Sunday 1.29.12

What would Popeye reach for if spinach weren't around?(Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
We all know why Popeye the Sailor was strong when he needed to be.  He wasn't brute strength like Bluto, until it came down to his food choices. It was because of spinach, one of the healthiest members of the dark green vegetable subgroup.

When trying to keep along the lines of a paleo/ primal/ grain-limiting eating habits, I find the easiest thing to do is make a large salad with Spinach, or available lettuce, lots of meat, and covered with Olive "Oyl" (Popeye was teaching us back since the 1930's apparently).  You can go to any restaurant (even fast food in most cases) and make this meal.  The nutritional quality will vary of course, but in our fast paced lives sometimes its the only way to make it happen.  The other day, I went to Wendy's.  I got a meal by removing the bread from a burger, putting it in my garden salad that I got in place of fries and downed it all with a diet coke.  Not the best meal in the world, but enjoyable and within the guidelines nonetheless.

Here's something you may not have known (or may have not wanted to know): Although spinach looks like lettuce and often finds itself near lettuce in our salad bowls, it's not lettuce. It belongs to the Amaranthaceae family, which also includes beets, quinoa and tumbleweeds. Lettuce, on the other hand, belongs to the Compositae, or daisy, family, the largest group of vascular plants.

Over the years, farmers have developed many varieties of lettuce with many forms, textures and colors. Most fall into one of four categories -- crisphead, romaine (or cos), butterhead and loose-leaf. Crisphead lettuces include the iceberg strains, favorites in the United States. Romaine lettuce is another popular variety, especially as the key ingredient of Caesar salads. The two most common butterheads are Boston lettuce and bibb lettuce, both of which produce loose heads with small, tender leaves. Loose-leaf lettuces, on the other hand, don't grow to form true heads, but have leaves joined at the stem. This group includes green-leaf, red-leaf and oak-leaf lettuce.

But which one of these salad starters would be considered the healthiest? One clue can be found in the color of the leaves. Generally the more they look like Popeye's dark-green spinach, the more vitamins and minerals they're likely to contain. Does that make romaine and butterhead lettuces healthier than crisphead kinds? Here's some hard nutritional data on lettuce types to answer that:

As the USDA database and that helped create this table makes clear, not all lettuces are created equal. Iceberg lettuce, which is by far the most popular lettuce in the United States, delivers the least nutritional bang for the buck. Although it has more fiber than some lettuces, it's a bit of a dud when it comes to vitamin and mineral content. And it's higher in sugar, which is a major source of calories.

Romaine lettuce is a better choice. Romaine has less sugar and more fiber. But it really excels in the vitamin and mineral departments. It's an excellent source of vitamin C and a good source of folate and vitamin A. It also provides 10 times more beta carotene than iceberg lettuce and almost as much as spinach. In some vitamins and minerals, Romaine even beats out Spinach.  All of this combines to make romaine one of the healthiest of all the lettuces.

Green-leaf lettuce is a solid runner-up. It's low in fat and sugar and high in protein. It also delivers decent amounts of calcium, phosphorous, potassium, manganese and vitamins C, A and K. Red-leaf and butterhead lettuces aren't bad either, as they surpass iceberg varieties in almost every nutrient category and have the highest amount of iron of all lettuces.

So if you really want to stay strong to the finish, stick with romaine and the other dark green leafy lettuces while cutting back on the crispheads (although I'd take iceberg over some crackers any day). And don't forget to spice things up with the more exotic members of the family, such as arugula, curly endive, escarole and radicchio.

The last thing to do, which is the hardest, is learn to like highly nutritious foods.  This can be done.  I used to abhor spinach.  Now I actually find it rather tasty, especially when garnishing other foods.  The trick is to hide it at first.  I made scrambled eggs with spinach and fed it to my kids.  They didn't even know the difference.  Hot sauce or pico de gallo can help that too.  When I first started making salads, I made sure every bite of lettuce had at least something else with it that I liked meat, feta cheese, guacamole, whatever I could do.

Great cartoon from the early days.  If you have 6 minutes, enjoy.  I like the gym in the cartoon. They have a lot of things The Compound has and more stuff that I would want to add as well. 

No comments:

Post a Comment