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It's 1493, and you have lost one of her three ships. You also failed to find a faster trade route to China. What do you say to the Queen? Christopher Columbus, returning without a ship's hull full of gold as promised, convinced the royals who footed the bill to send him back for another Caribbean get-away. Today his sales skills could win him fame on a reality show. He was given 17 ships and over 1000 men. He brought domesticated pigs, horses and dreadful disease on the trip with him.. The lands and native people of the “New World” would never be the same. Of lesser note, he also brought what is now one of America's favorite meal starters... LETTUCE!

Lettuce has a history as rich as the soil that cradles its roots. Thought to first appear in the Mediterranean basin 4500 years ago, lettuce has blessed the dinner table of man and beast ever since. Because it is the wont of farmers world wide to tinker with their crops, today's salads contain lettuces that likely differ from earlier days. What has remained the same is the tremendous health benefits and disease preventing ingredients found in the nutritious leaves of most lettuces.

Lettuce is full of phytonutrients. When found in plants, these organic compounds are believed to promote health and help prevent disease. The most well-know are the carotenoids, especially the orange-red-yellow pigment beta-carotene. Converted to Vitamin A in your body, beta-carotene (from lettuce and other vegetable sources) provides about 50% of your vitamin A needs. Having plenty of beta-carotene in your diet has been shown to help prevent certain cancers and heart disease. It also fights the development of cataracts and skin disorders such as psoriasis and vitiligo.

Beside all of the beneficial vitamins, minerals and other compounds, lettuce helps keep your pipes clean and can be a welcomed mouthful for those suffering from constipation. Its high cellulose content adds bulk to your intestinal tract and encourages peristalsis (the wave of contraction within the intestines).

Lettuce is also high in mineral salts and helps restore balance when you are very acidic. Our bodies are meant to be at a pH of 7.4 (anything below a 7.0 is acidic). When your body is acidic (called acidosis), it is thought to encourage the unwanted growth of fungus, bacteria and viruses. Your body can become acidic from lack of exercise, stress, and the consumption of foods such as milk, coffee, heated fats and animal derived products.

Being high in nutrients and very low in calories, lettuce can be a valuable friend not to be tossed aside in the quest to lose weight. The bulk lettuce provides brings a sense of fullness sooner. How many times have you heard, “I WISH I could eat as much as I want!” If it's lettuce your're eating, you essentially can! I personally value my BIG salad meal, especially during my long days at my practice. I pack a feed-bag sized salad. It gives me a full belly and great energy levels for working with patients. I also find that despite the huge amount of salads I eat, my 40 something body remains at a healthy weight.

I could delve into further discussion about the minerals, vitamins and other valuables such as chlorophyl in lettuce, but there is a more exciting turn to take in this article! After all, you already know that when Mum said to eat your veggies- she was onto something.

Imagine the lettuce Olympics... winter, of course- we don't want wilt! Out of the common varieties that you pass in the vegetable aisle of your favorite market, which leafy head packs the greatest nutritional punch? Which lettuce is the king of the hill, the last lettuce standing... the LEAF-N-NATOR?

Your tax dollars have been spent wisely... at least in one case. The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) maintains a database that compares all of the key nutrients in various foods. It is this database that sets the stage for the Lettuce Olympics. The super sports of lettuce would be the darker varieties, such as Romaine and Loose Leaf (Green and Red Leaf). Sadly, America's favorite, Iceberg, has as much chance of winning an Olympic medal as the Jamaican bobsled team.

Out of the popular lettuces, Romaine is the true gold-medal champion. It provides vitamin C and A and foliate. It has 10 times the beta-carotene as Iceberg and has more fiber and less sugar. Green-leaf lettuce would take the silver. Like Romaine, this loose leaf proudly sports healthy amounts of calcium, phosphorous, potassium, manganese and vitamins C, A and K. Red-leaf lettuce dusts Iceberg on the track, having one of the highest amounts of iron in the pack.

Adding lettuce to your daily food intake may be the wisest dietary decision that you can make. With every tasty crunch, you will add years to your life and life to your years - while removing inches from your waist! You don't need to start with my feed-bag quantity or beguile the Queen with your 15th century Spanish to begin harvesting the many benefits of the medal winning lettuces. The next time you are in the produce section, remember what an iceberg did to the Titanic and head for the LETTUCE aisle!

The USDA National Nutrient Database for Standard Reference. (May 1, 2010)