Minor Note: Salad

I was never a huge salad fan. But for most of my life I’ve had fairly close control over what I eat; in the last year or so I have needed to buy more meals, and suddenly I understood a number of food-preoccupations that seemed vaguely comic to me before. This is not to say that I have ordered a salad in the last week or two, but I believe I can explain the obsession with salad.

First-order observation: when you make nutritional choices, you’re not just optimizing for one variable (total energy intake), you’re optimizing over several variables: calories, macronutrients, micronutrients, cost, time expenditure, and many other small details that are actually an important part of a healthy diet. Optimizing over many variables makes optimization problems much more complicated, especially in a problem with side-constraints!

Second-order observation: weight is mostly a function of hereditary traits + lifestyle, but which hereditary traits explain variance differs from person to person. The two major contributors are probably metabolism and conscientiousness; some have fitness-genes from one side, some from the other, some from both. The ability of highly-conscientious people to remain fit is contingent on their (a) having options and (b) knowing the consequences of the options. If you teach them that eating nutella from the jar and playing Zelda makes you thin, they’ll do that and won’t get thin.

Relevance for salads: salads are a relatively good way for anyone to hit their micronutrient goals while optimizing for a calorie deficit, and in many cases they are good way to hit macro goals as well (especially if you are a woman with relative low energy and protein needs to begin with, or if you have a lot of control over the content of the salad and can put a lot of beans/chicken/egg in it). But even more importantly, they are one of the few options at restaurants where you have a fair amount of control over/confidence in the ingredients.

The equilibrium for mass-market restaurants in a highly-diverse society is to serve highly-prepared meals, and in particular to serve meals which have generous amounts of sugar and oil added to the basic ingredients. Eating one meal which has added sugar makes diet-optimization a much harder problem for anyone. For conscientious people in particular, eating a meal where you have no idea how much sugar and fat were used to adulterate the food is a problem.

Many people who are trying to cut a few pounds would like to order just a grilled chicken breast, or something like that. Typically, not an option: if you order “the chicken” or “the salmon” it comes drenched in some mystery sauce swimming with lard and syrup. Trying to cut a deal where you pay the restaurant a few bucks for water while you socialize with your friends doesn’t work either. Thus, the salad.

2 thoughts on “Minor Note: Salad

  1. If so, I think this is ultimately an illusion of control rather than real control.

    Most people seem to have some kind of weight/calorie intake “setpoint,” that is, an amount they’re likely to eat or weigh regardless of what they do. They can budge that point a little bit, often with great effort, but short of natural life metabolism changes it’s not going to move a whole lot. For example, eating Nutella from the jar and playing Zelda is kind of literally what happens a lot of the time in our household, and we’re all still thin. (Well, I guess technically we’re hoping the Nutella will help the kids gain weight, but it doesn’t seem to work.)

    Just imagine my frustration: here are these people wit their salads, who can’t seem to lose weight, and here we are with our Nutella, and can’t seem to gain it.

    The whole “calories in – calories out” equation makes intuitive sense, but assumes that our bodies are dumb and can’t adjust things like appetite or metabolism in response to caloric needs and availability. Given the metabolic wonders hibernating bears accomplish, I find this doubtful. I suspect that exercise ramps up hunger, driving people to eat more afterwards–I mean, the equation is still technically true, just not very useful if the numbers are going to move in tandem.
    Likewise, if we don’t eat enough–if we run a calorie deficit–our bodies probably ramp up hunger until we eat more. I see this pattern often in dieters: they’ll eat something really low calorie for breakfast, like three apples. They’ll have a salad for lunch. Then they devour a pile of chips and other junk food for a “snack.” Again, the equation does hold, it just isn’t very relevant if you can’t actually budge the numbers.

    So people are essentially trying to trick their bodies into believing they’ve eaten when they haven’t, and their bodies are responding with a big “nope” and making them go eat some more.

    I mean, personally, if I feel like eating less and happen to be at a restaurant, I just order normal food and then eat a reasonable amount and take home the leftovers. This is both tastier and cheaper than ordering non-caloric food.

