The Case Against Sugar — a True Psychodynamic Meta-Review

Huangshan BW

Sunrise on top of Yellow Mountain (Huangshan), Anhui Province, 2013

Those following this blog extensively know that I’ve been on a weight-loss lifestyle change that has yielded tons of insight not just in ordinary health — I’ve dropped about 57 lbs. as of this writing, and am back to the weight I was in my mid 30s.  It’s also yielded a ton of insight on why we, as a culture, believe much of what we believe, and how our diets portend for us a future that is either deeply grounded in reality, or lost to us in sickness and delusion.

When I started the journey, back at the end of May, I was at the end of a two week bicycling frenzy that had logged about 300 miles.  You might think that this would cause me to lose weight.  The reality was that I kept the scales pegged at 292 lbs. and rising.  I’ve always been a cyclist — I used to call myself a ‘fit, fat guy’ — so the time on the bike was both a joy and a sign of resignation.  If I couldn’t lose weight, the least I could do is ride my bike and be super-fit.  I now know that 99% of us can’t be both, and that obesity is almost always caused by other problems.  It’s not a character flaw.  Obesity is a symptom of metabolic instability and disease.

But that was at the beginning of the journey.  Fellow chronic co-conspirator Ryan Martens, gearing up to run a marathon (his story, and the social network that facilitated it is a blog post soon to be released) and who carries far less excess poundage than Yours Truly, recommended a in-part diet book by Tim Ferriss, The Four Hour Body.  Tim is a super-interesting author in that he believes that if an expert is going to get reviewed for the advice doled out, Tim himself is going to apply the advice given and see how things turn out.  The Four Hour Body is his aggregation of narratives, as well as recommendations, on how to lose, as well as gain weight and muscle strength.

His weight loss diet, explained simply, is ‘meat, beans, greens and nothing else – especially NO white food (like potatoes, rice and sugar.)’  I’ve written about this with the following posts.

Weight Loss — it’s in the V-Memes
Weight Loss — It’s in the v-Memes (II)
Weight Loss by the V-Memes — (III) What’s the v-Meme stack look like?
Weight Loss by the V-Memes (IV) or Channeling your Inner Australopithecine

I can still remember the beginnings of all this, staring at the Costco Italian sausage and can of refried beans I had microwaved for lunch, and thinking “here goes nothing!”  What happened in the subsequent days was transformative.  I lost 8-9 lbs. in two weeks.  And I had never lost weight before, consistently.  And yes — I’ve exercised for all my adult life.

Ryan went on to drop 20 lbs. (or something!) and successfully completed his marathon.  At this point in the timeline (December 3) I’m down close to 60 lbs., and likely will have a very hard time losing past my current fluctuating 235 lbs.  But I’m super-healthy, never tired, and possessing endless energy.  Definitely not what I was, body-composition-wise, when I started all this.

It was back, though, at 282 lbs., at the very beginning, that my brain kicked in and said “Why?”  Why am I losing weight, when I had suffered under the illusion that exercise and moderately healthy eating was the best I could manage?  Why was I strung out on an increasing list of typical late middle-aged prescriptions (blood pressure medicine, sleep apnea machine, occasional gastro-esophageal reflux, creeping pre-diabetes, swollen joints and a need for Ibuprofen, and recommended-but-never-taken statins)?  The doctors were more than happy to tell me I was just getting old, and that I better adapt to my failing health, because I was doing most everything I could.  Pain, obesity and decrepitude were all part of the mortal contract.  And they would make it better, or rather, drag it out, if I would just take one more pill.  Man-boobs, regardless of my exercise habit, were my destiny.  98% of people who lose weight put it all back on in a year.  “Science” has shown that.  I would most likely fail as well.  If only I would stop drinking alcohol, things would change.  Maybe.

Of course, I know now that all of that is total bullshit.  What disorder I had, diagnosed by friends over the Internet, and what I learned it was called, by putting myself out on Facebook and having my entire community work on my problem (and theirs as well) is called metabolic syndrome.  Coupled into metabolic syndrome is a prime characteristic known as insulin resistance.  I’m not alone. Over 100 million of my fellow Americans have similar problems.  Another third are overweight, and on their way.  We are literally witnessing a Great Dying due to ‘something.’

What that ‘something’ is is a fascinating story in itself — and not surprisingly, it has to do with what we believe that is not true — a reliability/validity conflict of massive proportion.  It’s layered deep with human intrigue, loaded with control, manipulation and psychopathy, and unpacks the v-Meme stack in how we know things and interpret them as a culture AND an individual.  And it also wraps in the Principle of Reinforcement, addiction, and timescales outside the empathetic development of most of the culture.

