If you’ve read The Pleasure Trap by Doug Lisle and Alan Goldhamer, you will be aware of the motivational triad that drives all sentient creatures. All of us are wired to seek pleasure, avoid pain and conserve energy while doing so. This is the wiring that has developed over the last billion years and is why you and I and the squirrel in your attic are all descended from an unbroken line of individuals who survived long enough to reproduce. That’s quite remarkable when you consider that until the 20th century, it was normal for less than half of a family’s children to survive childhood. We carry survival genes.
Our pleasures and our pain haven’t changed all that much since we hauled ourselves out of the muck. We like high calorie foods and sex, and we dislike injuring ourselves and being cold. It’s not all physical, though. Some of the more complex organisms, like H. sapiens, seek out the comfort of family and fear abandonment. Being in possession of these drives means we are exquisitely tuned for survival in a world of scarcity and sabre-tooth tigers.
Now that food is abundant and predators are rare, our motivational triad serves us less well. Our ancestors could only dream of ordering pizza to share with friends. Imagine the status of the caveman who could conjure that many calories for that many buddies, apparently out of thin air? Not a single one of them felt the slightest guilt at scarfing down the richest foods whenever they were available. “Another banana slug? No thanks, I’m watching my weight.” said no one, ever. Our inner caveman may be working against our interests in the modern world.
These survival instincts we all share lead us to seek the pleasure of rich foods and avoid conflict with our friends and family by sharing these foods with them, all while expending the least amount of energy possible. No wonder fast food drive-throughs are everywhere.
Switching to a whole foods, plant-based diet means consuming less calorie dense foods, alienating people who don’t understand our choices or may even feel defensive about them, and spending a lot of time and effort preparing food from scratch. No wonder people find this so difficult.
But there are other kinds of pleasure and pain, and ways to reduce the amount of energy it takes to eat well.
It turns out that after a few days of eating only whole plant foods, we start to really appreciate them for their flavour, freshness, and the way we feel after eating them. By eliminating foods with added sugar, oil and salt, we recalibrate our tastebuds and reward centres in the brain. After a few days we don’t crave those rich foods as much anymore. Whole plant foods become enjoyable!
Within a week or two of completely eliminating all animal products and processed foods, you’ll notice increased energy and relief from many symptoms, including angina, arthritis pain, and constipation. You’ll have lost weight if you were too heavy. Feeling good feels good.
This is the reason I advocate strongly for going all-in with your wfpb lifestyle. If you are suffering from any chronic illness or obesity you need the “pound of cure” approach, rather than the ounce of prevention. If you make modest changes, you may not notice any difference in how you feel, or it may take a long time. Give yourself the best chance at restored health by committing to a fully whole food, plant-based diet with no added oil. You may not be 100% compliant, but the more you stick with it, the better your results will be. And ultimately, the better your results, the easier it will be to use the motivational triad to your advantage.
At the point when you’ve made the connection between your healthy diet and your improved health, it’s natural to want to avoid becoming sick again. That’s avoiding pain. In my case, the reversal of my microvascular angina was so dramatic that I started feeling really good within a few weeks. The draw of rich foods became less as time passed and the feeling of good health became far more appealing. Even the pain of navigating social situations became less significant. By planning ahead those situations became less difficult than I initially anticipated.
There is no question that it is less work to grab a burger in the drive through than to prepare a healthy meal from scratch, but there are strategies that can be used to tip the balance.
- Make sure your kitchen is cleaned out of all off-limits foods. Your inner caveman knows about that bag of cookies and isn’t going to let you forget it until it is gone.
- Develop routines that make healthy choices easy. I prepare steel cut oats in the Instant Pot as part of my evening routine and set it to cook the next morning. My breakfast is waiting for me when I get up and it requires almost no effort or willpower on my part to eat it.
- Stock your pantry and fridge with healthy foods so that you can always prepare a healthy meal without leaving the house.
- Have a plan for your main meals. You don’t even need to go as far as picking out specific recipes, but if you have a selection of grains, legumes, vegetables (fresh or frozen) and a tasty sauce (ready to eat or easily made), you can whip up a simple meal at any time.
- Don’t worry about repetitive or boring meals. I eat the same breakfast every day. I eat leftovers for lunch. When I make a smoothie, it’s always the same. When asparagus is in season, I might eat it every day.
When I first went plant based, it felt like it took a lot of effort to eat well. Now it’s second nature and my routines and habits help make it automatic. In my house it’s almost impossible to create an unhealthy meal.
Give yourself a fighting chance to succeed in whole food, plant-based eating. Create an environment that is conducive to success. Stick with it long enough to end cravings and see results. Let your inner caveman fight for you.