A woman gave my friend Tom the following advice:
You should never date the person whom you are most attracted to. If you go to a party and talk to a woman that you find incredibly attractive, don't pursue her. Skip past the woman you find second most attractive as well. The woman who comes in third--that's the woman you should date.
"It's ridiculous," Tom said to me. "It's saying that your appetites are fundamentally wrong. It's like saying, if you feel like eating broccoli, don't eat broccoli. Eat a food you feel more indifferent about, like, I dunno, cheese or cucumbers or something. No, I say if you want to eat broccoli, you should eat broccoli."
Like my childhood therapist, who had an eating disorder, Tom tends to use a lot of food analogies. Lately I’ve noticed myself using them more and more, too.
"But Tom," I said, "what if you crave ice cream? I think that's what she's getting at. Maybe the person who appeals most to your appetite is actually the worst thing for you."
Tom scoffed. "That's not an appetite--that's a sickness. If your appetite isn't sick, then you crave broccoli, not ice cream."
This point was easy for me to concede, because I never crave ice cream. I do crave cookies, especially chocolate chip with walnuts, or peanut-butter, or anything with fruit flavor like the lime sugar cookies that I ate four of when my coworker brought them to a meeting. Luckily we weren’t talking about cookies, however; we were talking about ice cream, which I could do without, frankly.
"But Tom," I persisted, "A lot of people have unhealthy appetites; I think that's what she was getting at. I mean, look at me." I thought of a guy I had recently dated; let's call him Mr. Confused. "I had such a strong appetite for Mr. Confused, and he was horrible for me."
"No, no, no," Tom said. "You were not wrong in your appetite for Mr. Confused. He's smart, and attractive, and interesting. Hell, I congratulate you for bagging that guy." Tom sounded pretty enthusiastic. "Just because he couldn't handle being with you doesn't mean that your appetite was wrong. Your appetite was dead-on."
At the time, I took great comfort in this. What a nice thought--my appetite wasn't wrong. Mr. Confused just couldn't return my feelings for a complex array of really dumb-ass reasons. The problem lay with him, not with me.
There seem to be two predominant ways of understanding appetite. One is an optimistic, or we might call it Lockean, viewpoint: our appetites are fundamentally good, and will steer us towards what is healthiest for us if we will only listen to them. This model is promoted in a book I read recently about raw food diets. One of the benefits of this diet, the book claimed, is that after a brief, unpleasant “detoxification” phase, during which the dieter might feel nauseated, dizzy, listless, etcetera, the dieter will begin to crave healthy, raw foods and will no longer crave junk food and desserts. Tom’s reasoning followed this same model. A healthy person will have a healthy appetite for healthy foods; an appetite for unhealthy foods is a symptom of illness, or perhaps an illness in itself.
The pessimistic, or Hobbesian, view of appetite is the one the woman at the party was expressing. In this view, appetites are fundamentally deceptive or misleading. Tom’s friend believes that if we find somebody extrememly appealing, it is a sign that the person is bad for us. This is like when we are too full to finish our dinner but still hungry for dessert; our appetites lead us towards what is unhealthy and unnecessary. The doctor on the advice show Loveline agrees with this philosophy, often counseling women who are drawn to “bad-boy” types that they must choose someone who appeals less to their appetite in order to find a healthy relationship.
Paul Cameron, founder of the anti-gay Family Research Council, takes the Hobbesian position regarding what he considers to be the danger of homosexuality: “If you isolate sexuality as something solely for one's own personal amusement, and all you want is the most satisfying orgasm you can get—and that is what homosexuality seems to be—then homosexuality seems too powerful to resist.” In contrast, he says that, “Marital sex tends toward the boring end. Generally, it doesn't deliver the kind of sheer sexual pleasure that homosexual sex does.” Sex with men is clearly what appeals most to Cameron’s appetite, yet he finds it morally superior to marry someone for whom he does not have much appetite at all, like people who force down their daily portion of vegetables for the sake of their health, even though the only things they want to eat are cheeseburgers and nachos.
