The Pleasure Trap: You know what you should do, so why is it so hard to do it?

Please make the time to read this post. It’s an important one.

So, you’ve spent time reading the articles highlighted in The Big Crash Course, you’ve watched important documentaries like Forks Over Knives and Food, Inc., you’ve witnessed a total transformation with a diabetic family member who went plant-based six months ago and now is off medication, but you just can’t seem to kick that morning “muffin” from your favorite coffee shop. You know it’s really cake, but you wake up thinking about it. Craving it. It almost feels like an addiction. That’s because it is.

Like most Americans, you are caught in something Dr. Douglas Lisle calls “The Pleasure Trap,” but you can get out. Understanding how this trap works is your escape route.

When I first came across a lecture from Dr. Lisle, who is co-author of The Pleasure Trap: Mastering the Hidden Force That Undermines Health & Happiness, I listened to it three times in a row, and immediately thought that YU should, too.

I have always believed that certain foods are addicting—I have experienced it first-hand, and I have witnessed it with friends, family members, and clients. During the lecture, you can visualize yourself on the addiction hamster wheel, but by the end, you have the tools to help you escape it. Lisle breaks down the fact that the addiction to food is similar to the addiction humans experience with drugs, and this is because the dopamine hit is the same. Saying “goodbye” to the S.A.D. (Standard American Diet) and taking on a plant-based lifestyle can be—and is for most folks—just as difficult as kicking drugs. Take a look at the billions of dollars spent on dieting. On medications to treat food-related illnesses. It’s a crisis, and a multi-faceted one, which I will continue to write about in future posts.

Lisle begins this important lecture by explaining the genetic instincts that drive our behavior, and then he builds momentum to scientifically and psychologically explain this mess that so many of us remain stuck within. You will have a much greater understanding of not only your own obstacles, but humankind’s as a whole by the end of this lecture. And understanding is where great change can begin.

I have updated this original post to include the TEDxFremont video below, which is a 20-minute version of the original video I posted below. I recommend watching both.

For the folks who can’t watch this longer video, I’ve put the entire lecture in a strainer for you. For the comprehensive explanation, I recommend that you make the time to watch the lecture, though. Make the time.

The nutshell:
The mind is a “computational device to help organisms make good decisions for survival and reproductive problems.” Dr. Lisle playfully uses a shark as an example.

A shark’s DNA sequences (genes) tell it to “eat to survive and survive to reproduce.” These are instincts, a.k.a. neural circuits. We all know that a shark can smell a drop of blood in miles of sea water. “I smell blood” gets processed in the neural circuitry in the shark’s brain, and then it is “downloaded” to the shark’s muscles and the muscles move the shark towards the blood. Eat to survive. Survive to reproduce.

Yes, neural circuits are different for every animal, but one thing they have in common are three principal motivations that increase the odds of the animal’s survival. Dr. Lisle calls these motivations “The Motivational Triad.”

1. Animals (this includes us) are going to seek positive incentives and experiences that feel good and provide pleasure—dopamine activation.
Two things make animals feel really good. The first is eating, which is the primary survival problem of animals. The second dopamine activator, as you may have guessed, is sexual behavior.

2. Animals need to know when mistakes are being made. They try their best to avoid pain.

3. Animals do their best to conserve energy and be efficient.

So, how do these instincts work and why? How do animals know to stay on course? Mother nature has built us a feedback-based guidance system known as happiness, a.k.a. the short-term mood state that lets you know when you are getting closer to pleasure and further away from pain. An unhappy state tells you to change your situation. The Motivational Triad dictates that we seek pleasure, avoid pain, and conserve energy in an effort to survive.

So how does this explain why it can be so difficult to stay on a healthy track when we know what the healthy path is?

We need to be able to see the traps that are set for us in order to overcome them, defeat them, and reach the optimal health we are all entitled to.

+ Pleasure-seeking trap: ex: how delicious that doughnut tastes.
+ Pain-avoidance trap: ex: pain blocking medication keeps us disconnected from what our body really needs.
+ Energy conservation trap: ex: gambling, something for nothing.

The Pleasure Trap is the elusive force that is actually your own nervous system’s “internal compass,” telling you what is best for you, in a world where it doesn’t serve you the way it was designed to.

As you may have guessed by now, one of the most destructive aspects of The Pleasure Trap is food. The Standard American Diet, and the marketing efforts and food science supporting it, have rendered most of us addicts—and rendered most of us sick with migraines, IBS, Interstitial Cystitis, arthritis, and other manifestations of inflammation, as well as major diseases like diabetes, cancer, and heart disease. Illnesses and disease—which we medicate with pain-avoidance drugs, which make us crave processed foods, and make us rock and roll that hamster wheel.

Nature designed fruits, nuts, legumes, whole grains, vegetables, and seeds for us to eat. Dr. Lisle states clearly, “We have a natural relationship with the pleasure centers of the mind when we consume these foods.” But the popular processed foods are what bang the pleasure centers of the brain, tricking us into thinking that all our survival problems are “being solved.” Caloric density makes our bodies think that we have hit the jackpot. Dopamine. Dopamine. Dopamine. The S.A.D. does nothing but give us that happiness high. What is chocolate? Calorically dense fat and sugar. Fat is “4,000 calories a pound” and sugar is “1,800 calories a pound.” Burgers? Fat and salt. Cheese, which is designed for a baby cow, is fat and salt. French fries are fat and salt. Mother Nature wants us to seek out calorically dense foods, but the kind that are found in nature, not created in a lab by food scientists and manufacturers trying to trip those Motivational Triad wires. Keeping us addicted is a very profitable business, not just for the food industry, but for the medical industry—sickness is a multi-billion-dollar business. There’s no money to be made off of healthy people.

