I guess it’s a good sign that No Sugar advocates are starting to get some push back, because it means the message is getting through, right? Nonetheless, I have to admit that I was dismayed recently, when reading a review of a new Australian book: Don’t Quit Sugar! Admittedly, I may- possibly- maybe, be just a teensy-weensy bit biased against a book of this title. But… there was something else… What was it? Was it the fact that the title made the sugar industry sound like some fair, balcony-stranded maiden? “Consumers! Consumers! Wherefore art thou, my faithful consumers? Deny thy Truvia! And refuse thy Aspartame!”… (No? Romeo and Juliet? Anyone?)
Maybe. Or was it the fact that author Cassie Platt’s title seemed a direct retort to the success of another Australian author’s recent popular title: I Quit Sugar!? (Personally, I think Amazon should make these a boxed set. They could also include: I Thought About Quitting Sugar! and I Quit Sugar (But Not Juice, Honey or Ho-Hos!) both of which I expect out any day now.)
OR… maybe it was the fact that Platt seemed to be benefiting from the terminology confusion of sugar (“your body needs sugar!” Well… that depends. Are we talking about sucrose? Glucose? Fructose? Lactose? Ollyollyolsenfree-ose? What?)
No, come to think of it, what really got me was when she spoke on the subject of the not-so-hypothetical addictive nature of sugar. Here is what she had to say: “Yes, (it) stimulate(s) the pleasure centers in our brain, but so does playing with puppies or having sex. And I don’t see anyone recommending we abstain from either of those! Just because you enjoy something doesn’t mean it’s bad for you.”
Well, of course it’s true that just because you enjoy something doesn’t mean its bad for you. However, if something activates and modifies the opiate receptors of your brain– it might mean it’s very bad for you indeed. And that’s just what sugar is now being proven to do.
In fact, the recent New York Times article (12/13/13),“In Food Cravings, Sugar Trumps Fat,” described a one of these recent experiments in which had teenagers sipped milkshakes while having their brain activity tracked. The finding was both startling and important: not only is sugar is very, very good at activating the reward-centers of our brain chemistry, but that sugar is more compelling to our brain reward system than fat. (Much to the surprise of the researchers: they expected a combination of high fat and sugar to provide the biggest reward.)
Now, just because sugar lights up our brain chemistry like a Las Vegas Christmas tree, does that mean it’s addictive, we wonder? Maybe a handful of people get addicted to sugar, but so what? I mean, there are probably people out there addicted to smelling flowers or rearranging their broom closet too, but that doesn’t mean we should do anything about them, right? Since when do the unfortunate addictions of a couple of people ruin it for the rest of us?
The answer is: when it isn’t just few people anymore… when it becomes an epidemic. And obesity is being described as having reached “epidemic” proportions in many countries around the world, including Australia and the U.S.
The problem with addictive substances (not flowers or puppies, mind you, but things we take into our bodies) is that by definition they don’t play fair. You can’t make an informed decision about whether or not to have a drink, or smoke a cigarette, or shoot heroin if you’re addicted to it. Consequently, alcohol is regulated. Cigarettes are taxed. Heroin is illegal. None of these things started out that way- but over time our society has learned from experience that intervention is needed to moderate the use of these substances based- in part- on their degree of addictiveness.
Of course, you can probably find people who will argue with that- people who will say we should just let people do what they want, regardless. Smoke crack at the church picnic? Hey- it’s your life! But for the most part we can all agree some regulation of addictive substances is a good idea. As in: it’s your life, but we’ll try to- you know- help. Nowhere is this more true than when it comes to our children.
Kids get extra protections. We try to shield them from decisions about things like cigarettes and alcohol and drugs till they are older, presumably because they are in an analogous situation to the addict: they don’t have the ability to make an informed decision. So we give tobacco and alcohol a minimum age to buy, or make the penalties for selling illegal drugs within a school zone harsher.
But when it comes to sugar- for which it’s been proven that children have a greater propensity to be addicted than grown-ups- we don’t shield them at all, do we? In fact, quite the opposite: kids are our sugar dumping grounds. We subsidize the corn farmers, resulting in super-cheap high fructose corn syrup, which ends up in everything. We ply kids with juice and chocolate milk and fortified cereals in the name of “health.” We target them with sophisticated advertising, making sugar synonymous with cartoon characters, “being a kid” and fun. Name me a single place a kid goes where they don’t have sugar thrust at them: go on. I dare you. One.
We justify everything of course. We say there’s no proof sugar is causing the epidemic of obesity. We blame parents for not saying “no” enough, for not turning off the TV, and for buying the very products we, as a society, all tout as “normal.” We say- and I love this one- that if we didn’t put sugar in things, kids wouldn’t eat.
In fact, what the studies are telling us is the opposite: that kids would eat the right amount if you leave the sugar out. In the aforementioned New York Times article, the lead author of the study Dr. Eric Stice points out that “what is really clear not only from this study but from the broader literature over all is that the more sugar you eat, the more you want to consume it.”
Obesity expert Dr. Nicole Avena adds: people “can have all the willpower in the world. But if the brain reward system is being activated in a way that causes them to have a battle against their willpower, then it can be very difficult for them to control their intake.” Translation? Sugar is addictive. Maybe not as addictive as crack cocaine- but I’m still waiting on the mouse study to prove that one.
Here’s another thought: remember that adorable puppy Platt conjured in your minds eye? Okay, now pour a Coke in its water bowl.
If you find that thought disturbing, remember how often we offer our kids a soda. With their slice of birthday cake.
As a society, we’re disingenuous. We love to natter on about health this and health that, but the proof is in the Jell-O Pudding: look how unhinged people got when they thought Twinkies would never be made again. (Did you know this Christmas Hammacher Schlemmer is selling a Twinkie-making machine? I’m so glad our society has priorities.) It reminds me of Paula Deen’s explanation that she didn’t intend people to eat the decadent food she promoted all the time– just as treats! Right. She just forgot to mention that salient fact until after she revealed her diabetes diagnosis. And she became a spokesperson for Novo Nordisk. Whoops.
Likewise, what I found most disconcerting about Platt, and her book Don’t Quit Sugar!, was the fact that her title doesn’t really match her actual message. When you read further in the book review, you see that- despite the pictures of glazed doughnuts that the editors inevitably choose to illustrate the review- Platt isn’t promoting “sugar” as in Frosted Flakes; she’s promoting “sugar” as in apples.
So whereas the title sets the book up as a direct rebuke to I Quit Sugar!, in the end Platt’s message doesn’t appear to be really all that different at all. Sarah Wilson, the author of I Quit Sugar, agrees: “I haven’t read the book yet, but from what I understand the messaging doesn’t actually conflict with mine. I support eating whole fruit, plenty of glucose and not getting draconian with your eating.”
It strikes me as a tad cynical. But certainly it’s no more more cynical than the rest of our food industry. It’s no more cynical than putting soda machines in our high schools and then being shocked that our kids have skyrocketing rates of things that used to be rare, things that used to be adult diseases: obesity, diabetes type 2, heart disease, hypertension, non-alcoholic fatty liver disease.
It’s enough to make me mad: but I don’t want to be mad at Christmas. Instead, let me say this: at this time of year, when sugar is even more rampant in our culture than usual- which is saying something- choose your sugar treats with care. Have the ones you really care about but let go of the rest. Sure it’s hard, really hard… this stuff is addictive, after all- but give it a whirl. And if you find yourself having the urge to grab a pick-me-up soda or a handful of crappy cookies from a cellophane bag, do yourself a favor: go pet a puppy.