Sugar is so convenient, isn’t it? If you believe the people behind the (predictably challenging-to-watch) film Fed Up, sugar has been a convenient way to hoodwink America into a full-scale obesity epidemic. But even more than that, it turns out to offer a really convenient way to explain away any complexities related to health and eating. Or just as a target for a (simple syrupy) finger of blame.
I’ll be brief. There is a now-familiar narrative which blames the current obesity crisis on the introduction of dietary guidelines in the 1980s, and specifically with the “liphobia” (fear of fat) introduced by Ancel Keys in the 1970s. The story goes thus: government is led to believe that fat is the root of all fire and brimstone disease, so they issue guidelines telling everyone to eat low- or no-fat foods. Everyone complies, and unknowingly stuffs themselves with sugar, with which all foods are secretly laced, because the government also subsidises the sugar industry.
Perhaps it was a little unkind, given that this writer was sharing rather intimate details about her struggles with self-control around sugar and carbs, like the fact that at the height of her “using” (let’s use the right language now), she was scoffing not just any old ice cream, but some of the ‘Bon-Appetit top-10-rated best-in-the-nation ice cream‘, and that in the second round of “lapsing”, it was those ‘â€˜50s-style red and white mini-popcorn bags’ being fed from the ‘Satanic butter machine’, aka a popcorn maker at her place of work that got her. After days of resisting, she finally ‘broke down’ and
I grabbed one of those red and white paper bags and the commercial-grade scooper and joined the crowd. I ate one bag and stopped.
Of course the “story” here is that stopping (for her) is so unusual, because her “addicted” brain wanted to keep eating bag after bag after bag.
So we’ve just attended an event called “EthicsXchange“, billed as ‘a platform for some of South Africaâ€™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 speakersÂ (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.
A friend tweeted that it was a ‘brilliant indictment of the food industry’, which I gather it was meant to be, and which I agree it was to some extent. There are some pretty chilling descriptions of industry strategies to sell more calories, including some pretty off-putting language to describe the bodies that those calories are designed for:
In Cokeâ€™s headquarters in Atlanta, the biggest consumers were referred to as â€œheavy users.â€ â€œThe other model we use was called â€˜drinks and drinkers,â€™ â€ Dunn said. â€œHow many drinkers do I have? And how many drinks do they drink? If you lost one of those heavy users, if somebody just decided to stop drinking Coke, how many drinkers would you have to get, at low velocity, to make up for that heavy user? The answer is a lot. Itâ€™s more efficient to get my existing users to drink more.â€
One of Dunnâ€™s lieutenants, Todd Putman, who worked at Coca-Cola from 1997 to 2001, said the goal became much larger than merely beating the rival brands; Coca-Cola strove to outsell every other thing people drank, including milk and water. The marketing divisionâ€™s efforts boiled down to one question, Putman said: â€œHow can we drive more ounces into more bodies more often?â€
So while I remain sceptical of the “addictive” nature of “junk food” – or rather, I am concerned with how easy the criteria for “addictions” seem to be to fulfil these days – I can appreciate that it’s in the interests of people selling food that we don’t really need to strive to get us hooked on them. And the evident success of that venture has obviously contributed to the rising levels of obesity and poor health.
So I finally got round to watching the first episode ofÂ The Men Who Made Us Fat,Â the three- part BBC documentary currently screening on BBC 2, presented by Jacques Peretti. As its name suggests, it tells the story of how obese people became so through no fault of their own. In an only slightly novel twist on this now-tired ground, we are encouraged to not just blame high fructose corn syrup, but the men who made HFCS happen (legislators, scientists, farmers), and who helped to convince people to consume so much of the stuff (Mad Men).
If you haven’t read or seen much to do with obesity (fat chance!), you’d be in for an engaging tale that would fairly likely convince you that high fructose corn syrup is the problem, and that we are powerless against its evil charms because it is addictive and toxic – not to mention that it’s in, like, everything. At least in the US, that is. HFCS has made its way across the pond in some products, but the Brits’ main problem is with eating too much normal sugar, which like its sibling HFCS, is addictive and toxic. Oh, and they also eat too many fish and chips and pies and stuff. And they probably also drink too much beer. This is the second part that we’re not responsible for: we live in obesogenic environments which conduce us to getting fat because there is too much cheap, calorific food around, and our caveman brains just can’t say no.