Over the years iceberg lettuce has received its fair share of negative publicity. It often appears on lists such as the top 10 foods you should avoid or foods you may think are healthy, but really aren’t. All of this negativity towards iceberg lettuce stems from the fact that is does not have that many vitamins or minerals compared to darker green leafy vegetables, so it is often considered a source of empty calories. Yet the question remains, is iceberg lettuce actually a food you should avoid?
If you have goals to improve your overall health or lose fat, then minimizing your intake of empty calories is definitely a good thing. That said, iceberg lettuce gets a bad wrap and really shouldn’t be anywhere near the top of your list of foods to avoid. As is often the case with nutrition, this is an issue focusing only on one aspect of a food not looking at all of the components, so the big picture ends up getting lost.
It is true that iceberg lettuce does not have anywhere near the nutritional value of dark green leafy vegetables. As a general rule, the darker the color of a leafy vegetable, the more nutrients it contains. Iceberg lettuce is very light in color and does not have many vitamins or minerals, but it does contain some, such as Vitamin K.
More importantly it doesn’t have anything that is bad for you. Considering that dark leafy green vegetables are among the healthiest things on the planet, saying iceberg lettuce is not healthy by comparison is not saying much.
The real message should be that iceberg lettuce is not as good as dark green lettuce, but it has been replaced by the message that iceberg lettuce is a source of empty calories and should be avoided. Even if iceberg lettuce had no vitamins or minerals, it is primarily made up of water, with a little fiber and sugar.
First, water and fiber are both important nutrients, which is another reason iceberg lettuce cannot be considered a food with no nutritional value. Then when you consider that it also has some vitamins and minerals, you might wonder why this was ever considered a food to avoid.
Personally, I think this is a direct result of making comparisons between foods. When one food is comparatively healthier than a similar food, the “better” food often ends up being considered healthy, while the other food is thought of as unhealthy. In this case, dark green leafy vegetables are healthier than iceberg lettuce, but in the big picture, they are both healthy foods.
While iceberg lettuce may be thought of as a food to avoid, I’ll bet you can find at least 25 foods in your refrigerator or pantry right now that have more empty calories and are worse for your health and weight loss than iceberg lettuce.
Similar comparisons based misconceptions about foods are also found with unhealthy foods, except these cause people to believe that unhealthy foods are healthier than they actually are. For example, let’s take a look at the nutritional value of chips. I hope everyone agrees that traditional chips are sources of large amounts of relatively empty calories. An average 1 ounce serving of potato chips contains about 140 calories and 80-90 of those calories (about 60-65%) are from fat.
Considering the average person eats much more than 1 ounce of chips at a time, frequently eating chips can lead to a significant amount of weight and fat gain. Since people are aware of this, companies have come out with many healthier alternatives to traditional chips.
One popular alternative is Sun Chips, which are considered healthier, because they contain whole grains, have less fat and salt than regular chips, and contain no trans-fats or cholesterol. By promoting these chips as healthier than the alternative, it makes them start to actually sound healthy.
However, this doesn’t really hold up when you take a closer look at the label. First, most chips, even regular ones, now contain no cholesterol or trans-fats and many contain whole grains, such as potatoes. This is just marketing to make them sound healthier than they are.
A similar 1 ounce serving of Sun Chips still has the same 140 calories as regular chips and has 54 calories (about 40%) from fat. Also, while Sun chips have less sodium than regular chips, they also have lower amounts of vitamins and minerals than regular potato chips.
Sun chips are marketed as a healthier alternative to regular chips, and while they do have less fat, they still have the same amount of calories and contain fewer nutrients. Sun Chips likely have less unhealthy ingredients than regular chips, but the fact remains that they are by no means healthy or good for you. Also, they will result in fat gain just as fast as eating regular chips and since they are marketed as healthier, people may even eat more of them, leading to even greater fat gain.
You can also go a step further and compare both of these chips to low-fat tortilla chips baked without fat. One ounce of these chips contains about 115 total calories, 14 (about 12%) of which are from fat. Overall, these chips have about 18% fewer calories than the other chips, so they are a little better from a calorie standpoint, but other nutrition values are similarly not good.
All 3 of these chips have low amounts of vitamins and minerals for the calories, low protein, and low fiber. When taking a look at the big picture, even though some chips are in some ways better than others, they are all really sources of empty calories that will lead to fat gain.
Now let’s take a closer look at iceberg lettuce. A similar 1 ounce serving of iceberg lettuce only has 4 calories. 4 vs. 115 – 140 calories for the same serving size (by weight) means that chips have 28 – 35 times the number of calories as iceberg lettuce. Looking at things another way, you could eat an entire large head of iceberg lettuce (about 28 ounces) and consume fewer calories than eating a small one ounce portion of even the baked chips.
Not that you would or should eat an entire head of iceberg lettuce at one time, but if you did, you would also be getting about 8 grams of fiber, which is much more than is found in all 3 chips combined.
This same 28 ounce serving of iceberg lettuce, which is thought to be devoid of nutrients, also contains about 75% RDA of Vitamin A, 30% RDA of Vitamin C, 230% RDA of Vitamin K, 55% RDA of Folate, 30% RDA of potassium, 14% RDA of calcium, and more. Rather impressive for a food commonly thought of as a just a source of empty calories.
When looking at the big picture it is easy to see that iceberg lettuce is both healthier and better for fat loss than any type of chip, regardless of how “healthy” the chip is supposed to be based on the packaging or marketing information. The simple truth is the worst natural lettuce is still better than the best chip or other type of junk food and when it comes to the idea that iceberg lettuce is a food you should avoid; I think it is clear this is certainly not true.
Nutritional data provided by http://nutritiondata.self.com/
14 years of experience and education in health and fitness