The Pleasure Trap
When I first heard the term the Pleasure Trap, I wasn’t sure if it was a trap I wanted to fall into (who wouldn’t want to be trapped in pleasure?) or a warning about something I should avoid.
It turns out it was something to avoid. The pleasure part is about how foods can produce a feeling of pleasure through the stimulation of dopamine, the feel-good hormone our brains produce. And the trap part was about how compulsively we can be driven to these dopamine-producing foods, even addicted, while they do nothing to nourish us. Quite the opposite actually.
When we learned about this, it was helpful in understanding why some of our clients, after experiencing great results, returned to their old ways of eating, and as a result re-created the problems they had resolved by changing to a WFPB diet and lifestyle.
The theory behind the Pleasure Trap goes like this: as we were evolving and food was scarce at times, we developed a way to ensure that we got enough energy (calories) and minerals (salt) to survive. We developed a feedback loop so that, if we ate foods high in calories (sugar or fat) or minerals (salt), we would feel good. What made us feel good was dopamine. When we ate foods high in calories or minerals, dopamine was triggered. Having this link to feeling good from food (the same feedback loop, incidentally that creates the pleasure in sex) we were more prone to seek those foods out. And by seeking out the foods that provided the energy and minerals we needed, we were more likely to survive the times of food scarcity and our genes with this dopamine feedback system were be passed on.
It's a great system, actually. And still very effective… if we eat the kind of food our ancient ancestors ate: whole, unprocessed, and in moderate amounts. (Hunting and gathering limited how much was available each day.)
Connie and I have been eating WFPB for over 30 years, and when we eat our meals, dopamine is produced, but at such moderate amounts that it simply makes us love the food we’re eating, and there’s no crash after the meal that would encourage us to eat more to feel better.
This beautifully designed system only became a problem when we started processing and refining our food. With processed, refined foods available like they are today, we have almost unlimited amounts of food with excessively high amounts of refined calories and salt. These high quantities of calories and salt triggers the dopamine response in ways our ancient ancestors never knew. And, as such, the dopamine feedback system that helped ensure survival has become a trap that now threatens our health and longevity. Ironic, isn’t it?
To summarize how the Pleasure Trap works, when we eat processed foods high in salt, oil and sugar, like baked goods, ice cream, fast food and candy, it causes a huge spike in dopamine. This leads to a crash soon afterwards, leading to a craving for another dopamine hit. That’s why it's so hard to eat just one cookie or a small bowl of ice cream. Your brain wants to regain the dopamine high it experienced with the first few bites. Ever experience that?
And, we also want to mention that the new understanding we share in our coaching is helping people relate to the Pleasure Trap in ways that short circuit the process. And not through willpower or self-restraint, but by learning to see that the stress or hurt feelings they’re seeking relief from with comfort foods may be avoidable in the first place.
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