Why is our Society so Obsessed with Salads?

It’s been a rough day. So I’m going to complain about something totally mundane: salads.

I was recently privy to a conversation between two older women on why it is so hard to stay thin in the South: lack of good salads. Apparently when you go to a southern restaurant, they serve a big piece of meat (often deep-fried steak) a lump of mashed potatoes and gravy, and a finger-bowl with 5 pieces of iceberg lettuce, an orange tomato, and a slathering of dressing.

Sounds good to me.

Now, if you like salads, that’s fine. You’re still welcome here. Personally, I just don’t see the point. The darn things don’t have any calories!

From an evolutionary perspective, obviously food provides two things: calories and nutrients. There may be some foods that are mostly calorie but little nutrient (eg, honey) and some foods that are nutrient but no calorie (salt isn’t exactly a food, but it otherwise fits the bill.)

Food doesn’t seem like it should be that complicated–surely we’ve evolved to eat effectively by now. So any difficulties we have (besides just getting the food) are likely us over-thinking the matter. There’s no problem getting people to eat high-calorie foods, because they taste good. It’s also not hard to get people to eat salt–it also tastes good.

But people seem to have this ambivalent relationship with salads. What’s so important about eating a bunch of leaves with no calories and a vaguely unpleasant flavor? Can’t a just eat a nice potato? Or some corn? Or asparagus?

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t hate vegetables. Just everything that goes in a salad. Heck, I’ll even eat most salad fixins if they’re cooked. I won’t turn down fried green tomatoes, you know.

While there’s nothing wrong with enjoying a bowl of lettuce if that’s your think, I think our society has gone down a fundamentally wrong collective path when it comes to nutrition wisdom. The idea here is that your hunger drive is this insatiable beast that will force you to consume as much food as possible, making you overweight and giving you a heart attack, and so the only way to save yourself is to trick the beast by filling your stomach with fluffy, zero-calorie plants until there isn’t anymore room.

This seems to me like the direct opposite of what you should be doing. See, I assume your body isn’t an idiot, and can figure out whether you’ve just eaten something full of calories, and so should go sleep for a bit, or if you just ate some leaves and should keep looking for food.

I recently tried increasing the amount of butter I eat each day, and the result was I felt extremely full an didn’t want to eat dinner. Butter is a great way to almost arbitrarily increase the amount of calories per volume of food.

If you’re wondering about my weight, well, let’s just say that despite the butter, never going on a diet, and abhorring salads, I’m still not overweight–but this is largely genetic. (I should note though that I don’t eat many sweets at all.)

Obviously I am not a nutritionist, a dietician, nor a doctor. I’m not a good source for health advice. But it seems to me that increasing or decreasing the number of sweats you eat per day probably has a bigger impact on your overall weight than adding or subtracting a salad.

But maybe I’m missing something.

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Why do women love cupcakes?

Seriously.

One of my kids enjoys watching YouTube cooking videos, and they’re nearly 100% women making cakes.

Women’s magazines focus exclusively on 4 topics: men, fashion, diets, and cupcakes. You might think that diets and cupcakes are incompatible, but women’s magazines believe otherwise:

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Just in case it’s not clear, that is not a watermellon. It is cake, cleverly disguised as a watermellon.

(YouTube has videos that show you how to make much better cake watermellons–for starters, you want red velvet cake for the middle, not just frosting…)

Picture 10 Picture 11Magazines specifically aimed at “people who want to make cakes” are also overwhelmingly feminine. Whether we’re talking wedding cakes or chocolate cravings, apple pastries or donuts, sweets and women just seem to go together.

If men’s magazines ever feature food, I bet they’re steak and BBQ. (*Image searches*)

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Yup.

The meat-related articles do appear to be a little more gender-neutral than the cupcake-related articles–probably because men don’t tend to decorate their steaks with tiny baseball bats cut out of steak the way women like to decorate their cakes with tiny flowers made out of frosting.

It’s almost as if women have some kind of overwhelming craving for fats and sugars that men don’t really share.

I was talking with a friend recently about their workplace, where, “All of the women are on diets, but none of them can stay on their diets because they are all constantly eating at their workstations.” Further inquiries revealed that yes, they are eating sweets and pastries, not cashews and carrots, and that there is some kind of “office culture” of all of the women eating pastries together.

The irony here is pretty obvious.

