March 1, 2013

When housewives and food policy get mixed up

Oh my god you guys, what did I just read? I'll tell you: a New York Times article about how women doing less housework leads to obesity. Really??? Really.

First, let's ignore that the study the article cites, published in PLOS ONE, is based on research funded by the Coca-Cola company. Let's also ignore this entire article in the Sunday Times, a adaptation from the new book “Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us," which completely explains why a soda company might be interested in, say, shifting the blame for obesity from soda and junk food to an easy target: women's declining caloric expenditures in housework and increased participation in the workplace. And let's also ignore other research that shows that even though women's heavy labor and drudgery of the "golden years" have decreased, there are now increased expectations and societal norms about keeping a spotless house and the perfect body.

I suspect some bunkery. I don't disagree that lifestyle changes have an impact on our overall health; but what I do question is the reductionist connections between housework, energy expenditures, and obesity. But as someone who keeps up with the food policy literature, it seems to me that the overall "food environment" plays more of a role in obesity. Consider what might have been on the shelves of a 1960s housewife: probably a lot of ingredients, some pre-packaged mixes, etc., but certainly less snack foods than you might find in a modern home. Also consider: the study finds that a modern working woman burns 132 kcal less each day than a 1960s housewife. Certainly, a decrease in caloric expenditure can add up and result in weight gain if you keep all other factors constant. But do you think it even compares to the impact of snacking at work; office birthday cakes; Starbucks; and the ever-increasing medley of high-calorie snacks that are marketed towards exactly this segment of the working population?

This article troubles me for two main reasons: 1) the implicit value-judgement that women's increased participation in the workforce is responsible for an increase in obesity, and 2) the corporate incentive to deflect critiques away from high-calorie sodas and snacks and onto other issues, such as decrease in physical activity or framing obesity as an issue of  "self control" and individual responsibility. Or in this case, the not-so-hidden message that if women got back in the kitchen, we'd all be healthy and happy like in the good-ol-days.

1 comment:

  1. Couldn't have said it better -- my reaction was less eloquent though, and more expletive-filled.


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