Why Habits Are So Hard To Change

Recently I listened to a fascinating webinar from Dr. Doug Lisle about the hidden reasons for the incredible difficulty often encountered when trying to make a change to healthier eating habits. In this article I will try to summarize the key points from his fascinating research.

Dr. Doug Lisle is a psychologist who is currently the Director of Research for the True North Health Centre in Santa Rosa, California. Additionally he serves as the psychologist for the McDougall Wellness Program, also in Santa Rosa and is the founder of Esteem Dynamics (esteemdynamics.com), a new approach to motivation and well-being. He has spent the last two decades researching and studying the effect of evolution on the nutrition of modern human beings through comprehensive clinical studies and original research. You can check out Dr. Doug Lisle on youtube for his TED talk and his other videos on the psychology of eating.

Dr. Lisle explains that people who are chronically overweight and correspondingly unhealthy and miserable are not undisciplined or lazy or the product of “bad genes”. They are simply unfortunate victims of our primitive past. He opens up a new approach for understanding the challenge of leaving self-destructive tendencies behind, one that can prepare you for the barriers that stand in your way in the quest to adapt to new and more positive lifestyle habits. As the old saying goes, “Forewarned is forearmed”.

Much of the psychology of human beings was programmed into our neural pathways even before homo-sapiens branched away from the rest of the great apes during evolution. All species of animals possess a guidance system designed to help them survive long enough to reproduce in order for their species to thrive. The snag of the survival drive is that it can sabotage other plans that we might like to achieve.

Human beings evolved as hunter-gatherers. Because sources of food were relatively scarce and the caloric density of the food was low, our ancestors were designed to search out the richest foods they could find. This course of action has been one of the keys to our success for millions of years. But now, here we are in the 21st century, surrounded by an abundance of food much higher in calories than our predecessors could ever imagine. Alas our ancestral drives are no longer serving us well.

Our primordial predisposition presents us with many hurdles when we attempt to make a change in our eating habits. One of these obstacles, which Dr. Lisle calls The Pleasure Trap, drives our search for high calorie foods. It causes over-rich foods to taste especially good through stimulation of the dopamine reward system in the brain. Besides the enhanced flavour of food, an added reward is a feeling of overall pleasure (2). Interestingly, intake of high calorie foods and addictive drugs both activate our brains in this same way leading to similar types of addiction (3,4). Fortunately, food addiction is not nearly as intense nor as hard to overcome as drug addiction.

Along with the Pleasure Trap come three other instincts also established within us during our early development that regrettably only increase the effort required to improve our food choices. These are called Energy Conservation, the Ego Trap and the Conditioned Cram Circuit with its accompanying Cravings.

Energy Conservation encouraged our predecessors to obtain their food using as little energy as possible. This is why carnivores specifically target weak or sick prey. In modern times Energy Conservation may be why drive-thru windows are so popular and explains why it feels comfortable to eat already prepared “instant food” that contains the sugar, fat and refined carbohydrates that are unfortunately the root cause of many chronic diseases in our society. Eating whole foods in their natural state just plain takes more energy.

The Ego Trap is our need to retain self-esteem. This urge makes us delay any significant life adjustments so as not to look foolish. The Ego Trap supports another goal of ours which is to strive for the best – the choicest food, the finest mate, the safest home – all elements that can increase our ability to not only survive but to prosper. If we appear to our associates to be making out of the ordinary, seemingly unwise life choices, our chance to improve our position in the world can be threatened.

The Conditioned Cram Circuit urges us to overeat. It is the instinct to eat as much as we can possibly cram in while food is actually available. This hearkens back to the long-ago past when our ancestors sought out meat, a high-calorie food, to supplement the lower calorie but more easily harvested plants growing around them. Success in the hunt would occur only sporadically but, when it did, it made sense to gorge on as much meat as possible. There were no means to store highly perishable flesh and, if it wasn’t lost to spoilage, other hungry animals were prone to stealing it.

Spinning off from the Cram Circuit are Cravings. Cravings are a result of something called Compensatory Response. To explain this term we need to go back to 1984 and a researcher by the name of Shepard Siegel at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada. He discovered that all organisms including mammals go to great lengths to keep their bodies in homeostasis. In other words they push back physiologically against anything that threatens their equilibrium. This is a Compensatory Response. An example can be found in addiction to drugs. Environmental conditions present when a drug such as heroin is injected are an integral component of the development of tolerance to a particular dose level of a particular drug. Tolerance is the reduced reaction to a drug following its repeated use. When environmental cues are similar each time the drug is injected, an association is established between the cues and the effect of the drug. With this information the body is able to blunt the drug’s effect in order to maintain homeostasis. This blunting contributes to tolerance. If the drug is then administered in a different environment or under different conditions the body does not have the cues to enlist its Compensatory Response and cannot prepare itself for the threat. This causes a failure of tolerance and suddenly a customary dose of the drug has much greater impact. This mechanism leads to the need for increasing doses of a drug to get the same effect. Alarmingly it can also result in overdoses. This theory was proven in rats during the 1980s and studies in humans already addicted to drugs found the same associations were present (5).