But back to the point of me staring at my Italian sausage and refried beans.  Or rather, 10 days after, when I had lost ten lbs.  I HAD to figure out why, after so many years, miles on the bike, and hours in the gym (which were not wasted – but did not affect my weight) I lost 10 lbs. in two weeks, but could never dream of such an outcome only two weeks earlier.  What was wrong with my thinking?  What didn’t I know?  And more importantly, what didn’t I know that I didn’t know?

I started doing research, commencing with the podcasts recommended by Ryan, and reading The Four Hour Body.  I followed Tim Ferriss to Dom D’agostino, to Rhonda Patrick.  Friends chimed in who had suffered similarly.  I was given the terms metabolic syndrome and insulin resistance by a formerly morbidly obese friend who is now a bodybuilder.  That led to the usual superficial descriptions, but layered underneath by scientific citations, which I am lucky enough to have the education to be able to read.  Lots of Wikipedia and familiarization with various terms in biochemistry, as well as resurrection of knowledge learned in high school followed.  I emerged into the world of ketogenic dieting with lots of connections between fields, some learned, some made by myself.  Along with my Facebook page came re-emergence of old friendships, people who were following my weight loss journey, and decided, oddly inspired by my example, to begin their own.  I figure in aggregate, we’ve lost about 400 lbs. together.

And as my own brain works, I used it.  I’m constantly looking for deeper causal mechanisms and connections.  It’s what I do.  At the end of all of this, I finally ended up with three books, which had already documented professionally much of what I had independently done, and learned.  Here’s the gift.  These three books, written by four people, really had already traversed the ground I had followed on my own — besides doing it in a more thorough, professional way.  The good news is that you don’t have to buy into my own ‘Deep Paleo’ theories (read my blog posts for more detail.)  You can read better, more scaffolded versions in these three books, written by experts.  They are:

After reading (I actually digested them with a mix of reading and Audible.com) these three books, you can come to the same independent conclusions I came to, along with a ton of other stuff.  I’ve made this point before — the difference between an amateur’s understanding (I’m definitely an amateur when it comes to weight loss) and a professionals’ is v-Meme scaffolding and completeness of information content.  But I came to exactly the same conclusions — you can be a skilled learner as an amateur.  If you were to believe me alone, you’d have to be going on faith in my limited authority.  With these three books, exhaustively researched (Nina’s project took nine years, and Gary has been writing on these things for the last 15 at least, with a published Nature article) you don’t have to take my word for it.  And if you need to hear this from experienced doctors and nutrition researchers, Volek and Phinney are the ticket.  Pick your authority.

But if you want the most complete, interesting story, and only want to listen to one, I’d have to recommend The Case Against Sugar.  Teicholz’s book is almost as impressive, and worth it if you need convincing the need for adding animal fat to your diet.  Volek and Phinney’s is a bit drier.  Both Taubes’ and Teicholz’s books are available on Audible.com.

What is fascinating about Taubes’ book, and Teicholz’s as well, is that both are journalistic reviews of scientific literature, where both journalists undertook a journey to read and digest the current scientific literature, as well as do deep tracing of original sources to understand the true roots of current perspective.  For the rest of this post, I’m going to focus on The Case Against Sugar.  But much of the praise, as well as the thinking, can also be attributed to Teicholz’s book.

In The Case Against Sugar, Gary Taubes executes what we in science call a meta-review.  What is a meta-review?  It’s where someone pulls all the relevant past research on a particular area, and exhaustively looks for commonalities and contradictions in the literature to show how various hypotheses are, or alternately not, supported.  A traditional scientific meta-review constrains itself only to the scientific literature.  It is typically written by an authority in the field, and through virtue of precedent, constrains itself solely to facts and figures from the reviewed material.  Though opinion is implicit, it is suppressed.  Usually review papers are written by invitation only, from people dominant in the field.  And as Taubes reveals in his book, such an approach would never result in a damning indictment such as his.  Why?  Because so many of the researchers in the nutrition discipline have been bought by the sugar industry, or brought up to never question the basic hypotheses regarding the ostensible deleterious effect of saturated fat in diet that pervades the thinking and funding in the nutrition community.

The general form of The Case Against Sugar is laid out in the Author’s Note at the very beginning of the book.  Taubes lays down the gauntlet in the first and second paragraphs.

