The Pleasure Trap: Mastering the Hidden Force That Undermines Health & Happiness
by Douglas J. Lisle, Ph.D. and Alan Goldhamer, D.C.

Book Review by Dan Balogh

At least once every other month my wife Laura and I crack open the photo album of our 1996 trip to Tanzania where we spent three weeks camping in some of that country's most beautiful game parks. Flipping through the pages we marvel at the amazingly beautiful giraffes, hippos, buffaloes, impalas, hyenas and baboons effortlessly being part of the web of life in the Serengeti. We glance at photos of elephants, topis, crocodiles, wildebeests, rhinos and many others all living within miles of each other in the Ngorongoro Crater, surrounded by huge expanses of vegetation and water - a veritable Garden of Eden where nothing is lacking.

When 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 Holmes.

What exactly 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.

Furthermore, 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!

Our instinctual 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.

Magic 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.

Don't think 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!

Dan Balogh is a member of EarthSave® New York City and a frequent contributor to 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.