Even many (most?) specialty “diet” foods are designed to still taste sweet. “Fat-free” yogurt is marketed as a health food even though it has as much sugar in it as a bowl of ice cream. Women are so attracted to the taste of sweet sodas, they drink disgusting Diet Coke. Dieting websites advise us that cake topped with fruit is “healthy.”

When men diet, they think “eat nothing but protein until ketosis kicks in” sounds like a great idea. When women diet, they want fat-free icecream.

I don’t think it is just “women lack willpower.” (Or at least, not willpower in the sense of something people have much control over.) Rather, I think that men and women actually have substantially different food cravings.

So do children, for that matter.

Throughout most of human history, from hunter-gatherers to agriculturalists, the vast majority of women have specialized in obtaining (gathering, tending, harvesting,) plants. (The only exceptions are societies where people don’t eat plants, like the Inuit and the Masai, and our modern society, where most of us aren’t involved in food production.) By contrast, men have specialized in hunting, raising, and butchering animals–not because they were trying to hog the protein or had some sexist ideas about food production, but because animals tend to be bigger and heavier than women can easily lift. Dragging home and butchering large game requires significant strength.

I am inventing a “Just So” story, of course. But it seems sensible enough that each gender evolved a tendency to crave the particular kinds of foods it was most adept at obtaining.

Exercise wears down muscles; protein is necessary to build them back up. Protein fuels active lifestyles, and active lifestyles, in turn, require protein. Our male ancestors’ most important activities were most likely heavy labor (eg, building huts, hauling firewood, butchering game,) and defending the tribe. Our female ancestors’ most important activities were giving birth and nursing children (we would not exist had they not, after all.) For these activities, women want to be fat. It’s not good enough to put on weight after you get pregnant, when the growing fetus is already dependent on its mother for nutrients. Far better for a woman to be plump before she gets pregnant (and to stay that way long after.)

Of course, this is “fat” by historical standards, not modern American standards.

I suspect, therefore, that women are naturally inclined to eat as much as possible of sweet foods in order to put on weight in preparation for pregnancy and lactation–only today, the average woman has 2 pregnancies instead of 12, and so instead of turning that extra weight into children and milk, it just builds up.

Obviously we are talking about a relatively small effect on food preferences, both because our ancestors could not afford to be too picky about what they ate, and because the genetic difference between men and women is slight–not like the difference between humans and lizards, say.

Interestingly, gender expression in humans appears to basically be female by default. If, by random chance, you are born with only one X chromosome, (instead of the normal XX or XY,) you can still survive. Sure, you’ll be short, you probably won’t menstruate, and you’ll likely have a variety of other issues, but you’ll be alive. By contrast, if you received only a Y chromosome from your parents and no accompanying X, you wouldn’t be here reading this post. You can’t survive with just a Y. Too many necessary proteins are encoded on the X.

Gender differences show up even in fetuses, but don’t become a huge deal until puberty, when the production of androgens and estrogens really cranks up.

Take muscle development: muscle development relies on the production of androgens (eg, testosterone.) Grownups produce more androgens than small children, and men produce more than women. Children can exercise and certainly children who do daily farm chores are stronger than children who sit on their butts watching TV all day, but children can’t do intense strength-training because they just don’t produce enough androgens to build big muscles. Women, likewise, produce fewer androgens, and so cannot build muscles at the same rate as men, though obviously they are stronger than children.

At puberty, boys begin producing the androgens that allow them to build muscles and become significantly stronger than girls.

Sans androgens, even XY people develop as female. (See Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome, in which people with XY chromosomes cannot absorb the androgens their bodies create, and so develop as female.) Children produce some androgens (obviously,) but not nearly as many as adults. Pre-pubescent boys, therefore, are more “feminine,” biologically, than post-pubescent men; puberty induces maleness.

All children seem pretty much obsessed with sweets, far more than adults. If allowed, they will happily eat cake until they vomit.

Even though food seems like a realm where evolution would heavily influence our tastes, it’s pretty obvious that culture has a huge effect. I doubt Jews have a natural aversion to pork or Hindus to beef. Whether you think chicken hearts are tasty or vomitous is almost entirely dependent on whether or not they are a common food in your culture.

But small children are blissfully less attuned to culture than grownups. Like little id machines, they spit out strained peas and throw them on the floor. They do not care about our notion that “vegetables are good for you.” This from someone who’ll eat bird poop if you let them.