The purpose of this book is to present the case against sugar — both sucrose and high-fructose corn syrup — as the principal cause of the chronic disease that are most likely to kill us, or at least accelerate our demise, in the twenty-first century…. If this were a criminal case, The Case Against Sugar would be the argument for the prosecution.

Taubes then goes forward to exhaustively document the history of sugar, and refined flour as well, its known effects against indigenous people (it rots out their teeth, destroys their health and incapacitates them in short order.)  Anyone needing some deeper insight into Sherman Alexie’s book, You Don’t Have to Say You Love Meand Alexie himself, discussed here on this blog, on what happened to the Spokane Indians when they lost salmon from their diet after the construction of Grand Coulee Dam, can map the same outcomes Taubes discusses for tribes like the Tohono O’odham in the U.S., and the Tokelau in New Zealand, in detail to the Spokane Indian tribe.

Taubes decisively makes the case that sugar is a long-acting addictive, and destructive agent, acting over decades.  He chronicles in-depth the impact: increases in metabolic syndrome, which basically captures all the various internal organ dysfunctions; heart disease; and the obesity epidemic.  He even devotes a whole chapter to three specific illnesses that plague us — gout, cancer, and Alzheimer’s disease, stacking up the evidence and the conclusions.

But what’s truly awesome about Taubes’ work, from a v-Meme perspective, is that while Taubes himself is unaware of a v-Meme classification for knowing, he attempts to explain the differences between levels of causality that exist in the different knowledge structures.  And throughout the book, he really looks at the psychodynamics present in the community that made these decisions.  He digs deep into the “why” and “how” certain conclusions in the nutrition community got created, which then puts him in the bailiwick of my own work.  What is the fundamental OS that generated the specific knowledge that has led us to getting so far off-track with how we eat?  When the average American ingests over 150 lbs. of sugar and year, and didn’t eat nearly so much only 50 years ago, how can we believe there is NO effect?  Or, at a minimum, believe that there is no effect worth investigating? Formally, we might call this a reliability/validity crisis.  But informally, it’s gaslighting of the highest order.

Taubes walks up the v-Meme spiral, from the loss of heuristic causality present in Performance v-Meme German science pre- WWII and its analysis of obesity as a metabolic disorder, to the re-established postwar authority of the far less scientifically evolved and sophisticated, Legalistic v-Meme, and far more Authoritarian American medical community.  He continues with critiques of a lack of clinical experience in testing theories in the American medical community, and then finally moves toward advancing the long-time notion of sugar as a driver for most modern Western diseases.

Along the way, he confronts the authority of psychopathic actors, like Ancel Keys, credited with inventing the military K-ration, and one of the most famous nutrition professors of all time. Funded by the sugar industry, Keys advanced the Diet-Heart Hypothesis, that maintained that replacing saturated animal fats with vegetable polyunsaturated fats would prevent heart disease.  The indirect result of Keys’ aggressive advocacy for invalid science was the removal of saturated fat from processed food, and the massive substitution of sugar in those same foods in an attempt to retain palatability.

Keys drew these conclusions from his famous Seven Countries Study, which would become infamous not for rigorous science, but confirmation bias and convenient omission.  He was also infamous for his chronic, rebarbative attacks against his fellow researchers who were openly skeptical of Keys’ recommendations — in particular,  John Yudkin, another famous nutritional research professor at Queen Elizabeth College in London, who attempted to warn the public about the dangers of sugar as far back as the late 1950s.

Taubes attempts to wrap up the book explaining the value of scaffolded heuristics (my words, not his!) and how the existence of uncertainty is part and parcel of any grand theory.  There are times I think he remains not completely convinced of his own conclusions — which is a good thing.  In the final chapter, he buttresses his insights with long-time knowing about changes in history, which once again reflects some pretty profound metacognition on his part.  As well as the ability to change his mind.  That’s awesome.

Can we place sugar in a larger context inside our current woes?  Based not just on Taubes’ book, but on further reasoning as well, I think we can.  Sugar turns out to be the perfect addictive substance for a feedback loop into our current Authoritarian malaise.  Sugar and insulin resistance create the metabolic conditions for low energy and depression.  The decline in health is slow, so effects on the actors only culminate in old age, after effective work life is complete.  Unlike other addictive substances, like heroin, that incapacitate individuals almost immediately, sugar takes decades.  And its constant ingestion then makes the individual dependent on a host of other industries in order for sustained survival.  Not the least of which is Big Pharma, who makes the drugs to counter the bad effects, and Big Agriculture, that makes the high fructose corn syrup, and sucrose in the first place.

