hoyas chomping on Salad Creation or Sweetgreen, accompanied by a produce-rich Hilltoss smoothie. Our campus itself exudes a health-conscious vibe; though we all have our indulgent moments and, let’s face it, fall prey to midnight food runs, on the whole we eat well. Right?

My freshman year has been fantastically transformative — I’ve gotten the chance to meet amazing, passionate people, join extraordinary activities and contribute to our vibrant community. For me, the single hardest part about college has been food. On the surface, my hurdle sounds like a trifling matter. What could be so difficult about food?

I was raised eating traditional Marathi food: flatbreads, seasoned lentil soups and spiced vegetables, all of which are 100 percent cooked. Kosimbir, a chopped or grated vegetable mélange topped with lime juice or crushed peanuts, is the only raw dish we have. Having grown up enjoying such a diverse and scrumptious range of cooked vegetables, acclimating to Georgetown’s insular focus on raw vegetables was a difficult process.

At Leo’s, there are a scant variety of cooked vegetables: when boiled broccoli or carrots appear, Hoyas flock to the vegan bar, but these occasions sparsely occur. In hopes of attaining some nutrition on a regular basis, most students frequent the salad bar.

I understand why salads are appealing. They are a no-cook meal, and provide a simple solution for imbibing crucial vitamins and minerals. When you don’t have a lot of time to sautée, boil or stir-fry your veggies, tossing together a salad is the perfect fix. Salads can even be playful, and express your personality; you can mix and match dressings, toppings, leafy bases and proteins according to mood.

Despite the benefits of the humble salad, I have a grouse with this green dish. (Hint: this complaint relates to our lil’ microbial buddies.) Though salads provide nutrition, too much raw food is not good for our microbiome.

In their pure form, plants have complex cellulose and fibrous structures that humans cannot fully breakdown. Neither our stomach enzymes nor our gut bacteria can completely unpack the intricate carbon-based molecules that constitute plants. When we continually eat raw food and take in a vegetable’s convoluted compounds, we weaken our overall digestive ability and dangerously alter the flora landscape of our gut. This leads to bloating, indigestion, food allergies, a weakened immune system and weight gain. Since we cannot break down most plant compounds, it means that we are absorbing very few of the nutrients we obtain.

This is not to say that an occasional salad will ruin you. However, solely relying on salads as a daily source of nutrition can endanger your long-term health. Excess raw food is tough for the body and microbiome to handle. A better diet alternative is to mix up your meals with both raw and cooked vegetables.

Contrary to popular belief, cooking a vegetable does not destroy nutrients. Rather, heat helps disassemble the complex plant compounds that we otherwise cannot fully digest. This increases the number of nutrients that we can actually absorb and make use of. For example, cooking spinach amplifies its amount of bioavailable calcium and iron. Though this heating process does eliminate certain elements such as vitamin C, the amount lost is insignificant compared to the amount present in the vegetable.

Salads are a great source of raw vegetables, but it’s important to incorporate other cooking styles into your diet. Simply warming up vegetables on low to medium heat will help unpack complex plant molecules and increase nutrient absorption.

Continue to eat healthy Georgetown. But feel free to venture into the kitchen: try boiling, grilling, stir-frying, or seasoning your produce for a healthful and microbiome-positive experience. You and your gut flora will feel the difference.

Nikita Deshpande is a rising sophomore in the College. Microbial Explorations appears every other Wednesday.

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