Fancy some cocaine with your tea?

So we’ve just attended an event called “EthicsXchange“, billed as ‘a platform for some of South Africa’s leading opinion makers to challenge our thinking and behaviour when it comes to ethical decision making.’ It was an interesting morning, and some very good speakers (and of course some not so good). Some I’ve also heard before, notably Leonie Joubert, and Tim Noakes.

But I was disappointed by Joubert’s talk for two reasons: first, it was basically the same as her TedX talk, which while a nicely packaged talk (as TED’y type talks are meant to be), seriously oversimplifies the issues around the interactions between our bodies and the environments we live in. It’s simply not true, as she argues, that cities make us fat and sick. It is true that urban environments conduce to making us make poor choices when it comes to what to eat and how much to move (or not). But that’s of course a key problem with TED-y type talks, because delivering big ideas in under 20 minutes leaves no space for nuance or complexity.

She also told the audience that sugar is toxic and addictive, just like cocaine. Well, we’ve been down this road before. And that is also simply not true. The same bits in the brain light up when you eat as when you take cocaine? Yes, that’s because the same bits in the brain light up when we do something pleasurable, and guess what – eating is nice. Most people enjoy it. Nobody seeks out horrible food.

I don’t want to minimise that many people have many problems with food, and that sugar can’t be detrimental to some people. But it’s really annoying to see people who are regarded as “thought-leaders” and opinion-makers simplify things to the levels where everyone just passes around bits of pseudoscience at the dinner table.

“Have you heard, dear? Sugar is toxic and addictive!”

“Really? What’s for pudding, then? (Because surely not our sugar – just the stuff poor people eat, right)?”

And there’s the second thing which disappointed: Joubert routinely tells us that “we” are fat and sick. A room full of well-dressed people who paid R300 to listen to people talk about ethics are not “we”. Who are they then? And who is responsible? There was a real missed opportunity to have an interesting conversation about ethical obligations from different parties involved.

Anyway, just a little rant. I thought it was an excellent touch that they put out popcorn for the second part of the show, which concluded with Tim Noakes talking about something he called “groupthink” (which I think is just what everyone apart from him thinks).


2 Replies to “Fancy some cocaine with your tea?”

  1. Hi Signe.

    Sorry you were a bit disappointed. Alas, a 12 minute slot gives very little time to flesh out the nuances of a topic as complex as this.

    But to substantiate a few points: The Lancet’s special report on obesity from 2011 (also the House of Lords report on UK obesity rates and the obesogenic nature of modern life, particularly in the city) talks quite explicitly about the factors that I listed which underlie why the city does, in fact, make us fat and sick.

    Unfortunately someone Tweeted, incorrectly, that I said “sugar is as addictive as cocaine” – not at all, it just triggers the same pleasure centre in the brain. And yes, it is addictive (try quitting it completely!) and yes, the inflammatory response of too much exposure to sugar (and refined carbs) appear to be linked to Alzheimers and heart disease. Health policy in many places is beginning to reflect concerns about sugar, and the need to protect youngsters from it, since their brains are still driven by the limbic system, ie highly impulse driven, and prone to learn addictive behaviour. So ja, I’d say maybe we should take it a bit more seriously.

    As for the ‘we’ in ‘we are fat’: I was referring to SA in general. Stats show that 55% of all South Africans over the age of 15 are overweight or obese. The lifestyle related diseases associated with being overweight are becoming a greater burden to the health care system than communicable diseases like HIV and TB which is why our health minister is taking such a firm stance on preventative medicine.

    Yup, it was the same as the TEDx talk – having been asked specifically to speak on that topic.

    Kind regards,
    Leonie Joubert

  2. Hi Leonie,

    Thanks for taking the time to respond. I am well aware of the literature on obesity, having researched and written about it a fair deal myself for the last decade or so. I therefore understand (and also agree with, to some extent) the arguments about “obesogenic” environments, but also know that there is far from consensus that environmental factors are *the*, or *key* determinants driving the obesity crisis.

    I’ve just now on Twitter been called ‘cynical’ on this blog post – I hope you’ll appreciate it for what it is, which was a quick rant at a much more complex topic. Much like, I suppose, the problems with TedX’ing complex topics like obesity. And I of course cannot fault you for talking on the topic that you were asked to address – my disappointment was less with the repetition than with the missed opportunity, and with the lack of explicit connection with ethical behaviours and responsibilities, which is what I came hoping to hear about.

    That said, I hope you take this in the spirit in which it was generated, and is intended, which is constructive dialogue.

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