Conclusions emerge from his basic work.  If sugar is the cause of the diabetes/obesity epidemic, its effects are striking earlier and earlier in our young people.  Type II diabetes used to be unheard of in our young people.  Now it is rising across the globe at epidemic rates.  If sugar causes brain inflammation and incumbent depression, it’s no surprise to me that in large populations, we see an escalation of such tragedies as school shootings, which then reinforce trauma mentality and emergence of Survival v-Meme thinking. T, in turn, increases Authoritarianism and destroys empathy and its development in our young people’s schools.  And then that same Authoritarianism creates a lack of desire for understanding causal thinking, or even promotes divergent and unsupported perspectives.  Which THEN become refocused on such things as environmental toxins, which may have effects, but are far less supported or plausible than the 150 lbs./year of sugar we eat.  Sugar turns out not just corrosive to our health.  When we live in denial of its impact, it becomes far more corrosive to our sense of truth.

As wild as it may seem, if there’s one place in the Principle of Reinforcement — that individuals create thought patterns in societies, that then in turn create thought patterns in individuals — that might suggest a profound intervention in our political woes, it is in our diet.  And while diet is indeed complex, and sugar is not the only element that needs fixing (a return to saturated fats is also mandatory,),  eliminating sugar is a great place to start.

There’s more stuff to unpack here that I’ve been thinking about.  Here are a few, peripherally related thoughts to work on connections yourself:  Insulin itself is a fascinating core control chemical in the body, and its ability to separate core energy systems in the body, from external drivers in the environment is likely the reason we evolved dependence on insulin in the first place, since we use sugar for our primary energy cycle, but can’t find it very often existing in nature.  The fact that wheat and Authoritarian hierarchies to grow it co-evolved, and led to conflicts with hunter-gatherer cultures were likely no surprise.   You needed the suppression of independent expression, if not agency, to get everyone to go to war in some orderly fashion — another great expression of the Principle of Reinforcement.  Understanding caste cultures built on vegetarianism, such as India, is an area rich for understanding control of large populations through food.  Advocacy against sugar as a daily ingested substance, at this point in time, will likely net you the same looks that anti-tobacco advocates sixty years ago.  As Dr. Robert Lustig noted in his most recent book, The Hacking of the American Mindsugar as a dopamine-producing agent, fuels addiction and pleasure seeking, and thus reinforces the Authoritarian social structure, whereas animal fats promote serotonin production, and very likely promote empathetic development.  The implications in shifting population densities and social structures are staggering — humans come together over eating animals, but as we shifted up into Authoritarian and Legalistic hierarchies, we evolved a food source that made us passive and self-reinforcing for the new population-dense social structure.  Wow.  Alcohol is on average is pro-empathetic, sugar anti-empathetic.  These are just a few things shooting through my head as I’ve, uh, digested all this material.

Our brains are so dependent on the food we ingest.  I’m looking forward to spring and all the bike rides I’ll have to muse on this.

But when it comes to sugar, for my mind, there isn’t that much complexity.  As I’ve been telling my friends lately — just cut that stuff out.

 

4 thoughts on “The Case Against Sugar — a True Psychodynamic Meta-Review

  1. “If sugar causes brain inflammation and incumbent depression, it’s no surprise to me that in large populations, we see an escalation of such tragedies as school shootings, which then reinforce the trauma mentality and emergence of Survival v-Meme thinking that increase Authoritarianism and also destroy empathy and its development in our young people’s schools.” This would be like arguing that sugar consumption causes Trumpism. Maybe it does, but you need to back this statement up with a lot more proof. It seems at least unnecessary hyperbole to the point you are trying to make about the influence of sugar. It’s also tough to focus on sugar as a causal factor to school shooting tragedies when there are many more obvious nihilistic forces in society driving these things.

    “Alcohol is on average is pro-empathetic, sugar anti-empathetic.” Again, this statement needs supportive proof and quantification. Alcohol can break down barriers and make for good times, but it also fuels appallingly anti empathetic behavior such as sexual and physical assault. Most campus rapes involve alcohol. As a child, my father, an abusive alcoholic, never beat me after eating a candy bar. But he would almost always beat me and/or my siblings after drinking.

