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.