The child’s affection for sweets, therefore, I suspect is completely natural and instinctual. Before the invention of refined sugars and modern food distribution systems, it probably kept them alive and healthy. Remember that the whole reason grownups try to eat more vegetables is that vegetables are low in calories. Grownups have larger stomachs and so can eat more than children, allowing them to extract adequate calories from low-calorie foods, but small children do not and cannot. In developing countries, children still have trouble getting enough calories despite abundant food in areas where that food is low-calorie plants, which they just cannot physically eat enough of. Children, therefore, are obsessed with high-calorie foods.

At puberty, this instinct changes for boys–orienting them more toward protein sources, which they are going to have to expend a lot of energy trying to haul back to their families for the rest of their lives, but stays basically unchanged in females.

ETA: I have found two more sources/items of relevance:

Calorie information effects on consumers’ food choices: Sources of observed gender heterogeneity, by Heiman and Lowengart:

When it comes to what we eat, men and women behave differently: Men consume more beef, eggs, and poultry; while women eat more fruits and vegetables and consume less fat than do men. … The gender differences in preferences for healthier foods begin in childhood. Previous literature has found that girls choose healthier food and are fonder of fruits and vegetables than are boys. Boys rated beef, processed meat, and eggs as more desirable than did girls. …

Sensory (taste) differences between the genders are the second most widely ventured explanation for the differences in food choices, although it is not clear that such genetic differences actually exist. While the popular media argue that females prefer sweetness and dislike bitterness, while males may enjoy bitterness, academic literature on this matter is less conclusive. The bitter taste receptor, gene TAS2R38, has been associated with the ability to taste PROP (6-n-propylthiouracil),
one source of genetic variation in PROP and PTC taste. Individuals who experience bitterness strongly are assumed to also experience sweetness strongly relative to those who experience PROP as only slightly bitter. While previous studies found that inherited taste-blindness to bitter compounds such as PROP may be a risk factor for obesity, this literature has been hotly disputed.

The distribution of perceived bitterness of PROP differs among women and men, as does the correlation between genetic taste measures and acceptance of sweetness. A higher percentage of women are PROP and PTC tasters, sensing bitterness above threshold. It has been suggested that women are more likely to be supertasters, or those who taste with far greater intensity than average.

(I have removed the in-line citations for ease of reading; please refer to the original if you want them.)

Also:

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Well, I don’t remember where this graph came from, but it looks like my intuitions were pretty good. males and females both have very low levels of testosterone during childhood, and duing puberty their levels become radically different.

Theory: Americans are fat because we don’t eat enough

I’ve long had a theory that dieting makes people gain weight. Just think about it for a second: at the very least, the correlation is tremendous.

Lots of studies have shown that diets are pretty useless–people tend, on average, to lose little to no weight on them. The whole diet industry, from diet sodas to lite beer to Weight Watchers, is, of course, basically a fraud.

The reasons are probably simple: One, humans have evolved no mechanisms to resist eating whenever possible. Your ancestors are people who ate when they could, not people who were indifferent to food, especially not tasty food*. And two, we live in a society with abundant, cheap, delicious food. Chances are good you’ve never even lived through a famine, much less had to go without for significant periods every few years of your life.

*Or have we?

I have watched people try to diet (mostly relatives.) The process goes something like this:

1. Relative declares, “I am going to lose weight for sure this time!”
2. Eats meager breakfast of oatmeal and apples.
3. Eats more apples for snack.
4. Comes over to my house, devours all my chips.
5. Weight-loss fails.

(A lot of people claim that you are supposed to feel “full” using various diet methods, but I’ve watched this happen enough times to enough different people to suspect that it’s a pretty common scenario.)

So tonight I was getting a bowl of icecream for a sick kiddo. Normally when getting icecream, I sneak a bite at the end. I can’t eat a full bowl of icecream, because hypoglycemia, but the taste is very tempting. But tonight, I looked at the icecream, and said, “No, I don’t want icecream.” What the hell was wrong with me? I’d just eaten a bowl of beans + cheese. I was full.

I suspect that our willpower, our ability to resist the kinds of foods that we can basically all agree aren’t really great to be eating, goes completely down the drain when we are hungry. And people are most likely to be hungry when they are dieting. So if you eat nothing but apples for breakfast, then somewhere along the way, you’re likely to eat nothing but cookies for dinner. But a solid breakfast of eggs, toast, and even a little bacon will probably leave you feeling full and happy, rendering temptation less, well, tempting.