    “As Dr. Robert Lustig noted in his most recent book, The Hacking of the American Mind, sugar as a dopamine-producing agent, fuels addiction and pleasure seeking, and thus reinforces the Authoritarian social structure, whereas animal fats promote serotonin production, and very likely promote empathetic development. The implications in shifting population densities and social structures are staggering — humans come together over eating animals, but as we shifted up into Authoritarian and Legalistic hierarchies, we evolved a food source that made us passive and self-reinforcing for the new population-dense social structure.” Humans come together over eating just about anything, not just animals! No one turns down an invite to an ice cream social unless you are lactose intolerant. But this – food as it effects emotions and social structure – is a fascinating theory/statement. I’ve not read Lustig’s book, but the idea deserves it’s own post from the Empathy Guru. A lot of things could be unpacked in such a post, beginning with the evidence of how serotonin promotes empathetic development, while dopamine promotes its opposite. In the end, I’d want to know how much of what we eat promotes authoritarian and legalist hierarchies versus how much influence other factors have in promoting these hierarchies. How big of a deal is this, proportionally speaking?

    Beyond that. I’m in agreement on your observations about sugar and its downstream effects. The problem is, if we as creatures feel an overwhelming need for the dopamine hit that sugar gives us, what does that say about us? Why are we so needy? How can we dig ourselves out of that hole? Is pleasure obtained by eating certain things bad? Ferris offers a solution for those with a constitution that will tolerate a keto diet, and that’s a good thing. For the rest of us, though, it will have to be something else. Im wondering what the other options might be…..

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    1. Pat — all valid points. Yet not so much. 1.) The purpose of the thinking on this blog is to get people thinking about deep, root cause. What is the OS that is actually creating the behaviors we see? In that context, sugar, modifying the depression levels in a cross-cultural, systemic way is a key OS modifier. And here’s the rub. The knowledge structure needed to understand that defies simple ‘design and test’ hypothesis strategies. Same with alcohol. And here’s where things get even more complex. Once someone starts talking about these kinds of things with larger audiences, trauma-based triggering also occurs, which makes singular example debate difficult. (My dad was also an extreme alcoholic, so I can also speak on a meta-level about that point.)

      That said, it would be great to run some of the experiments, limited though they may be in actual veracity, to observe trends. Yet studying empathy is not high on the list of most researchers. Why? My work points to the notion that those in low-empathy social structures (like scientists) suffer a sort of color-blindness/empathy-blindness, and don’t think it’s important. So they don’t study. Equally problematic is that the dominant knowledge structures coming out of the social structures have the property of Intellectual Flatland — empathy ends up as another isolated phenomenon/undiscovered country that gets studied, as opposed to a larger connector of different parts of knowledge.

      And then one has to even evaluate our own viewpoint when considering larger issues. Why, for example, do you write “why are we so needy?” There’s value judgment in that regarding character. Where does that fit into the v-Meme stack? I’ve written a handful of pieces on addiction and how they are fundamentally defects of empathy in the larger connected network that address these points.

      I’m going to leave it there — I wrote the last paragraphs to get people to think about larger causal mechanisms and deeper issues. So… enjoy them on your run today!

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      1. Agreed on much of what you say. I find it odd that empathy and other traits that help us get along better are not of more interest to science and other disciplines. The glue is what makes the whole work. Walls fall down without mortar.

        What I find more difficult to agree with is the blog statement of sugar as the cause of so much social woe. It probably is behind some of it, but how much? 5%? 50%? 95%? This is much tougher to ascertain, but we have to find that out in order to manage risk. Until we as a society are able to get a ballpark idea of quantity in addition to a quality, then it is difficult to persuade anyone that it needs addressed. As an example, if I find out that the latte I enjoy in the morning at the local coffee shop, with all of its pleasant attendant social interactions, contributes 5% to my prediabetes, then I am going to keep having that latte. If I find out that it contributes 50%, well, things will change. The writers/researchers you mentioned have made a good start, but work needs to continue. I applaud and support your and their efforts, and each one of us needs to do our own experiments!

        Regarding trauma based triggering – it does make debate difficult. But when so much of it emerges in a discussion, as with #metoo, then maybe the scope of the discussion needs to be broadened (i.e., it’s not just sugar, or alcohol). I happen to think that teaching empathy and an awareness of where our attitudes and actions are coming out of on the v-Meme stack would help that issue.

        About value judgements: These can be accurate and balanced, or not. Very few people take action on logic alone. if you had not made a value judgement about your condition back in May 2017, you would not have embarked on your current journey. We don’t have to fit it into the v-Meme model to legitimize it, or appreciate the results and knowledge gained. I am glad you decided to talk about it. We are all learning.

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