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Not all Salads are Created Equally: Guide to Picking the Perfect Salad Green

With the rise of the salad restaurant (think Tender Greens, Sweet Green, Chop't), the kale craze, and the vegan revolution – it’s a good time to examine the building blocks for the oldest healthy dish in the books. With a wide variety of salad greens available, it can be hard to differentiate among them– which is the healthiest? Which has the most vitamins? Which is lowest in calories? And which tastes best?

*Editor's Note: Athletic-Minded Traveler Intern Nicole Kuhn contributed this piece. Nicole is an English/Journalism student at Georgetown University.  In addition to a passion for writing, Nicole seeks out and enjoys the athletic lifestyle. 

Fear not. We’ve put together a guide to help you choose. Read on to learn exactly what’s what with the six leafy greens we’ve selected for our analysis: iceberg, kale, spinach, arugula, romaine, and endive. NOTE: We compare the veggies based upon a 1 oz serving.  Using "weight" is the most accurate method to ensure a "like-like" comparison. Visualize about 1 Cup of the green stuff :)

The data:

1 oz.

Iceberg

Kale

Spinach

Arugula

Romaine

Endive

Calories

4

14

6

7

5

5

Fat (g)

0

0

0

0

0

0

Sodium (mg)

3

12

24 (1%)

8

2

6

Carbs (g)

1

3

1

1

1

1

Fiber (g)

0

1

1

0

1

1

Protein (g)

0

1

1

1

0

0

Calcium (mg)

5  (1%)

37.8  (4%)

27.7  (3%)

 44.8  (4%)

9.2 (1%)

14.6  (1%)

Vitamin A (IU)

141  (3%)

4305  (86%)

2625  (53%)

664  (13%)

2439  (49%)

607  (12%)

Vitamin C (mg)

0.8  (1%)

33.6  (56%)

7.9  (13%)

4.2  (7%)

6.7  (11%)

1.8  (3%)

Vitamin K (mcg)

6.7  (8%)

229  (286%)

135  (169%)

30.4  (38%)

28.7  (36%)

64.7  (81%)

Folate (mcg)

8.1  (2%)

8.1  (2%)

54.3  (14%)

27.2  (7%)

38.1  (10%)

39.8  (10%)

* all values are per 1 ounce of salad green (raw)

**in parentheses are the percent daily values (for the minerals and vitamins) for what the average person requires in one day, and the values are based on a 2,000 calorie diet

 Iceberg Calorie Bomb













 



Now, what does this data mean?

Undressed, all leafy vegetables are low in calories. While kale might be the ‘highest calorie’ option shown, the difference between it and the others is so incremental that the calories of the green shouldn't affect your choice. It’s what you put atop the greens that will have the larger caloric impact. Go easy on higher calories toppings, like sweet potato, croutons, dried cranberries, cheese, slivered almonds and most dressings. Load up on lower-calorie options like cucumbers, onions, tomatoes, cruciferous veggies, salsa, and plain vinegars. (If you are looking for a low-cal and super tasty dressing, click here for our post on the subject.) 

Digging deeper

Essentially, the best way to think about leafy greens is that the darker the green, the higher the nutritional value. For example, iceberg is the lowest in calories and the lowest in many of the other greens' healthy nutrients/vitamins.  We think about it like this: Munching iceberg is like eating crunchy water – there’s more or less nothing to it.  However, while you’re not gaining much from the crunch, you’re also not losing much either.  Between the two most common types of lettuces (romaine and iceberg), romaine would be the better choice.  It packs more in terms of Vitamins A and K (see chart).

Despite its 96% water content, iceberg compares favorably to other types of water-loaded fruits and veggies such as watermelon (approx. 91% water and 9 calories per 1 oz.) and cucumber (approx. 96% water and 4 calories per 1 oz.)  Watermelon scores higher on Vitamin C with 2.3mg in an ounce versus iceberg’s 0.8mg. However, iceberg is higher in calcium, folate, as well as Vitamin K. Yet, watermelon packs other unique nutrients.  More surprising, cucumber, another salad staple, has an overall lesser level of nutrients than does iceberg lettuce. For example, an ounce of unpeeled cucumbers has 29.4IU of Vitamin A versus iceberg’s 141IU, and also has .45mg of calcium versus iceberg’s 4mg. 

The vitamins are the real "meat" of the nutritional data for salad greens. 

Here is a basic overview of the main vitamins typically found in leafy greens.

Vitamin A:  Vitamin A has several functions – but it is especially good for maintaining the immune system, and protecting our eyes (i.e. good vision).

Vitamin C: Probably one of the most ‘well-known’ vitamins (if a vitamin can be well known…), Vitamin C has an array of beneficial functions. Vitamin C is said to be helpful in improving or maintaining eye health, cardiovascular diseases, skin damage, and immune system deficiencies among many other things.

Vitamin K: Vitamin K is particularly important in the prevention of excess bleeding, as well as in proper calcium metabolizing.

Folate (folic acid): Folate is needed for synthesizing and repairing DNA, which is imperative for humans. And because the human body cannot synthesize folate, we have to supply it to our bodies through our diets, making it an extremely important vitamin.

If you look at the data charting the nutritional information, you can see that while each salad green has its own strengths, kale is by far the most nutritious in terms of what it can provide to your body. Besides folate, where endive is the surprising winner, kale has a huge leg up on all the other greens in the vitamin category.

Nonetheless, though the recent kale craze may very well be merited, the classic spinach (and after all, who are we to turn our noses up at Popeye!), is certainly a close contender. It, too, yields an impressive dose of vitamins K and A, and isn’t too shabby with C or folate, either. 

Now, there are salad greens…and then there are salads. It can be a perilous transition! 

Now about that picture of the iceberg wedge salad next to the chart...We'd call that a calorie bomb. And that is just fine, as long as the eater knows that they are consuming a load of fat with their "salad."

When a menu description of a salad sounds rich, it likely is. Just because it’s under the “salad” portion of the menu doesn’t mean the dish is low-calorie; and it certainly doesn’t mean that it’s nutritious. Often the Wedge Salad, Fried Chicken SaladCaesar Salad and Taco Salad are more caloric than a main course--even a burger and fries.  In our minds these creations are ‘salads gone wrong.’ Restaurants have gotten much better about upping the green on menus, but it often seems like the chefs are trying to disguise the vegetable by frying, sauteing, and roasting with a load of oils and other fats. 

A salad can be both good for you, and taste good too. Really!

Conclusion

Healthy means different things to different people. For example, for some a high fat, high calorie avocado is unhealthy, but for others, the calories are not as important as the “yum” factor & “good fats”.  What is healthy for one may be less healthy for someone else based upon dietary needs, goals and lifestyle. As far as I’m concerned, when I say something is ‘healthy,’ I mean to say that it packs the biggest punch nutritionally for the least amount of calories– though for me, calories tend to be more of an afterthought. Nice if it happens, but not the most important factor in my personal ‘healthy’ determining scale!

So, essentially, if you want to be the ‘healthiest’ you can be, definitely reach for kale, or spinach, or even endives. At the end of the day, however, a vegetable is a vegetable and any one will add nutrients to your body. Romaine will always be better for you than ice cream, and iceberg far more sensible than onion rings.

So, pick according to your taste preferences, or consult the data and information in this blog post to be more aware of the nutrition data.

Knowledge is a VERY GOOD first step to Eating Well!

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