Salad Makes You Fat: It's Not What It's Called, It's What It's Made Of

What's the go-to item on the restaurant menu when you want to eat healthy, or for post-holiday-feast atonement? It's the humble salad, designed to trick you into thinking you're full when it's really just water and roughage. We love our salads when we're feeling bad about ourselves--which means women should be eating nothing but salad, amirite? (Check out Women Laughing Alone With Salad if you don't believe me.)

But watch out for tuna salad. And chicken salad. And pasta salad. And any kind of salad that has blue cheese dressing. And don't get me started on potato salad...

Not surprisingly, a soon-to-be-published study in the Journal of Consumer Research reports that dieters are more likely to eat foods that have names that sound healthy, regardless of whether those foods are actually better choices. This revelation shines light on the tactics of food manufacturers and advertisers looking to promote high-calorie foods as advantageous to dieters.

Diet and health food has become a huge segment of the food industry, and producers are quickly learning that renaming foods can help them to sell better. For example, potato chips are being renamed "veggie chips", milkshakes are "smoothies", and candy chews are labeled "fruit chews". Health-conscious individuals will often look past unhealthy ingredients on labels in favor for what they perceive to be a nutritious choice.

Here's where "salad" (the word) comes into play. One portion of this study involved the preparation of a dish including fresh vegetables, romaine lettuce, salami, cheese, and pasta. When the dish was presented as "salad" to study participants it was much more likely to be eaten, as opposed to when it was presented as "pasta". This effect can be seen in a variety of different foods, claim the authors of the study.

"Over time, dieters learn to focus on simply avoiding foods that they recognize as forbidden based on product name," explain the authors. "Thus, dieters likely assume that an item assigned an unhealthy name (for example, pasta) is less healthy than an item assigned a healthy name (for example, salad), and they do not spend time considering other product information that might impact their product evaluations." It's rather jarring when you look at menus--most of which now include calorie counts--and see that the salads can have over 1000 calories!

Of course, the opposite of this rule is also true. Manufacturers often attempt to give healthy foods names that will attract customers, but they aren't always successful. The best example of this is tofu, a word that has become synonymous with "yucky" for many consumers. The eponymous Tofurky product has gotten an especially bad rap due to its attempts to popularize and commercialize tofu as a delectable treat--often resulting in the opposite effect.

In the end, it's important to do some research into what you eat, rather than simply rely on manufactured brand names and labels. It's always a good idea to take into account how a food was prepared before making a judgment on its calorie count. Sure, the "salads" with cups of mayonnaise in them will taste terrific, but they're not doing anything for your weight or your arteries. Ditto salads that feature fried chicken. Or, again, anything that has more than a pint of blue cheese dressing on it.

Unlike terms such as "organic", "lean", or "sugar-free", which fall under FDA regulation, the word "salad" can mean pretty much any damn thing a restaurant wants it to mean. So if you're looking for something healthy, read the ingredients and check the calorie count. But if you don't care about that, order the thing that looks the best and don't worry about what it's called.

Or you could just eat an entire Bloomin' Onion--at over 2,000 calories, it will kill you twice as fast.

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  • Megan Hess

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    I'm a huge fan of Fast Company, and
    appreciate this piece on what's in a name. For my career blog, I recently interviewed Jay
    Jurisich, the the creative director and co-founder of Igor International,
    a naming and branding agency based in San Francisco (they're responsible
    for the viral marketing campaign for the television show The Office).
    Thought readers would be interested to check out steps to the company's
    naming process & Jurisich's take on building the most effective brand.
    Here's the link: http://bit.ly/mpVe4b. Thanks!