we look more closely, however, we're struck more by what we don't
see in any of the photos. Even though these animals inhabit areas
where their natural food is in abundance, none are overweight. Furthermore,
there are no zebras calculating the percentage of fat they are about
to ingest; no lions ensuring that they're "in the zone"
before sinking their teeth into a Thompson's gazelle; no cheetahs
too fat to climb to the top branch of their abode without the use
of an elevator. Even more astonishing is that after we put down
the photo album, and go out for an evening walk through town, we
marvel at how few of the folks patronizing our local eateries are
as fit as those animals. At least half of Americans are overweight,
and about 27% of those are obese! Why is this? Why do these animals
show no signs of either overweight or underweight (and count no
calories), while we Americans are ballooning out of control as we
spend millions of dollars on dieting and compulsively count calories?
What went wrong in the last 100 years?
Doug Lisle and
Alan Goldhamer address this, and other perplexing modern day quandaries,
in their brilliant new book The Pleasure Trap. Never before have
I been so utterly entertained by a book on health. The Pleasure
Trap examines the sad state of human health in the early 21st century
by considering human evolution, psychology, philosophy and a host
of other relevant themes that we don't usually associate with health.
Typical nutrition books are filled with numbers that make one's
eye glaze over (50 milligrams of this leads to a 40% reduction in
that if we keep our Omega-6 to Omega-3 ratio below 4, ad infinitum).
Keeping numbers to a minimum, this book contains stories about,
among many others, Thomas Edison, Elvis Presley and Sherlock Holmes!
I'm not kidding - a health book that discusses, at length, Sherlock
is a "pleasure trap"? First, all animals have evolved
to behave in ways consistent with the propagation of its species,
though almost no animal (including us) actually thinks about this.
Chimps, for instance, don't sit around pondering their role in this
grand plan. Instead they partake in day-to-day activities that create
a general sense of happiness (higher serotonin levels in the brain)
and this keeps them on track towards pleasurable activities which
occur less frequently (higher dopamine levels in the brain). These
less-frequent pleasurable activities are associated with species
propagation. Sex, for instance, is pleasurable and is directly associated
with reproduction. Enjoying an especially satisfying meal also brings
great pleasure and is necessary for keeping us alive, which increases
opportunities for reproduction. And so on.
all animals follow three motivating forces in life, which the authors
refer to as the motivational triad: we all attempt to increase our
pleasure; we all attempt to decrease our pain; we all try to do
this by using the least amount of energy. Animals following the
motivational triad in natural surroundings will never go wrong,
because in nature there are no short cuts. The problem is the modern
world, where man has created a multitude of short cuts that lead
directly to pleasure (and addiction), as well a whole new slew of
problems that don't exist in nature - like obesity. These short
cuts are what the authors refer to as pleasure traps.
As an example,
let's get back to those animals in our photo album. Can it be that
they're getting more exercise than we are? Well, that's probably
part of it, but a very tiny part. We never saw so many lazy animals
in our lives. We spent literally hours, within yards of lion dens
just watching them lie there, watching us watching them! An animal's
weight is more directly related to how much it eats. All animals
have instinctual satiety mechanisms that have evolved over hundreds
of thousands of years that tell them when they've eaten enough.
And these mechanisms are so perfect in doing their job that it is
impossible for any animal, surrounded by natural abundance, to under-eat
or over-eat a single percentage of required calories. Skeptical?
Take chimps, which live about 50 years and weigh an average of about
150 pounds. If a chimp consistently ate 1% fewer calories than was
required, he would die of starvation within his 50-year lifetime,
dropping from 150 to 50 pounds! If that same chimp consistently
ate 1% more calories than were required, he would balloon to 250
pounds. Such creatures simply don't exist in the wild.
In modern society,
however, 250-pound humans are all over the place! The problem is
modern "magic" food, artificially high in fat, artificially
low in fiber, and artificially processed like nowhere in nature.
These foods quickly boost dopamine levels in the brain, allowing
us to experience pleasure all the time, getting us hooked nearly
as strong as an addiction to drugs. High fat foods are more appealing
to animals (they cause more pleasure) because of their high-caloric
density. Remember that animals will expend the least amount of energy
while increasing their pleasure; finding more calories in one food
is better than having to locate multiple sources to get the same
total number of calories. However, natural high-fat foods are nowhere
near as fatty as magic foods and they don't come close to modifying
the brain chemistry in the same manner. Hence, animals in the wild
don't have the problems that we have. But if you took that chimp
out of the wild, and locked him inside your local McDonald's (such
cruelty has got to be illegal), giving him the same access to all
of their unnatural food, he would also balloon to 250 pounds just
like the customers waiting in line!
satiety mechanisms don't work with the magic foods of modern society.
These mechanisms evolved over hundreds of thousands of years in
the midst of natural surroundings, where there wasn't flour, refined
sugar, Cola, hormone-administered beef, ice cream, cheese and the
million other processed foods that line the shelves of our supermarkets
and restaurants. When we eat these foods we can no longer rely on
these mechanisms to tell us when we've had enough. But if we stop
eating unnatural foods, it becomes impossible to over-eat - we rescue
ourselves from this pleasure trap and eventually maintain the weight
intended by nature.
food is just one of the many pleasure traps brilliantly analyzed
by Lisle and Goldhamer. Modern medicine is another. In an attempt
to expend as little energy as possible, high blood pressure and
high cholesterol are "treated" by taking a pill. Instead
of refraining from certain activities, something that feels counterintuitive
to us, we expect that when we are ill something is missing. Hence,
our doctor prescribes what is missing and the symptom disappears
(it doesn't seem to matter that we continue getting sicker). This
is yet another pleasure trap that short-circuits a natural process.
In this case the symptom is removed while the cause is ignored,
which is then free to continue causing havoc in our bodies. Inflammation,
nausea and fever are other mechanisms the body uses to cure itself.
And modern medicine short-circuits the body by prescribing drugs
that remove the inflammation, nausea and fever, usually prolonging
the recovery phase in favor of some short-term pain relief. At the
end of the book, the authors discuss the ultimate natural cure,
water-only fasting, a topic covered at length in other books like
Fuhrman's Fasting and Eating For Health. Here Lisle and Goldhamer
present irrefutable evidence that water-only fasting is the most
successful cure for treating high blood pressure.
the book is all doomsaying - not at all. The authors provide suggestions
for dealing with all of the pleasure traps they address. There's
even a test to help us determine how many traps we are currently
in (don't ask me how I scored). Many of the suggestions for rescuing
ourselves aren't easy, but since the book is about the horrors of
short cuts, readers shouldn't expect the solution to be yet another
short cut. I could go on and on with additional highlights from
this amazing book, but then I'd become a pleasure trap myself, denying
you the happiness of exploring the material yourself. So head to
your local bookstore to pick up a copy and give your brain a natural
serotonin and dopamine boost. And please rescue that poor chimp
from McDonald's on the way!
is a member of EarthSave® New York City and a frequent contributor
to VegSource.com. He works full-time as a systems engineer in the
telecommunications industry. A voracious reader, Dan spends far
too much time giving himself dopamine boosts by reading the thousands
of books he owns.