The Pleasure Trap

As many of you know, I’m taking the certificate course on Plant Based Nutrition from Cornell. I know, like I need to be back in school, right? But, as always, education brings learning and insights. Today’s lecture was by Doug Lisle, PhD and his work with the pleasure trap. I thought it was worth staring some of the insights. If you’re interested, Doug has a book by the same name here and there is a TED talk here that covers much of the same material.

Fortunately, this is not difficult stuff and won’t take too long to cover. More importantly, it’s relevant to anyone who wants to make a change in their eating habits. According to Dr. Lisle, we have 3 primary motivators:

  • pursuit of pleasure (eating, sex, etc.)
  • avoidance of pain
  • conservation of energy

Because, for most of early human existence, we lived in conditions of relative famine (not feasting!) we are hardwired to view consumption of calorie dense foods as pleasurable. Pleasure stimulates dopamine receptors in the brain and makes you want to keep doing it again and again to get the same stimulation. This is very similar to cocaine use and, like with drugs, people will obviously do it well past the point where it’s not a problem and becomes quite harmful.

Obviously we want to avoid pain, but as it relates to food, we just want to avoid starvation.

Conservation of energy is interesting and, at least from what I presented today, the most worthy of deeper understanding and work. His example was the shark that will eat the fish that is 20 feet away rather than the one that is 40 feet away. In humans, this basically means convenience.

He then had a nice summation of relative calorie densities:

  • Salad (raw vegetables)                         100 calories/pound
  • Vegetables (corn, carrots, broccoli)    200 calories/pound
  • Fruits                                                    300 calories/pound
  • Starches (rice, potatoes, beans)          500 calories/pound
  • Nuts & seeds                                        2,000-2,500 calories/pound
  • Chocolate (sugar + fat)                        2,500 calories/pound
  • Potato Chips/Fries (oil vehicles)         2,500 calories/pound
  • Cheese (dairy fat + salt)                       1,700 calories/pound
  • Ice Cream (concentrated fat & sugar) 3,000 calories/pound

Obviously those items at the bottom of the list tend to stimulate pleasure centers and, in light of that, it’s not surprising that the SAD (standard American diet) is illustrated below:


Unfortunately, Dr. Lisle doesn’t have a lot of good news about how to escape this pleasure trap. His best recommendations are we need to find a way to soldier through the 6 weeks it takes for us to reset out pleasure sensors.

But, speaking from my own personal experience, I think there is a lot that can be done to break the trap by using the conservation of energy motivator to work for us rather than against us. For those who have had the misfortune of hearing my many diatribes, I think the greatest enemy of health eating is the 99¢ “Value Menu” at McDonald’s, Burger King, etc. There is no value there. It’s a lot of calories devoid of nutrition and full of things that are just plain bad for you (animal proteins (cancer promoting), saturated fats (everything else promoting), refined carbohydrates and sugar) and, although these nutritionally bereft items are cheap, they offer no value at all. Worst of all, they are convenient and offer unprecedented energy conservation; you don’t even have to get out of your car!

So a great strategy is to make your healthy choices as convenient as possible. Cook ahead and keep healthy food on hand. Put the less healthy food farther away or freeze it so you have to thaw it out to use it. Whatever it takes. Personally, I cook a ton of food and keep it available for immediate use. Then I eat 5 or 6 times a day so I don’t get hungry. This may not work for you, but with a little thought I think you can figure out a strategy that would work for you to help you break out of the pleasure trap of unhealthy eating.

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