The Pleasure Trap is a compelling evolutionary theory for why some of us struggle with eating healthfully. In a nutshell, we’re wired to eat more and move less!
Clinical psychologist Dr. Doug Lisle shares the highlights of his and co-author Alan Goldhamer’s book in the presentation embedded above.
First, seek pleasure. And the two most important pleasures in terms of survival of the species? Food and sex. Next, avoid pain, as our goal is to stay alive at least long enough to reproduce. And finally, in our pursuit of the first two goals, we’ve learned to be efficient about our activities in order to preserve energy.
These aren’t conscious, thinking brain activities. These are deeply embedded lizard brain instincts. And as Seth Godin points out, in a war with the lizard brain, the lizard brain usually wins.
Stone Age bodies in a Space Age world. Others have reached a similar conclusion. In his Making the World Smaller presentation, Harvard evolutionary researcher Daniel Lieberman notes (~8:15):
We did not evolve to like exercise or eating celery. We evolved to enjoy rest, but have to exercise; to crave fat, sugar, and salt, but have to eat wild foods.
Or has he said recently in a NYT op-ed (emphasis mine):
The food industry has made a fortune because we retain Stone Age bodies that crave sugar but live in a Space Age world in which sugar is cheap and plentiful. Sip by sip and nibble by nibble, more of us gain weight because we can’t control normal, deeply rooted urges for a valuable, tasty and once limited resource.
In Lisle’s view, the Western diet presents another problem due to the phenomenon of neuroadaptation:
Like our other sensory nerves, our taste buds also will “get used to” a given level of stimulation—and this can have dangerous consequences. The taste buds of the vast majority of people in industrialized societies are currently neuroadapted to artificially high-fat, high-sugar, and high-salt animal and processed foods. These foods are ultimately no more enjoyable than more healthful fare, but few people will ever see that this is true. This is because they consistently consume highly stimulating foods, and have “gotten used to” them. If they were to eat a less stimulating, health-promoting diet, they soon would enjoy such fare every bit as much. Unfortunately, very few people will ever realize this critically important fact. Instead, nearly all of these people will die prematurely of strokes, heart attacks, congestive heart failure, diabetes, and cancer as a result of self-destructive dietary choices.
This is graphically illustrated below.
- Phase 1: We’re eating real, whole foods similar to the ones we’ve been eating for thousands of years.
- Phase 2: We begin eating hyperpalatable foods, typically those loaded with fat, sugar, and salt. Initially we get additional pleasure from these foods.
- Phase 3: But over time, these same foods become less pleasurable as we adapt to them. Our typical response is to either eat more or just get used to not feeling as much pleasure. Lisle say of phase 3 “that’s where America lives and that’s where America dies.”
- Phase 4: If we do switch back to whole foods, we find the initial lessening of pleasure really uncomfortable.
Lisle’s description of moving from phase 3 to phase 4 really resonates for me; I mean we’re talking a major league “a ha” moment (emphasis mine):
Why is it so difficult, even though you know the right direction to go, why is it so difficult to go that direction? The answer is: when you do the right thing it feels wrong, when you do the wrong thing it feels right. Your nervous system has been spun a puzzle that it was never designed to solve. It has been thrown 180 degrees off.
This is the pleasure trap.
Wow. What a perfect description of my post-relapse struggles!
Fortunately (as I have learned), you can get back to phase 5, where you have a normal response to real food. Unfortunately, you will likely have to go through a bit of pain (or at least discomfort) to get there.
- knowing that it’s an illusion, that you’re not going to suffer on foods and that it’s time-limited; [for me, it’s about 4 days]
- using something like a juice fast to take the salt and fat receptors out of the equation so that when you add whole foods back they will taste better; in other words, temporarily go for foods that stimulate your senses the least; or
- doing a residence-based program (he recommends McDougall, but any program that focuses on healthy whole foods would work IMO).
Lisle also makes the important point that getting back to phase 5 doesn’t mean you’re now free and clear. Because of our evolutionary wiring, we’re always at risk of moving back into stage 2 (some of us more than others!).
Explains a lot? From my perspective, the pleasure trap concept really resonates. I see it at work elsewhere, not just in me. It might explain:
- why people who have had real success with an ancestral approach may find that the “more success we have, the less disciplined we feel we need to be” leading to the re-introduction of less healthy behaviors
- why people who intend to eat healthfully use excuses like “I was on vacation” to eat a week’s worth of calories in a single meal
- why people who have lost 100 or more pounds start compulsive or addictive eating again, despite being well aware of their former pain
- why weight maintenance is harder than weight loss: nearly every single weight loss plan cuts out processed hyperpalatable foods, but in maintenance, most folks add them back
I certainly see myself in that next-to-last category. My recent relapses absolutely fit the description, including how difficult it was to move out of phase 4. But as Lisle says, relapsing can be part of the process of becoming aware and actually learning how to avoid future problems.
What does it all mean? Well for one, I think it’s pretty clear it’s important to be very careful with hyperpalatable (or ultra-processed) foods … especially if we’re prone to overeating these foods.
And for another, realize that what’s at play is very likely biology and not a character flaw. Now I just have to figure out how to make my biology work in this world!