Salads are an unappetizing scam. I’m not talking about a nice little side salad to go with a meaty main dish, or a pasta salad laden with rotini, feta and chickpeas. But anything that’s more than 20% leaves and served as a meal is inevitably lacking in nutrition, leaving you both hungry and hangry. That’s because the whole dish serves as a means of eating as little as possible.
I saw right through salads when I was a kid, bypassing bowls of spinach leaves and heading straight for the chicken fingers. But over the years, the onslaught of diet propaganda wore me down. In the face of juice cleanses and paleo diets and carb-free regimes, I began to see salads, comparatively, as real, proper food. I had salads nearly every day for lunch, bought from one of the dozens of salad purveyors within 50 steps of my office building. I told myself that because they were filled with chopped-up artichoke and corn and drizzled with dressing that they constituted healthy, filling meals. But when I became seriously injured recently, I rediscovered the fact that salads are patently ridiculous. My body needed fuel and nutrition to heal—and lettuce with tomatoes and cucumbers just wasn’t going to cut it.
Rhiannon Lambert, a nutritionist in London, gives credence to my salad hatred. Just because a dish is green or colorful, she says, does not mean it should constitute a meal. “There’s rarely enough chicken on a chicken salad, rarely enough cheese or seeds and nuts and healthy fats,” she says. “It’s predominantly just leaves. It will leave you feeling hungry, it won’t keep you sustained, it’s not going to feed your brain at all.”
Without a good helping of healthy fats, Lambert explains, the body won’t be able to absorb a lot of the micronutrients in a salad. And protein should be a significant part of every meal. So a niçoise salad, with tuna and egg and potatoes, is a perfectly acceptable dish. Loading up on tons of vegetables will comparatively offer far more fiber—and satisfaction—than a bowl of arugula with a few beets and seeds strewn about on top. But a vegan option without any salad dressing “won’t give you much at all,” says Lambert. As the Washington Post explored last year, many salad ingredients are mainly water and low on nutrients.
So why have salads become such a commonplace meal? Because bowls of leaves are really just the side helping to the constant diet of guilt our culture feeds women about their bodies. Salads are a socially acceptable way of eating less and limiting calories. “I get it, we all get it,” says Lambert. “We all have an inner critic and it talks to us every day, especially women.”
In some cases, an obsession with healthy foods is a sign of a clinical eating disorder called “orthorexia nervosa.” But Thomas Dunn, psychology professor at University of Northern Colorado who focuses on eating disorders, explains that many people without a formal eating disorder still have an unhealthy relationship with food. “If you’re spending all of your time obsessing about what you’re going to eat, what are you missing?” he says. “What are you not able to think about? Is there a creative piece of you that’s missing with all of your cognitive effort you’ve spent towards your diet?”
I didn’t think I had much guilt around food to begin with. But when I slipped two discs in my back this fall, couldn’t move, and was in constant agonizing pain, any scrap of food angst disappeared completely. I stopped thinking about how food would change my appearance, partly because I needed calories to get better. (You need protein and carbohydrates to fuel the recovery process, confirms Lambert.) But I also didn’t want to think about how I looked, because that would have meant thinking about my body—and I was trying desperately to ignore my body so as to block out the excruciating pain. And so I began eating like a man, based on one consideration only: What did I want to eat?
As it turns out, I wanted to eat a lot—mainly childhood comfort foods. Fish pie with mashed potatoes and cheese; spaghetti bolognese; chicken teriyaki with rice; beef stew with potatoes. Those who follow “clean eating” diet regimes might nod happily at my protein and vegetable portions, but look askance at all the carbohydrates. Indeed, pre-injury, I’d seen carbohydrates as something of a treat and limited my helpings. But post-injury, I ate as much of them as I wanted.
This makes sense as part of a healthy diet, says Lambert. “Any form of restriction, if you’re not educated in nutrition, means you’re going to miss out on something from your diet,” she adds. (Incidentally, once I started to recover, I noticed that I hadn’t gained a pound from the supposedly evil carbohydrates and large, energy-filled meals.)
Not eating enough carbohydrates can also affect the body’s production of feel-good hormone serotonin, as well as melatonin, which affects our sleep. “A lot of the reason why people tend to get moody or they feel depressed or low on energy is because the brain has a blood-brain barrier, where only glucose [the most common carbohydrate] can cross it,” says Lambert. “So you’re not able to transport certain amino acids and proteins through the blood-brain barrier without a transporter in the form of glucose.”
So carbs are good for you, as it turns out. Dairy’s fine too, unless you’re lactose intolerant. Agave syrup is no better for you than refined sugar. And if you’re truly worried about your eating habits, it’s best to talk to a nutritionist, not a friend who swears by Whole 30.
But while it’s great to be healthy, eating isn’t just about nutrition. It’s also about joy, community, and pleasure. In a world of leafy salads, measuring serving sizes, and counting calories, we think of everything from french fries to fondue as forbidden transgressions. But how sad to feel guilty at every scoop of ice cream, rather than rejoicing in these flavorsome delights.
Lambert says we shouldn’t think of ourselves as not being “allowed” to eat certain foods—we’re allowed all food. “We shouldn’t have to eat perfectly all the time,” she says. “I go by an 80:20 rule. The minute you put yourself into the whole ‘this is naughty’ food range, you’re setting yourself up for a feeling of guilt afterwards or the feeling you get from doing something bad, which can trigger a psychological spiral. If most of the time you’re eating well, then every now and again, chocolate or cake is perfectly acceptable.”
We all know that our culture puts way too much scrutiny on women’s bodies and eating habits. The sad absurdity of stock photos featuring women laughing alone with salads has been a favorite meme for years now. But still, women keep eating those limp leaves. Look around any restaurant and you’ll see the vast majority of salads are sitting before women, too many of whom spend every meal worrying about how the food they eat will make them look.
Banishing food guilt is difficult, to be sure. I don’t know if I’ll be able to maintain my guilt-free attitude once I’ve fully healed. But my New Year’s resolution is to eat fewer salads and more carbs in 2017. Because truly eating well means we should enjoy food—not avoid it.