    I don’t think sauces on regular food are really the problem. For starters, the French put all kinds of sauces on their food, and they don’t have an obesity epidemic. Second, people cover their salads in dressing, which is essentially the same thing, mostly because salads aren’t very tasty on their own. Third, plain chicken breast is a disgusting abomination. (Oh, and virtually no US restaurants cook with lard anymore. All of the lard got replaced “for health reasons” decades ago with hydrogenated trans-fat plant oils, which now we know give you cancer because our bodies don’t know what to do with laboratory-made fats. Oops.)

    I suspect though that Americans have some sort of idea that luxury is abundance–that is, a luxurious meal is one with a lot of food in it. By contrast, some people will say that a luxurious meal is one that tastes good, and I’m sure some people would say it’s a meal that you eat really slowly. But for Americans its more quantity than quality. So I think a lot of people would be happier eating a large salad than a small potato, even if they are calorically and flavorfully similar, just because they feel like they are “getting more” with the salad.

    Most restaurant food does not have significant levels of added sugar (I am very sensitive to sugar. I can tell.) Sometimes pasta sauces are overly sweet, yes, but I’ve never found my french fries or hamburger to have much sugar on them. People tend to order the sugary items–like sugary coffee drinks–voluntarily. Now, added fats are definitely a thing. Meat is cooked in fats, veggies are sauteed in fats, and that might be a real problem, both calorically and (as mentioned before) biochemically, though I suspect that we tend to over-fear fats and make them into a bigger problem than they actually are. Like, the Amish are still eating lard, and it doesn’t seem to be hurting them at all.

    But stressing about exactly how much sugar or fat is in your meal seems really pointless. If you want to weigh less, pay attention to when you feel full and stop eating just before you feel that way. This works whether you’re eating salads or pure butter with sugar sprinkled on top. If you want to gain weight, ignore feeling full and keep eating. Trying to trick your body seems like it’ll just backfire in the long-run. But who knows.


    1. The setpoint theory undoubtedly has an element of truth to it, but *what* that element is is rather vague. You imply as much yourself when you first say the “setpoint” is calorie intake, then weight – obviously these are two different things and lead to different predictions!

      In particular, casual discussions of metabolic “setpoints” often confuse a real and carefully-studied phenomenon, metabolic *path-dependence*, with a (heritable) setpoint. I don’t want to rehearse the whole topic because you may well be familiar with it already, but basically: insulin sensitivity is regulated by the number of fat cells rather than by fat mass per se. Fat mass has an indirect influence, in that when fat cells are filled to capacity more cells are created, but loss of fat does not destroy fat cells: it only empties them, so the cells “think” you need to store more fat molecules.

      Anyway, the gist comes down to this:

      >They can budge that point a little bit, often with great effort

      Effort is hard, but it’s not equally hard for all people, as I’m sure you know. Conscientiousness isn’t as heritable as IQ, but the heritability is pretty darn high. The correlation between fitness-related variables and other positive life outcomes is almost certainly mediated by conscientiousness. But for the conscientious, information matters (and tacit information in routines, menus, etc. matters too). That’s why I brought up a hypothetical rule that you should eat nutella and play Zelda to get fit: not because nutella is unhealthy per se, but because *deliberately following that rule to cut* is unhealthy. If you don’t need to be conscientious to be fit, then what information you have, what rules you’re told to follow doesn’t matter.

      Btw, the same principle applies in reverse to gaining weight: it does take effort, but there’s no magic to it, and if the effort of calculating how many calories you’re consuming is easy it’s easier to choose to gain weight.

      >I mean, the equation is still technically true, just not very useful if the numbers are going to move in tandem.

      That is where “effort” comes in. Your metabolic system can make you lazy, it can make you tired, but it can’t reverse entropy. If you run for thirty minutes you’re doing kinetic work.

      >I just order normal food and then eat a reasonable amount and take home the leftovers.

      Part of conscientiousness is anticipating how you respond to the choices you set up for yourself! For example, my body weight is optimal: but I don’t have any nutella in the house, and there’s a reason for that. But surely you know this, since you’re the one telling me about how the body responds to low blood-sugar…

      >Most restaurant food does not have significant levels of added sugar (I am very sensitive to sugar. I can tell.)

      Idk what to tell you… if you look at places that publish the info and compare their nutritional info to the main ingredients, you can see what they’re adding. I agree that the fat is a bigger problem, but maybe you just have better restaurants?


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