Wednesday, May 12, 2010

“Instrumental” Eating

Recently, I read an article about mothers and how they are significantly less happy than childless women. The article noted that most women cited the fact that they were so incredibly busy as the reason for their emotional state. It further went on to say that the problem isn’t that mothers are busy, but that they are spending all or most of their time doing “instrumental” activities. That’s the psychologists' way of saying that these women spent all of their time doing things that they had to do, but didn’t particularly enjoy. Being busy wasn’t the problem so much as the way in which they were busy.

I rolled this idea around in my head for awhile, and thought about how the notion of what is “instrumental” in life plays into success or failure at a task as well as satisfaction or dissatisfaction with a process. Obviously, since this is a blog about weight and weight loss, my thoughts turned to the notion of “instrumental” eating.

I would define “instrumental” eating as food that is consumed for nutritional purposes as opposed to pleasure. Just as a mother may wash dishes, prepare food, vacuum the carpet, etc. because she must, there are some foods that we eat because they should be consumed for proper health. We may not hate them, but we also may not necessarily take great pleasure in consuming them.

Some foods can be “instrumental” for some people, but recreational for others. For example, I love cottage cheese and always have, but a lot of people find it pretty mundane or even offensive fare. If you consider the task of cooking, which can be either instrumental (necessary) or recreational (for enjoyment), you can see that the same task can have different connotations depending on personality type and circumstances. If I am interested in cooking and experimenting with recipes at my own discretion, cooking is fun. If I have to cook a meal in a certain time frame day-in and day-out and to suit the tastes of people other then myself, it becomes a necessary task. Food, similarly, can be seen as having instrumentality or recreational value based on the individual.

Most people who are “on a diet” spend the vast majority of their time focusing on instrumental eating and actively deny themselves recreational eating. They do the former because they have to, and they have to do it day-in and day-out. They avoid the latter, recreational eating, because they often don’t trust themselves or out of the notion that to be fit and thin, they have to be “good”.

The situation with dieters is further complicated because there’s little latitude for many people who are trying to lose weight in terms of incorporating recreational eating. Calorie restriction leaves little wiggle room for “fun” eating, especially certain types of enjoyable foods which are energy-dense like ice cream, chocolate, and fried foods. That’s not to say that there are no healthy foods which some people can view as something they eat for enjoyment, but most people have to train themselves to view such foods with a similar enthusiasm to that they have for less healthy treats. Besides, even if you enjoy a nice, ripe peach as a treat, it’s not going to be the same as a rich slice of cheesecake or even something like eggs Benedict.

It’s my feeling that the fact that weight loss focuses entirely on “instrumental” eating is one of the reasons people ultimately fail or regain weight. Like the mothers who are unhappy with nothing but instrumental activities, dieters are going to be unhappy if all they ever eat are “instrumental” foods. Despite the fact that many people repeat the mantra that “food is fuel”, it is simply not true. Food is something humans consume for pleasure. It has been the case for thousands of years and is a part of civilization and culture. It can’t be stripped of its connection to pleasure simply because we wish to neutralize the seductive allure of food.

I think if we want to deal with obesity as a problem, we have to start acknowledging the truth about our relationship with food and stop trying to force some sort of sterile relationship on people. Focusing forever on eating instrumentally will only result in people feeling deprived and unhappy which will in turn cause them to go back to the ways which caused them to gain weight.


Anonymous said...

Very intriguing ideas.

Some social theorists argue that ours is the age of instrumental living. Our social structures encourage us to manipulate ourselves (and others) like machines, or objects, often aiming for maximum *efficiency*. I observe this in Weight Watcher's mentality (tracking food & "activity points") and people who wear body monitors (such as BodyBugg) to track all calories consumed and *burned* etc. (Much like tracking gas mileage for efficiency.)

It's sad and creepy.

(Not the people, per se, but the dissociation from human emotion, inner life, and well as the need to feel *in control*.) There are many elements of a facist mindset in contemporary eating (and living) patterns. Perhaps disordered eating (including much dieting behavior)is a manifestation of instrumentality consuming our lifeworlds.

Anonymous said...

Crap. And doodle.

I hope my earlier comment didn't come across as rude (the one about social theorists...) because I did not mean to criticize anyone individually, particularly not you or your choices. I really just hoped to spark some future dialog.

I, myself, track my food using an online tool. That does not make me or anyone else a facist! It makes me wonder how so many of us got to this place (where we choose to rely on something other than intuitive eating.)

What you said once about the hunger regulator being busted (in some obese folks) makes sense to me. I think social and environmental forces definately play a role. For instance, when my life is too stressful, I experience more hunger than usual.

I hope this clears up any misunderstanding. Thanks.


screaming fatgirl said...

Hi, Rebecca, and thank you so much for your comment. It didn't seem rude or insulting to me at all - merely thoughtful. You make an interesting point about ours being the age of "instrumental living", though it is culturally different in places outside of North America.

I think it is an interesting observation that overeating may be a manifestation of our focus on instrumental living, and the U.S., in my opinion, is far more immersed it it than any other country. I think there's something to the fact that countries in Europe and Asia don't have the same level of guilt and judgment associated with eating rich foods, dessert, etc. that we do. Value judgments are made much more readily in the U.S.

I also track my calories on FitDay, but that is because, as I mentioned, my food GPS is broken. I think those of us who may be "disabled" when it comes to dealing with food and knowing when we've eaten "enough" are using these as tools and it's not necessarily about rigid adherence to a plan. It covers a blind spot for me. There are days when I "waste" up to 400 calories on treats (not a lot of those days, but some). I take a hit in terms of other healthier food for doing that, but some days I just need to let go a bit more.

I wholeheartedly agree that our social structure encourages us to live like machines. In fact, this is the age of viewing the human body as little more than an organic machine and I think that's another problem with how weight management is viewed. We look at the body as a calculator that we plug numbers into and it will burn those numbers according to a plan. The body is not a machine in any way, but most theories about it treat it as one. This is in opposition to how the body was viewed for thousands of years as a spiritual vessel.

Science has changed the way we view ourselves such that our views are more mechanistic, and it's very difficult for some people to wrap their head around the fact that the body does not work predictably like machines. It is adaptable and elastic. You can do the exact same activity, eat the exact same food, and your body may lose or gain weight based on unknown factors. The fact that people are constantly weighing themselves and being frustrated that the same activity brings about different results indicates that they believe their body should always respond the same. This is despite the fact that a scratch may heal at different rates each time you get one, or you may feel tired with the same amount of sleep, etc. Flexibility and variation are human, but we think we are machines.

Thanks for your comment, Rebecca!