Eating a leafy green salad is an easy way to up your vitamin and mineral intake. A small bowl of greens, for example, can deliver plenty of vitamins A and K, folate and potassium along with disease-fighting antioxidants. All that for fewer than 20 calories.
Robust health and nutritional benefits
Numerous studies have found that eating plenty of leafy green vegetables, especially salad greens, slows cognitive decline in older adults. Folate, vitamins E and K, beta-carotene and other phytochemicals in greens are thought to help preserve brain functioning.
A steady intake of leafy greens is also thought to help protect against heart disease, stroke, hip fracture and certain cancers.
Some leafy greens, including spinach and romaine lettuce, are outstanding sources of lutein, a phytochemical that guards against cataract and macular degeneration.
Even your gut may benefit from eating more salad. It turns out, our good gut bacteria extract a sulfur-containing sugar in green vegetables, called SQ for short, to fuel their growth.
Not all lettuces, though, are created equal. Some types pack a healthy dose of nutrients and phytochemicals across the board, while others fall short in certain areas.
In general, you can count on darker green lettuces to deliver a stronger nutritional punch than lighter-coloured greens. That’s because leaves of loosely-packed lettuces (e.g., Romaine, red and green leaf, Butterhead) absorb more light than enclosed heads of lettuce (e.g., iceberg, endive) and, as a result, are able to synthesize more nutrients.
Not surprisingly then, Romaine lettuce earns top score for overall nutrient content. Two cups supplies one-third of a day’s worth of folate, 4.9 mg of beta-carotene, 2.2 mg of lutein and 96 mcg of bone-building vitamin K.
There are no official daily requirements for beta-carotene and lutein. However, experts speculate that a daily intake of 3 to 6 mg of beta-carotene and 6 to 15 mg of lutein is needed to guard against disease.
Despite its pale green colour, butterhead lettuce (a.k.a. bibb or Boston) is a close second, delivering, per serving, more folate, calcium, iron, potassium and 20 per cent more vitamin K than green leaf and red leaf lettuces.
Even so, red and green leaf lettuces are still excellent sources of beta-carotene and vitamin K.
Coming in last place is iceberg lettuce. However, it’s not without nutritional benefits, so don’t feel guilty if you prefer it. Two cups of iceberg lettuce provide potassium, folate (twice as much as red leaf lettuce, in fact) and 30 per cent of the daily vitamin K requirement for men (39 per cent for women). Its pale leaves lack, however, beta-carotene and lutein.
Beyond regular lettuce
There are other greens that deserve a place in your salad bowl, too. Spinach is an exceptional source of lutein (7.3 mg per 2 cups, raw) and vitamin K (290 mcg).
Tossing chopped kale, Swiss chard, watercress and/or dandelion greens with your usual lettuce will boost your salad’s vitamin K, beta-carotene, lutein and flavonoid content.
Baby greens, pre-washed and bite-sized, are a super convenient salad base. A few studies even suggest that baby spinach may have higher amounts of vitamins C and K and certain phytochemicals than mature spinach leaves. (The difference, though, likely has more to do with growing, harvest and storage conditions.)
Final word: variety
A salad made with the right lettuce (or a mix of greens), other chopped raw vegetables and a healthy vinaigrette is very nutritious. But don’t eat salad at the exclusion of other vegetables.
For a wider range of vitamins, minerals and phytochemicals, include a variety of vegetables in your diet. Aim to eat two (or more) different coloured vegetables at lunch and at dinner.
Choose from green vegetables (e.g., lettuce, spinach, broccoli, green peppers), red and orange vegetables (e.g., carrots, sweet potato, squash, red peppers), purple ones (e.g., eggplant, beets, red cabbage) and white vegetables (e.g., cauliflower, mushrooms, onions).
All research on this web site is the property of Leslie Beck Nutrition Consulting Inc. and is protected by copyright. Keep in mind that research on these matters continues daily and is subject to change. The information presented is not intended as a substitute for medical treatment. It is intended to provide ongoing support of your healthy lifestyle practices.