Could salads be making us less healthy? It may seem insane, but in certain circumstances, the simple act of being offered a salad could encourage us to splurge on less healthy options.
How does this work? Your mind is extremely powerful and thrives on balance. If you consume a food that you feel is particularly healthy, you’re more likely to even that out with an equally unhealthy option down the line. For every healthy choice, there is an equal and opposite unhealthy choice.
In a restaurant, the mere existence of a healthy menu option actually seems to influence diners to opt for the least healthy menu choice. According to research presented in the Oxford University Press, simply offering a salad on the menu at a greasy fast food joint encourages us to choose the least healthy of options. In some weird mental irony, the existence of the salad fulfills our nutritional obligations on some level—it gives us a chance to splurge now and make the better choice next time (which almost never happens). What’s more, they found that this most strongly affects those of us with the highest levels of self-control.
Not only does one healthy choice justify an unhealthy one later, but it mentally justifies unhealthy choices at the same meal! In a study where consumers were asked to guess the calorie content of a burger, there was an average guess decrease by around 100 calories when the burger was shown next to some celery sticks. It’s completely backwards thinking, but this seems to be the mental trend. For some reason, in our wiring, pairing unhealthy choices with healthy ones is healthier than indulging in the unhealthy choice on its own! This is a problem known as the dieter’s paradox. It is especially relevant to those who are very aware of what they eat, and what foods are ‘good’ for them or ‘bad’.
How do you get around this paradox? Stop obsessing about food and dieting and simply consume real, wholesome foods! You are above all the hype. There’s no need to overthink it. Food is fuel for your body. Eat what makes you feel good and reap the benefits. If you want a salad, eat it. Just don’t pat yourself on the back for making a healthy decision. After all, it’s just food.