Carb Counts and Health Benefits of Lettuce

Butter Lettuce, Hollyhock garden, Cortes island, British Columbia, Canada
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Lettuce and other leafy greens are sometimes considered a "free" food on low-carb diets because they have so little impact on blood glucose. Because lettuce is so low in calories in general, it's often not limited to low-calorie diets.

Not All Lettuces Are the Same for Nutrition and Health

With lettuces, the general rule is "the darker the green, the better it is for you." Although all lettuces are nutritious, there is a huge difference between iceberg lettuce and the darker greens such as romaine.

Romaine has 17 times more vitamin A than iceberg lettuce, for example. The best strategy is to eat a mix of greens in your salad, including the reddish ones, as each has a different constellation of nutrients to contribute.

Lettuce is an excellent source of fiber, vitamin K, and vitamin A. It is a very good source of vitamin C, iron, and folate, and a good source of thiamin, potassium, and manganese.

Carbohydrate and Fiber Counts 

The carbohydrate amounts listed for the different lettuces in the U.S. Department of Agriculture database vary so slightly that the differences are probably not significant, and are likely due to the particular sample tested rather than to true differences between the varieties. These are averages.

  • 1 cup shredded lettuce: 0.6 gram effective (net) carbohydrate plus 0.5 gram of fiber and 7 calories
  • 1 large lettuce leaf: 0.3 gram effective (net) carbohydrate plus 0.3 grams fiber and 3 calories
  • 4 ounces lettuce: 1.5 grams effective (net) carbohydrate plus 1.5 grams fiber and 16 calories

Glycemic Index and Glycemic Load for Lettuce

As with most non-starchy vegetables, the glycemic index of lettuce can't be tested by standard methods because they have so little carbohydrate. For that reason, lettuce should have little effect on your blood sugar if you eat it alone, and instead, you should consider the glycemic index of any salad dressing or other components of the meal. Glycemic load takes into account the amount of food eaten as well, and a value of less than 10 is considered to be low and have little effect on blood sugar or insulin. Here is the estimated glycemic load for lettuce:

Glycemic Load:

  • 1 cup shredded lettuce: 0
  • 1 large lettuce leaf: 0
  • 4 ounces lettuce: 1

Lettuce and Low-Carb Eating

One trick of low-carb and gluten-free eating is to replace bread, buns, and tortillas with a large leaf of lettuce around the sandwich or wrap fillings. It can take some getting used to doing, and you'll definitely need extra napkins and a hand-washing facility after your meal.

A chopped salad is an alternative to the usual leafy bowl with dressing. You can make a green salad your main course by adding chicken and other satisfying ingredients.

If you've been used to having chicken or tuna salad in a sandwich, try instead to have it on top of a bowl of leafy greens. You'll get the benefits of the greens and add extra texture.

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