We are designed to consume natural, calorically dense foods, with fiber, in lower concentrations. The processed stuff rings the dopamine circuits of the mind too hard and makes them scream that you are doing the right thing—all your “getting enough” survival problems are being solved. This couldn’t be more wrong.

Animal products are very calorically dense, not to mention that the more animal protein intake there is, the more that cardiovascular death, diabetes, and certain cancers will unnecessarily take the lives of millions. Dr. Caldwell Esselstyn, Dr. T. Colin Campbell, Dr. Joel Fuhrman, Dr. Dean Ornish, Dr. Neal Barnard, and Dr. John McDougall have the comprehensive studies, lectures, charts, and experiences to prove it. More on this in a later post. Oh, the facets of this problem.

Ok. To further break it down, Dr. Lisle explains that there are three zones/stages of the pleasure trap.

The first is the natural relationship with whole, plant-based foods. Everything is in harmony. We eat when we are hungry and our pleasure centers in the brain tell us we are on the right track to survival. But when you start to move into processed foods, your nervous system gives you those big bangs because it is detecting higher caloric density. Now let’s think of a time where you were in a room with a woman wearing too much perfume, and how at first, it is offensive or makes you uncomfortable. It’s very noticeable, but you hang in there, and after about 10 minutes you don’t really notice it anymore. This is because your nervous system “adapts.” You get used to it. So when you start eating processed foods, eventually you get used to it—the saltiness, the delicious fat, the intense sweetness. This is the danger zone, where Dr. Lisle believes “America lives and where America dies.”

Even if you are lucky enough to learn about the right thing to do, and you are lucky if you come across this information, this danger zone is a very tough spot to be in. When you go from consuming high caloric, processed foods back to natural, whole foods, your pleasure experience drops. The very experience we are programmed to seek out, the one that tells us that we are doing the right thing “feels wrong and when you do the wrong thing it feels right.” The nervous system has been “spun into a puzzle that it never was designed to solve.”

All is not lost, though, friends. If you continue on a healthy track, the nervous system will bounce back. The human body is an incredible machine, capable of healing itself drug-free. It takes at least five to six weeks for the change to occur and stick, and there are some important methods you can use to successfully climb this great American obstacle to optimal health.

You’ve got the first one down already—knowing that the pleasure trap exists. If you can keep reminding yourself that this force is there, ready to knock you off course, you can defeat it when it rears its ugly, confusing head. In 6-10 weeks, you will be out of the trap.

A green smoothie fast for about seven days will also help. Dr. Lisle recommends a juice fast, but I am a big believer in the power of fiber, so smoothies, smoothies, smoothies—and green ones. Fiber will allow sugars to release into your bloodstream in a natural, regulated fashion. By smoothie fasting, you take all salt and fat receptors out of the equation—less dopamine bangs. When you go back to normal, clean eatin’, salt and fat will taste a lot better.

If you need serious help, there are patient programs available. For 10 days you can join Dr. John McDougall and his wife at the McDougall Health and Medical Center. If you feel like you need friendly, nourishing, lockdown-style help, seek out complete abstinence with support at The True North Health Center, where you will water-fast your way to recapturing normal nerve response. Like alcohol or drugs, total sensory deprivation is the key to successfully kicking the addiction.

This is not an easy road to travel. If someone tells you quick and easy is the way, they are not being honest with you. It’s time to get stubborn. It‘s time to educate yourselves. You may have to learn this lesson many times before you get it straight. You will probably relapse, so be kind to yourself, you will get better every time you get back on the wagon. It takes us a long time to get sick, and it takes us a long time to get well. Be patient. Just know your direction, hold onto it, and feel confident that you can defeat this trap that is always there to pull you off course. Understand the nature of the obstacles in front of you and you can climb over them.

Remember that success is how quickly you can get back on track when you fall off course.

Dr. Lisle’s very honest, yet encouraging statement “[this journey] is likely to be the most difficult, and yet ultimately, the most rewarding path to choose” is spot on.

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How do you feel about what Dr. Lisle has to say? Do you have a better understanding of your journey now, and do you think this will help you moving forward? Tell me below, we all want to hear from you.


Read the comments or add yours.

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  1. This is exactly what I needed to read today! Thanks so much for this post. I’ll be sending this to more than a few people who I think need to hear this message!

  2. Cecile

    Loved reading this post. Getting informed even more encourages me and inspires me. I seem to still be taking in too much salt (and yesss the fat factor does make it more satisfying) even though I don’t really buy pre-salted, pre-made stuff. It’s very addicting!!

  3. Sarah

    thanks for sharing this. i couldnt watch the video.

  4. Lilu Apple-b

    Thank you for this video, and for directing me toward it. I always knew there was a psychological trick to “enjoying junk”…

    In fact, what i did for a long time was to quit something, endure the severance period, get on with my life, only to get back into it. I would clean out all junk from my systen as soon as it no longer felt extra pleasurable. Getting back to eating it at a later date brings back the feeling of increased pleasure that we experience when we have junk food for the first time.

    This makes so much sense to me, and totally explains the trap. I feel like a blindfold was removed from my eyes, since i’ve experienced first hand what’s explained in the video, many times over… For all the times that i thought i “needed fish n’ chips”… Well that’s all over now! Thanks again 🙂

    • Heather Crosby

      YU are so welcome Lilu—I am happy that you found it helpful 🙂

  5. Jack

    What a great article on a great book. That is great you met Dr Lisle live. I look forward to meeting him someday. I know I struggle a bit with junk/processed foods myself right now.
    Thanks and god bless,

  6. Anna

    Wow! I LOVED this and it was exactly what I needed to hear today. Thanks for posting.

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