Beyond iceberg lettuce

Philip J. Goscienski, M.D.

October 2010

Iceberg lettuce gives a pleasant, moist "mouth feel" to a sandwich and it is a popular salad ingredient. It's among the top three vegetables in our diet, up there with tomatoes and French fries but few people get a full daily serving (two cups).

Compared with spinach and other varieties of lettuce it's far down on the nutritional totem pole. In a major reference text of food values it doesn't even come close to those other leafy greens in vitamins A and C. Some people have told me that they eat iceberg lettuce for the fiber but you'd have to eat 100 of those 2-cup servings every day to get the recommended 30-plus grams of fiber. That doesn't leave much room for burgers and fries.

Why is iceberg such a favorite? It's partly because of family habits that we carried over into our adult lives. Did your mother ever put arugula, endive or watercress on your BLT sandwich? If not, you probably don't, either. It tends to be inexpensive but at nearly a dollar a head during the winter that might not be a sure bet. Unless you're really into food preparation you just haven't bothered to get acquainted with other possibilities.

Beyond all the processed and junk food on which most people exist there really are some good choices of leafy green vegetables. They are not only generously endowed with more nutrients than iceberg lettuce, they have lots more flavor — and the mouth feel is just as good.

Modern supermarkets have given us packaged and washed Romaine, butterhead and looseleaf varieties, as well as arugula and watercress. These don't keep as well as iceberg but you ought to have some every day and it shouldn't last long enough to spoil.

Baby spinach is a great substitute for iceberg lettuce and it comes in convenient packaging. (Note: always thoroughly rinse all leafy vegetables, even those that have been washed at the source.) Spinach has an unearned reputation for being iron-rich although it does have more iron than most vegetables. Much of that iron is tied up with oxalate but its high content of vitamins A, C, folate and antioxidants make it a good choice. Don't gorge frequently on spinach. Its high oxalate content can lead to kidney stones in susceptible persons, especially those with a low (that's right) intake of calcium.

Get out of the iceberg rut. A new world of taste awaits.

Philip J. Goscienski, M.D. is the author of Health Secrets of the Stone Age, Better Life Publishers 2005. Contact him at drphil@stoneagedoc.com.