Arguing is an Art. Learn It.
Updated: Jul 5, 2019
As the ones who 'really know' about nutrition, our textbook authors don't often stoop to presenting actual arguments in support of their case. They don't feel the need. As a result, they are somewhat out of practice, and it shows.
I am a trained philosopher, philosophy is all about arguments. In fact, that's what philosophers do, argue, debate, discuss. In ancient Greek times, rhetoric, the art of persuasion, of making good arguments, was a subject every educated man studied. They also went to the gym and learnt how to fight. You should too.
Lets get into an argument with our mainstream nutritionists, and lets make it about sugar. Is sugar addictive ?
Earlier, I have argued that 'sugar is not a food, its a drug'. First, lets be clear on what kind of a claim this is, it is not a statement of fact, it is an argument. I am arguing that it is helpful, in our context today, to consider sugar as a drug not a food. From a nutrition perspective, this means - don't eat sugar, avoid it. This includes all sugars, carbohydrates, leave them alone, they are bad for you.
They are also addictive. By this I mean you can't trust your body when it comes to sugar. You can get intense cravings, but unlike a craving for salt, or a strong thirst, these do not reflect a nutritional deficiency. If you crave salt, eat some, if you are thirsty, drink some water, but with sugar, no, leave it alone.
For me, that's enough to draw the conclusion that sugar is BAD. This also is not an empirical claim, its an ethical one. I believe we should trust our bodies, we should follow their guide, live in a way that is consistent and harmonious with our physical needs, that develops our health and strength. This is part of my conception of 'the good life'.
But I can't live that way if I eat sugar, and consider it a food. It will trip me up, I will get fat and sick, I will eat even though I don't really want to, I will take on energy even though I don't need it.
Not everyone is persuaded by this argument, there are counter-positions. In fact, one feature of the mainstream position is that our bodies are not to be trusted, and we should override them. Hydration is one example of this (drink before you get thirsty), eating greens and wholegrains another (these are disgusting, lets be honest), the case for fibre yet another (eat something indigestible, hmm, that sounds like a good idea). This is a theme I will return to, it is also developed by Tim Noakes in his 'Waterlogged' book where he calls it the 'catastrophist theory'.
There is some self-interest at work in the mainstream view, if we can't trust our bodies, then who should be we trust ? The experts of course, the ones who 'really know'. Tom Naughton has a devastating response to this arrogance in his 'Diet, Health, and the Wisdom of Crowds', drawing on James Surowiecki's work.
Aside from the ethics, is there any supporting evidence for the claim that sugar is addictive, that it acts like a drug ? Addiction is a complex topic, and can't be reduced to the availability or consumption of 'addictive substances'. I recommend Gabor Mate's work in this area as a way into the field https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=T5sOh4gKPIg. Nevertheless, there most certainly is a serious case to answer when it comes to sugar.
Here is a thoughtful piece by two dietitians no less on the issue of food addiction. Robert Lustig is the researcher who has investigated deepest into the whole question of sugar, with a string of books on the subject. He argues for regulation as a way to counter sugar's addictive effects.
So yes, there are serious arguments in support of the idea that it is helpful to consider sugar as a drug, not a food. How then do our 'Understanding Nutrition' authors take up the debate ? Let's have a look.
On page 132 they write, 'Do sugars cause cravings and addictions ? Foods in general, and carbohydrates and sugars more specifically, are not physically addictive in the way that drugs are'.
Glad we cleared that up then.
This of course is pure assertion, no argument is supplied. But the ones who 'really know' have spoken, so that settles it. They continue,
'Yet some people describe themselves as having 'carbohydrate cravings' or a 'sugar addiction''. Silly people, we'll set them straight. 'One frequently noted theory is that people seek carbohydrates to increase their levels of the brain neurotransmitter serotonin, which elevates mood'.
The science on this is not conclusive, I'm not sure if that's how it works, but there is research underway to try and find out. Here is a recent paper in the British Journal of Sports Medicine reviewing the evidence. Nicolantonio and O'Keefe are well known and highly regarded researchers in the field. In the face of this, however, our textbook authors present their first argument, it goes like this,
'Interestingly, when those with self-described carbohydrate cravings indulge, they tend to eat more of everything, the percentage of energy from carbohydrates remains unchanged'.
The test of an argument is whether it is persuasive. Are you persuaded ? So if an alcoholic also smokes cigarettes when he is drinking, or binges on chocolate the next day when he's hungover, that somehow shows alcohol was never the source of his bingeing, that he doesn't have a problem with alcohol ? Interesting idea.
If carbohydrates are not the source of the cravings people experience ('self-describe', you notice the element of doubt introduced there, subtle), then our authors need to explain where they do come from, for their position to be plausible. This is what they come up with,
'One reasonable explanation for the carbohydrate cravings that some people experience involves the self-imposed labelling of a food as both 'good' and 'bad' - that is, one that is desirable but should be eaten with restraint. Restricting intake heightens the desire further (a craving). The 'addiction' is used to explain why resisting the food is so difficult, and sometimes, even impossible. But the addiction is not physiological or pharmacological'.
Reasonable explanation ?!
So the reason why you crave chocolate is because its nice and you're not eating it. If you just ate some then you wouldn't crave it.
I don't think our authors have quite got the hang of this arguing thing. That's because they don't do it very often, they don't have to, they are the ones who 'really know'.
Carbohydrates can't be addictive because our authors eat them all the time and they don't binge on chocolate. Case closed. The problem is not sugar, its the people who can't control themselves, 'those' people, not like us, we eat our greens like the good people we are, fill up on fibre, and never miss our spin class.
Readers - don't be like these people. Be an Ancient Greek, learn to argue, learn to fight, and don't eat sugar.