Cravings are a Compensatory Response coming from a different perspective. Consider a person overeating on a daily basis (responding to the Pleasure Trap and Conditioned Cram Circuits). The body has receptors in the stomach to let us know when it is time to stop eating. However, with constant overeating we become conditioned to feeling full and in fact it becomes our position of homeostasis. This explains our desire to eat in the evening. After a day spent full of food, after eating three substantial meals along with between meal snacks, sometime during the evening before bed the stomach begins to empty and we no longer feel satiated. This Compensatory Response results in an insistent anticipation of food. It can be intensely disturbing if this food does not materialize to neutralize this response. This is a craving, a strong urge to go to the fridge and find something to eat. And it is not a healthy snack that you will be seeking but the richest food available to feed the Pleasure Trap.


How to breakaway from this preprogrammed psychology

Understanding why this dilemma occurs in the first place is the first step towards winning the battle against it. It usually takes between 6 and 10 weeks to reset your motivational system and to change your taste receptors. It can be a challenge to triumph over all of these ancient urges but it is not impossible.

Happily, changing food habits is not nearly as difficult as recovering from an addiction to alcohol, cigarettes or drugs such as heroin or cocaine. Defeating these other types of addiction is unsatisfactory in that you remove a detrimental habit from your life but you do not replace it with a specific positive substitute. In the case of transforming food habits, the replacement diet, consisting of delicious, nourishing food, will give rise to much more enjoyment and fulfilment than the previous constant overeating of calories.

The first day you decide to shun high caloric food the Pleasure Trap will be lurking around the corner. Your dopamine level will decrease and you will begin to feel unwell. Strong cravings will materialize within you commanding you to eat. Vexingly the cravings will be even worse the next day and will continue to intensify for a few days. This process is called Extinction Burst. Once again this was beneficial for our ancestors for whom it was imperative to respond when a food source disappeared. Their very existence depended on it. For us today, every day that we can resist this Extinction Burst we are another step closer to beating it. Though it may be tough, stick with your chosen course. Eventually the cravings will quieten down and even almost disappear. Don’t be deceived though, they are not yet completely gone. Suddenly some circumstance will wake up those cravings and they may come back with a vengeance. This is called Spontaneous Recovery, useful to our ancestors in reminding us of a previously lost source of food that may possibly be available again. If a person is not able to beat Spontaneous Recovery, the return journey back into a Conditioned Cram Circuit will be much faster and within days he will be back fighting the Pleasure Trap.

Quitting smoking takes an average of eight tries before success is achieved. Expect a similar experience with food. Cravings will eventually completely disappear although it may take many months for this to happen.


Tips for success:

Set up your kitchen so that it is easy to eat healthily. Collect a file of nutritious recipes that you like. Make sure all the fresh produce, legumes, nuts, seeds and other ingredients you need are at your fingertips.
Make sure that healthy and convenient snacks are easily available at all times and won’t require a lot of energy to prepare.
Keep reminding yourself what you are battling. With understanding that you are wrestling remnants of your primeval past you can persist and escape the traps.
Be kind to yourself. Do not expect perfection and do not give up. You may have to arm yourself for battle more than once but every time you get back on track you will be stronger and wiser.


Other ways to help reset your taste receptors;

Fast for a day or more by drinking only water for a full 36 hours. This means you eat supper at a regular time on day one, then drink water only and eat nothing on day two. On day three you can return to your regular eating pattern.
For a helpful article on fasting see http://www.masteringdiabetes.org/24-hour-intermittent-fasting-explained/

Try a juice fast. This means taking in only water and juice for two or three days. This removes all fat and salt from your diet but gives you some calories to keep you somewhat satisfied.

Try a green smoothie fast for five to seven days. The fiber will allow the sugars in the mix to release slowly into your blood stream. Once again this type of fasting removes salt and fat from your diet.
If you need extra help, check out the 21 Day Kickstart Program offered by PCRM (Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine) or Dr. John McDougall’s 10 day program.

Research has shown time and time again that being healthy is one of the most important predictors of happiness (6). So set your sights on eating for health, throw off the shackles of the pleasure trap and its evil cousins and get ready to enjoy a long healthy and happy life.




1 Lisle, Douglas J., Goldhamer, Alan. The Pleasure Trap: Mastering the Hidden Force that Undermines Health & Happiness. The Book Publishing Company. 2003.

2 Gottfried, J.A. (Editor). Neurobiology of Sensation and Reward. Press/Taylor & Francis; 2011. Chapter 6; Katz, Donald B.and Sadacca, Brian F. Taste.

3 Haile, C.N., Kosten, T.R., Kosten, T.A. Genetics of dopamine and its contribution to cocaine addiction. Behav Genet. 2007 Jan; 37(1):119-145.

4 Volkow, N.D., Wise, R.A. How can drug addiction help us understand obesity? Nature Neuroscience. May 2005; 8(5): 555-560.

5 Siegel, Shepard, McMaster University, Hamilton, Ontario. Pavlovian conditioning and heroin overdose: Reports by overdose victims. Bulletin of the Psychonomic Society 1984; 22 (5): 428-430.

6 Palmore, E., Kivett, V. Change in Life satisfaction: A Longitudinal Study of persons aged 46 to 70. Journal of Gerontology 1977; 32: 311-316.

Promoting a healthy adventurous lifestyle powered by plants and the strength of scientific evidence.

My name is Debra Harley (BScPhm) and I welcome you to my retirement project, this website. Over the course of a life many lessons are learned, altering deeply-rooted ideas and creating new passions.


  1. sylvie on January 24, 2019 at 7:07 am

    Thank you!! Great article..


    • Deb on January 25, 2019 at 9:43 am

      Hello Sylvie, So glad you enjoyed this. It’s empowering to have an explanation for the way we act, makes it easier to fight against. Deb

Leave a Comment