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The pleasure principle

All those things that bring you pleasure are bad for you and all the stuff that you can barely hold down is, in fact, good for you. But, what if chocolate was diet food; and broccoli was fattening? Seema Goswami wonders...

brunch Updated: Mar 03, 2012 20:14 IST
Seema Goswami
Seema Goswami
Hindustan Times

One of the more infuriating, immutable laws of nature – which Newton never paid much attention to – is that everything that feels good is bad for you while anything that feels bad is good. Think about it.

All those things that bring you pleasure: butter, chocolate, cream, cookies, cake, chips, pizza, parathas, mithai.

Goodness gracious: All the stuff that you can barely hold down: broccoli, cabbage, brussels sprouts, oats, etc are all good for you

Yes, all bad for you. All the stuff that you can barely hold down: broccoli, lettuce, cabbage, brussels sprouts, barley, oats,


. Yes, all good for you.

Clearly, God was in a humorous mood when he cooked up the dietary principles that would rule our lives, delighting in playing some sort of cosmic joke on us mortals. Or else how can you explain that both sugar and salt are bad for us (one is implicated in diabetes and the other in high blood pressure). Or that deep-fried food actually clogs your arteries instead of cleansing them. And that red meat is bad for your cholesterol levels while karela is good for your system.

Now, where’s the justice in that, Dear Lord?
What’s worse is that His perversity is not restricted to food alone. It extends to almost all areas of our life. Staying up late at night, reading in bed or watching a DVD, with a brandy by your bedside. Sounds great, doesn’t it? But no, it is, in fact, very bad for you. Getting up early, on the other hand, and heading out for a jog to wake up your system and get your heart pumping. Now that’s very good for you – even though it sounds like the stuff of nightmares (well, my nightmares, at any rate).

Snuggling deep into a couch: bad for you. Sitting up straight as a ramrod in a stiff-backed chair: good for you. Driving to work comfortably in a nice air-conditioned car: bad for you (and for the environment). Getting all sweaty and breathless as you cycle to work: good for you (and yes, the environment).

I could go on (and on) but I think you can just take it as given that if you enjoy something – whether it is scoffing a triple sundae or wearing impossibly high heels – then it will inevitably be bad for you. And if you detest something with all your life – the rowing machine at the gym or the Isabgol that your mother makes you drink every night – it will be good for you.

Of late, however, I have been wondering whether it is human perversity that is to blame here, rather than the Almighty’s. Is it really that everything that tastes or feels good is bad for us? Or is it simply that we are programmed to hanker after the forbidden, to love what we should not? And it is that dichotomy in our nature that makes everything that is bad for us seem so bloody good.

In other words, if broccoli was in fact, fattening, would we be hankering for it like we do for chocolate instead of scraping it off our plates when no one is looking? If butter was a diet food, would it taste half as good? Or would we be gagging even as it coated our taste buds?

Injurious to health: All those things that bring you pleasure: butter, chocolate, cream, cookies, pizza, etc, are all bad for you

This perversity that seems to characterise human nature – and behaviour – extends further. Anything that is cheap and readily available seems to lose value in our eyes; while anything that is prohibitively expensive and hard to find becomes infinitely desirable.

In 18th century England, for instance, when oysters were plentiful and cheap, they made up the staple diets of the poor. In those days, no prosperous person would think of serving them up for dinner guests. Now that they are expensive, they have been transformed into a luxury food item. But surely, they tasted much the same no matter what they cost? It’s just our perception of them that has changed, not the oysters themselves.

But the more things seem out of our reach, the more attractive they become to us. I’m sure if caviar wasn’t so prohibitively expensive, there’s a good chance that it wouldn’t have the cachet it does. Ditto champagne and first-growth wines. And white truffles. Or any other high-priced ingredient that you can think of.

I guess Shakespeare was right when he said that nothing was either good or bad; but thinking made it so.

But if that is really true, then could we really re-think our perceptions of what is good or bad for us? And could we possibly re-define the rules instead of allowing them to define our choices?Well, a girl can dream, can’t she?

I know how things would be in my ideal world. The healthy breakfast option would be parathas rather than muesli. Full-fat milk would be better for you than that horrid skimmed version. Desserts would push your metabolic rate up. Exercise would be very bad for your health. Staying up late at night would increase your energy levels (while getting up early would sap them).

Dieticians would insist that you had five servings of caffeine every day (rather than those dreary fruits and vegetables). And as you grew older, your waistline would get thinner while your hair got thicker (instead of the other way around).If you ask me, that would be a world worth living in – and surviving to a ripe old age.

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From HT Brunch, March 4

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First Published: Mar 03, 2012 15:33 IST