Saturday, September 15, 2012

The Pleasure Trap

So it's been a while since my last post. The hubby and I do a one-week-on-one-week-off schedule for making dinners, and this was my week off. Likely I won't post much during my off weeks, but the hubby might do some guest posts!

Since I had some time freed up this past week from making dinner, I decided to do a little baking. I love to bake, and it's been really fun trying my hand at veganizing recipes for a variety of baked goods (my favourite way to replace an egg - mix 1 Tbsp ground flaxmeal and 2-3 Tbsp water; let it sit for about 5-10 minutes until thickened). I had some bananas that needed to be used up, and was feeling like oatmeal raisin cookies... so I decided to make some Banana-Maple Oatmeal Cookies from the FatFree Vegan Kitchen. Susan has some great recipes on this site, and the vast majority have no added fat - just the naturally occurring fats in the whole-food ingredients. Here's what the cookies looked like:

They were tasty, had a cakey consistency, and didn't make me feel too bad about eating a couple. But eating cookies made me think a little about something I learned in my Certificate in Plant-Based Nutrition: the Pleasure Trap. Ever wondered why we eat things we know are bad for us? Read on...

The Pleasure Trap is a concept created by psychologist Doug Lisle - check out a lecture from him here on YouTube. He also wrote a book on the subject (with Alan Goldhammer) called The Pleasure Trap: Mastering the Hidden Force that Undermines Health and Happiness - check it out for a much longer and detailed explanation of what I will discuss below.

So, here is my understanding of the Pleasure Trap. We are hardwired to seek pleasure, avoid pain, and conserve energy. When we eat high-caloric foods, we get a zap of pleasure because not only does it taste good, but it was a really easy way to get our caloric needs met (so we conserved energy in doing so and avoided the pain of malnutrition). Dr. Lisle says our bodies can distinguish even small caloric differences - that's why an apple tastes better than a piece of lettuce, for example. Our body knows that apples have more calories than lettuce, and consequently  innately prefers apples to get our caloric needs met easier. Most foods in a standard western diet are high in caloric content, so it's easy to get our caloric needs met (avoiding the pain of malnutrition) with food that tastes good (causes pleasure) without putting forth too much effort (conserving energy).

So, that's one side of it. Let's move on to discussing the Dietary Pleasure Trap. There is an awesome graph here that will give you a visual of this concept. Basically, there are three pleasure zones - the subnormal, normal, and enhanced pleasure zones. When we eat natural whole foods, we are getting our caloric needs met, they taste good, and we're in the normal pleasure zone. This is where we want to be. But, when we eat those high-caloric processed foods that are not good for us, we get a boost into the enhanced pleasure zone. If we keep eating those high-caloric foods, we are kept in the enhanced pleasure zone so long that eventually it becomes normal for our bodies, so we fall back into the normal pleasure zone, always looking for another jolt that will take us back to enhanced pleasure. So we keep eating more and more high-caloric foods, and consequently keep getting fatter and fatter, and sicker and sicker. But, we just can't quite seem to reach that enhanced pleasure zone anymore! So, the cure for that is to change our diets back to whole, natural foods. When we do change our diet, it is initially such a shock to the system that we drop to the subnormal zone. This is why when you start to eat right, your body says, "whoa, something is seriously wrong here! I miss meat! I miss cheese! I miss doughnuts! I miss chips! Give them to me and I'll be happy again!" But, in reality, what you need to do at this point is just stay strong and tough it out. The transitional period will only last for a few weeks - it sucks, but you'll get through it. After those few weeks, your body will re-adjust to the normal pleasure zone and you'll feel better than ever! Natural, whole foods will once again taste amazing, and you should find yourself craving that bad stuff a whole lot less, if at all.

I know learning about this helped me to understand my motivation a lot. I can feel the shift to enhanced pleasure now when I eat something I know isn't all that great for me, like those cookies. But I also now know enough that when I do feel that enhanced pleasure, I back off and let my body come back to normal so that I don't cause myself to desire that enhanced pleasure too much. I feel satisfied after just one cookie, for example, rather than four or five! Navigating the Dietary Pleasure Trap can help you take control of your health and do what is right for your body. Good luck!

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