In the middle of winter, a salad -- often dismissed as a flimsy side dish for dieters -- may be the last thing that comes to mind as a warming, hearty meal. Well, we've got news for you. Not only can a plate of spinach heaped with salmon, raw red peppers, bean sprouts and garlic ward off winter chills, it may also help chase away the sniffles, flu and other cold-weather woes.

In the past, the Produce for Better Health Foundation (PBHF) in Wilmington, Del., has recommended eating five servings of fruits and vegetables a day for maximum health. But according to President Elizabeth Pironka, Ph.D., R.D., a combination of different studies conducted since 1996 by the foundation shows that eating seven to 11 servings of fruits and vegetables a day can cut your risk of coronary heart disease and major cancers in half.

By upping your intake of fresh, ripe produce, you'll load up on nutrients and compounds that have powerful medicinal properties. For instance, the folate and vitamin B6 in fruits and vegetables help fight heart disease, while vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and phytochemicals reduce your risk for cancer and heart disease.

PBHF research also shows that raw and lightly cooked vegetables offer the most protection against cancer because overcooking reduces nutrient value. No matter what time of year, you're better off eating produce fresh from a salad bowl, rather than boiled or stewed.

With succulent options like Moroccan Chicken and Arugula Salad With Olives and Figs, and spinach topped with spicy sesame-dressed salmon, you should have little trouble getting in your seven to 11 servings a day. We've prefaced each recipe with an explanatory note showing how, where and by how much each salad pumps up your daily quota -- from vitamins A to zinc, fiber, protein and, of course, those mighty phytochemicals.

So turn over a new leaf this winter and start enjoying big, satisfying salads for supper. They'll not only put you on the fast track to good health, but inject a fresh taste of summer into a cold winter's night.

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