Saturday, December 11, 2010

My Imaginary Diet

I've never really had a problem with weight, and people often ask me, "How? Why?"  They usually assume it's because I possess some form of iron-willed discipline or a crazy metabolism or an addiction to exercise or a need to starve myself for an unattainable image.

Really, it's none of the above.  Obviously, I've been blessed with good health, and I do what I can to maintain it by exercising and--my personal favorite--sleeping.  I don't eat out much and I don't eat processed foods or fast food if I can possibly help it.

My last cheeseburger at a McDonalds was in November; prior to that, the last time I remember eating at a Burger King was at the airport in Montreal in August of 2005.

If it's sold in a box or a can, I check the label and usually, once I see the sodium content and the words "high fructose corn syrup" or "guar gum," I pass.  I don't drink soda.  I don't drink diet soda.  

I don't actually ever tell myself I can't have these things.  I can, obviously, I just don't want to.  I love to cook, so in a lot of ways, I think that safeguards me from mindless consumption: I like the process more than the product.

In "Thought for Food: Imagined Consumption Reduces Actual Consumption" (Science, 10 Dec. 2010, Vol. 330, No. 6010, pp. 1530-1533), Carey K. Morewedge, Young Eun Huh, and Joachim Vosgerau describe a series of experiments designed to examine the relationship between imagination, habituation, and food consumption.

While everyone knows that habituation--repeatedly scarfing down large quantities of something--leads to "a decrease in one's responsiveness to the food and motivation to obtain it," Morewedge, Huh and Vosgerau argue that imagined scarfing is just as effective as actual scarfing.  In short, their studies suggest that "mental representation alone can engender habituation to a stimulus."

I'm an imagination-junkie, so I'm thrilled to hear this.  I tend to think that for most people, problems with food and weight gain--when they're not clearly linked to a physiological issue (and for most people, they're not)--are compounded by the mindlessness that American culture all too often seems to encourage.

Collectively, as a nation, we like to sit in front of the TV and eat.  I don't have a TV, but when I'm in front of the DVD player or at a friend's house, I generally don't eat.  

When I'm bombarded by images of all that allegedly savory and undoubtedly salty fast food out there, I tend to picture the last time a plate was set in front of me at Chili's or Applebees or The Olive Garden.  Not all it's cracked up to be.  I visualize what that McDonalds cheeseburger really looks like, smushed flat and crooked, with its thin pickles and watery ketchup, wrapped in paper and flung on a tray.  

I wonder whether the hunter-gather civilizations of history would envy me, really, if they saw what I was having for dinner.

In a previous post ("Mindful Memorizing"), I talked about Ellen Langer's work on "mindfulness" versus "mindlessness."  Interestingly, Langer has repeatedly found that mental attitude exerts an enormous influence on things we typically see as unchanging and out of our control, including aging and addiction.

When I do watch TV at a friend's house or stop to take a look at the world around me, I'm struck by how much of American culture today encourages mindlessness and helplessness, and how much of our "mindfulness" is strategically shaped.  

Turn on the evening news.  Somebody who looks and thinks differently from the way that I do hates me and has to be labeled accordingly.  They may even be about to blow me up--if they do, I'll never see it coming, unless I stay tuned.  

Meanwhile, somebody I already know, who looks just like I do and has allegedly misappropriated my tax dollars for the last twenty years, also hates me and has to be labeled.  Apparently, they too may have tried to blow me up and I never saw it coming, but if I stay tuned, I'll find out.  

Really, just stay tuned.  It doesn't matter why or what for or who's doing the tuning.

In the midst of a political and social rhetoric peppered with the encouragement to "inform ourselves" and be "pro-active," I can't help but be struck by the extent to which we are all repeatedly and deliberately primed--in real-time and in prime-time-- so that no one is ever out of tune or out of touch with what we're supposed to be doing and thinking to, for, and about everyone else.

In American culture today, we're encouraged to "find out," but we're never encouraged to question.  Why should I find this out?  Who says it's important?  What is the source of this information?  Who sponsored these studies?  

Who came up with these labels for everyone and everything?  Why does everyone always seem to hate someone else?  Why do they think they "know" each other, before they've ever met or talked?  Why do they assume everyone is the same?  Why can't people even talk to each other politely and respectfully anymore?

I'm going to stick to my imaginary diet and leave the TV off for now.  Mental food for thought is far more satisfying.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote, "Life is short, but there is always time for courtesy."