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Your Side Salad Could Be Making You Gain Weight, And Here’s Why

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Have you ever eaten at a restaurant and decided to forgo fries in favor of a side salad? People do that all the time, because substituting fries for a salad seems like a simple way to cut back on fat and calories. In fact, that train of thought is so common that it’s actually been labeled by psychologists as the “licensing effect.” You probably have these thoughts every single day without even realizing it.

While it might seem like you’re doing your body a favor by compromising for a side salad, you may ultimately end up consuming more calories in the end. Here’s why.

When you see that there’s an option to sub out greasy fries for some leafy greens, you’re more likely to choose the most unhealthy burger.

When you see that there's an option to sub out greasy fries for some leafy greens, you're more likely to choose the most unhealthy burger.

You know…the one that’s slathered with mayo and piled high with bacon.

You probably feel like you have a good handle on your self-control when you make decisions like this.

You probably feel like you have a good handle on your self-control when you make decisions like this.

But those who feel that they have the most self-control probably buy into this thought process pretty often.

This idea holds true when grocery shopping, too. If you start off with some nutrition-filled greens in your cart…

This idea holds true when grocery shopping, too. If you start off with some nutrition-filled greens in your cart...

…you’re much more likely to toss some ice cream sandwiches in there, too.

...you're much more likely to toss some ice cream sandwiches in there, too.

Researchers at Yale and Carnegie Mellon were some of the first to describe this phenomenon back in 2006. The interesting part was that they weren’t researching the human psyche. They were actually studying marketing and management techniques.

That’s right. Your favorite restaurants are using this tactic to get you to buy their most calorie-loaded dishes.

That's right. Your favorite restaurants are using this tactic to get you to buy their most calorie-loaded dishes.

Just offering salad on the menu triggers the licensing effect.

Still don’t believe me? One study showed that health-conscious people guessed that burgers contained about 735 calories when pictured next to a plate of fries.

Still don't believe me? One <a href="http://www.chernev.com/research/articles/The_Dieters_Paradox_2011.pdf" target="_blank">study</a> showed that health-conscious people guessed that burgers contained about 735 calories when pictured next to a plate of fries.

But when they put the same burger next to a side salad, the estimate for the burger alone dropped to an average of 619 calories.

But when they put the same burger next to a side salad, the estimate for the burger alone dropped to an average of 619 calories.

This doesn’t just apply to food.

This doesn't just apply to food.

Smokers who were told that they were given a vitamin C pill as opposed to a placebo smoked much more than the control group. Here’s why. They thought that by adding a healthy ritual to their daily routine, it gave them a bit more wiggle room, allowing them to smoke an extra cigarette or two.

So, how do you keep the licensing effect from killing your diet?

So, how do you keep the licensing effect from killing your diet?

Think of each food choice you make as being an isolated circumstance. Don’t weigh a greasy burger against a side salad. Weigh a greasy burger against a healthier veggie burger. If you’re going to indulge, don’t kid yourself and say that you’ll make up for it later.

The salad you ate for lunch isn’t going to balance out the 15 jalapeno poppers you eat later tonight.

The salad you ate for lunch isn't going to balance out the 15 jalapeno poppers you eat later tonight.

(source The New York Times)

Trade-offs in your diet are never a sure thing. Yes, opting for steamed veggies over onion rings will certainly make you feel better, but that doesn’t give you an excuse to have a big old piece of German chocolate cake once you get home.

It’s great to choose the healthier option, but you have to be conscious that each and every decision you make stands alone, and will have its own effect on your body and your health. I am by no means saying that you shouldn’t eat cake. Just know that the oatmeal you eat the next morning isn’t going to let your body forget that cake definitely happened.