The Lockean philosophy sounds more appealing and reasonable because it portrays human nature as innately tending towards good—given the right information and options, we will choose the one that is beneficial for us. But of course, public interest in food options like the KFC double down or Friendly’s grilled cheese burger melt might steer us towards the Hobbesian view that our appetites are inherently destructive and need guidance from a benevolent leader or perhaps dietitian.
Last week, I went to a workshop on sugar, led by a nutritional counselor I know. She asked us to write down our questions so she could answer them. Several people asked her about the sugars in fruits, a category of food which is both “healthy” (natural, unprocessed, full of vitamins) and easily appealing to many people’s appetites. Of course, the very feature that makes fruit appetizing is the one that might make it somewhat unhealthy, its high sugar content.
“How much fruit is it okay to eat?” one person asked. “Can I eat as much as I want?”
The counselor couldn’t give us a clear answer on this. Instead, to her credit, she asked us how our individual bodies responded when we ate fruit: “Does it ever give you that feeling of having a sugar rush and crash? Have you been gaining weight? If so, you might want to gradually cut back on the sugar you consume from fruit. Maybe try eating a sour apple like a granny smith, instead of a sweet apple like a fuji.”
I was happy to see that I wasn’t the only person who grimaced. Fujis are my favorite apples; if I have to substitute granny smiths, I would prefer just to skip the apple altogether. I am someone who thinks a lot about what I eat and tries to make good choices, but I can’t stand the thought of putting limits on how much fruit I eat. In the summer, when strawberries and cherries and blueberries and mangoes and peaches and plums and every other kind of fruit I love best is in season, I eat really incredible quantities of it. I have no way of telling whether all this fruit is bad for me or whether I am eating too much of it. I know that high blood sugar has been shown to be a risk for cancer and other diseases, and I don’t eat much refined sugar, but all the fruit I eat could be undermining my health. I hate the idea the one type of food that is wholesome, nutritious, and endlessly appealing to my appetite might be bad for me.
Here is the Hobbsean philosophy of appetite in action: unchecked by some instruction about what is good to eat, I would eat enough fruit to potentially damage my health.
Ultimately, the problem with assessing whether our appetites lead us towards what is good for us and bad for us is that we don’t actually know what is good and bad or us. We have so many choices to satisfy our appetites, some pretty obviously good (broccoli), some bad (grilled cheeseburger melt). Michael Pollan describes the concept of the omnivore’s dilemma primarily as the process of avoiding toxins: “When you can eat just about anything nature has to offer, deciding what you should eat will inevitably stir anxiety, especially when some of the potential foods on offer are liable to sicken or kill you.” This sounds as though our modern food practices should be simple: avoid things that will sicken and kill us. Rhubarb stems: good. Rhubarb leaves: bad.
But as the rest of his book demonstrates, even people who are trying to eat the most healthy food, both for themselves and for the planet, may not be able to do so. People buy “all natural” food, not realizing it is filled with unhealthy but natural additives. “Free range” chickens spend five of their seven weeks of life crowded into a warehouse, and are allowed access to a small yard, which they are too fearful to enter, for the last two weeks of their lives.
It is not so scary to indulge in our unhealthy appetites when we have willingly accepted their unhealthiness. Enthusiasts of the double down and the grilled cheeseburger melt are not trying to enhance their health when they eat those things; in fact, the appeal of those foods may lie in the willful flaunting of health. I certainly had no delusions, when I dated Mr. Confused, that he was good for me, though I’d like to think of him more as a chewy, home-baked chocolate-chip cookie rather than a greasy fast-food sandwich variant—something totally unhealthy but of such undeniably high quality that you’d be stupid to turn it down.
The real fear is that you might pick something you thought was good for you, but it turns out not to be. All that putrid, died-yellow margarine people ate in the seventies and eighties was terrible for them; meanwhile, they could have been eating actual butter. If Tom were to pass up the woman he was most attracted to and date the woman he found third most attractive, he might find her to be as bad for him as any other woman might be—because really, it’s almost impossible to tell who is good and bad for us, just as we can’t tell that our chicken did not ever go into its allotted bit of “range.” That would be the worst mistake, like forgoing the ice cream in favor of a salad covered in ranch dressing. It's not what you wanted, but it's terrible for you nevertheless.