The pleasure trap: Why food that’s bad for us tastes really good
What is it about our psyches and palates that sabotage our efforts to do what we know is good for us?
In a recent webinar titled “Why Do We Love the Foods That Make Us Sick?” organized by the Forks Over Knives community, psychologist and author Doug Lisle, MD, explained the concept of the “pleasure trap,” the mismatch between our natural psychology and the modern environment that makes us susceptible to dietary and lifestyle excesses.
Lisle listed down the most popular “comfort foods” and found that what they have in common is how they can essentially be broken down into either fat + sugar (chocolate, ice cream, cake and cookies) or fat + salt (pizza, chips, sausages and cheese)—the sweet and savory cycle.
Then he mentioned naturally occurring food created the way they are meant to be eaten: whole and plant-based. Avocado is rich in good fat (monounsaturated), but it’s not sweet. Fruit in general is sweet, but does not have fat.
Fat by itself is disgusting to ingest if huge amounts of salt aren’t dumped into it, hence, the high amounts of sodium in cheese and processed meats. In gelato stands, sorbet is the wallflower in the dizzying array of popular ice cream flavors.
So, what does this mean? Lisle said that man discovered and put together these combinations of fat + sugar or fat + salt to boost pleasure, but it isn’t necessarily good if achieved easily and conveniently.
Take, for instance, exercise. People who regularly work out as a lifestyle do so even if it’s not easy or convenient, because they appreciate the results their efforts achieve in the long run.
Lisle went on to illustrate how biting into an apple would probably be X amount of sugar and we’d continue eating it, but another apple that’s just a smidgen less sweet we’d consider unappetizing or not worth the effort of chewing.
On a graph, this is Stage 1, and is middling.
Now imagine turning that apple into apple pie with all the trimmings, and you are having the eyes-rolling-backwards-OMG-this-is-so-good reaction. The pleasure of biting into the initially acceptable apple pales in comparison to the concentrated burst of flavors emanating from a forkful of perfectly baked apple pie.
The graph spikes up in Stage 2 as your pleasure sensations go on overdrive.
This is where Lisle explained how food is just meant to elicit the first reaction of mild pleasure—“Mmm, this is a good apple”—and how “OMG levels” of deliciousness should be a warning that food that is good for us isn’t meant to taste too good lest we overindulge, get addicted and fall into the pleasure trap.
Hijacking our taste buds to get accustomed to accept only OMG levels of taste is setting ourselves up for addiction and disaster. The end results are very similar to addictions to sex, drugs, alcohol, gambling or gaming.
Lisle also acknowledged that there comes a point during a junk food binge when we eat more than we should, taper off and realize that the euphoria is unsustainable, and we actually feel bad (headaches, bloating, sore throat, heartburn). This is Stage 3, and we sometimes voluntarily wean off the junk to make ourselves feel better with foods that cleanse.
This is similar to how people swear off alcohol after a horrible hangover, only to succumb to it again after some time has passed.
This detox period is Stage 4, where our taste buds are retrained into liking Stage 1 levels of deliciousness again because it’s inherently better for our bodies. It’s our body’s way of taking over our brain, demanding it to be fed right. Stage 4 is a precarious time, because the first three to five days are crucial in staying the course as the body goes into withdrawal. This withdrawal process cannot be sped up, unfortunately, and is necessary in rebooting our taste buds.
As the body starts to feel better after a more proper diet, it is also susceptible to believing it is fully recovered, that it can handle eating junk—and fall into Stage 2 again.
Recognizing our food addiction in this manner is meant to move us on to Stage 5, where we decide to eat in a Stage 1 way for a longer period of time.
Different strokes for different folks, and I know some people who are very cerebral and just decide to eat well.
But the hedonist in me has an admittedly difficult time eating in moderation. I’m the sort who cannot have “contraband” food at home because even if I don’t particularly like chips, I will finish a whole bag if I see it.
Entire cakes, boxes of doughnuts, bars of chocolate— I’ve eaten an entire half gallon of rocky road ice cream while watching TV.
I’ve done the Tracy Anderson dynamic eating plan thrice, as it follows a stringent diet that is similar to Dr. Lisle’s findings: that our taste buds can be retrained and our cravings can lose their hold on us.
I realized that I have been successful in losing and keeping the weight off each time because I stuck to the plan and supplemented with unwavering exercise.
When I’d fall off the wagon (such as after a period of sickness or travel), I have a hard time scrambling back up. This backsliding is similar to having “just one shot” of alcohol or “just one puff” of a cigarette.
What I appreciate in Dr. Lisle’s presentation is the recognition that, like animals, we are driven by either pain or pleasure, but I hold on to being human (beyond our animal desires) because it means we have the free will and intellect to weigh our options before deciding if we are really strong enough to delve into the world of temptations and navigate it unscathed.
We’d unlikely be salivating over bowlfuls of sugar, fat and salt, but when they are artfully converted into food that we have cultural connections with (i.e Reese’s peanut butter cups = happy memories), that customized relevance and sense-making gloss over all logic.
“Why wade knee-deep if you don’t intend to swim?” is a mantra that I’ve held on to, being fully aware and humbled by my weaknesses, emotional eating and food addiction. Perhaps it can have the same effect on those who need it, too.–CONTRIBUTED
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