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Behavioral Implications of the Latest Fake Sugar Research
This is ritual. This is the beginning of indoctrination...
How can you have any pudding if you don’t eat yer meat?
- Roger Waters
Imagine you are turning one and the people you know in the world gather around you, dim the lights, present you with a colorful cake and candle, joyously sing to you, and then you blow out the candle and everyone cheers.
Then they give you a big piece of that cake and you are already incredibly excited and so you dig your fingers in, gorge relentlessly, and the sugar rushes right to your skull where the pleasure is incomprehensible.
This is ritual and just the beginning of indoctrination…
You get ice cream as a reward for finishing your peas and when you are big enough you get to go out with your older sibling or the neighbors’ children dressed like a superhero, pumpkin basket in hand, and you collect enough candy to stun a young elephant.
Not only does sugar affect the pleasure centers in the brain but it is framed as reward, celebration, and fun.
Behavioral Antecedents of Sugar Addiction
From a very young age, we internalize customs and rules derived from a complex interrelationship of factors including early experiences, the behaviors of those we look up to, what we are taught, and the beliefs, practices, and conventional wisdom of the Standard American Culture.
This is all sewn into the fabric of our environment and the above provides snapshots and context for roots of an addiction as powerful as alcohol, nicotine, or opioids.
Maybe more, because it all begins earlier, is perfectly legal, and is fully encouraged by those we trust most and society at large.
The indoctrination is real and these are the behavioral* antecedents of sugar addiction.
We learn to covet sweets and we perceive them as rewards and treats.
And these beliefs are seeded and reseeded with every generation.
It is no wonder Americans consume about ¼ pound of sugar per day.
The Recent Fake Sugar Research
Which brings us up to the present and the research published in Nature Medicine last week linking fake sugar erythritol and heart attacks among an at-risk sample of 4,000 adults.
The researchers also fed erythritol to mice and found that the substance increased the likelihood of blood clot formation, and they also found the fake sugar lingered in the blood.
Since then, the nutrition/health community has been opining with gusto, weighing various components of the study within the context of previous research, and debating implications.
Nutrition research is complicated, messy, and imperfect and experts form very different opinions, so I view new data especially as tentative and subject to change.
But this post is not about the validity or implications of the latest data. The data provides no clear answers as the disagreement among experts attests.
What’s in a Name?
A quick aside.
I’m not calling any of this stuff Zero Calorie Sugar Substitute ever again. No more euphemisms.
It’s Fake Sugar.
Just like fake meat is not plant-based meat substitute.
Erythritol, Sucralose, Monk Fruit, Whatever - it’s all fake sugar.
Fake Sugar and the Low Carb Community
I’ve always scratched my head at the whole fake meat phenomenon spearheaded by companies like Beyond Meat.
If you are a vegetarian, why would you want something that simulates the meat experience?
Why would you want a fake burger, especially one filled with a Frankenstein list of fake ingredients?
Maybe a veggie burger but why fake meat if meat is something you want to avoid?
Anyway, we (the low carb community) are doing the same thing with fake sweets.
We don’t want the sugar but we are simulating sugar. We don’t want cookies and cakes but we are simulating cookies and cakes.
If we are resolved to avoid drowning ourselves in sugar then why do we consume fake sugar?
Instead, maybe we should be nipping the sweet craving that we’ve been indoctrinated with since our first birthdays.
This goes double for those of us who are parents, because our children learn from our actions more than anything else.
And this goes triple for those of us who have audiences and clients who rely on us.
Done with the Fake Sugar
I am responsible for my own health.
Nobody else determines what I put into the only body I ever get, how I move it, when I sleep, who I spend time with etc etc.
I am also responsible for the wellbeing of my family, especially my kids.
They see how I behave, my habits, the things I do, how I treat others, and how I treat this only body.
I am a role model to them and there is no more powerful force in the world.
I have an audience who reads this newsletter and I have clients who rely on me. I am a role model to them too.
I’m giving it all up. (I’ve quit worse, lol.)
I don’t care if it is definitely proven that one of these fake sugars is fine for me to consume or better than the others. That’s not the point.
I am done with that 2 Liter bottle of Fresca when I shop at Uncle Giusseppe’s and I will have to find a new whey protein that doesn't have sucralose. (If you have a good rec, hit me up in the comments or shoot me an email.)
There’s a caveat here and it’s an important one.
Fake sugars can serve an important transitional role for people who are just beginning to adopt a low carb diet, especially for those who must act sooner than later for acute health related reasons.
Making the transition can be difficult. People who have been struggling with their food intake for years can have long standing issues with multiple factors.
Food addiction is hard.
Sometimes, it is necessary to adopt a By Any Means Necessary approach as a transitional tool especially early on. In these cases, fake sugars and products made from fake sugars might help to make early stages more doable and lower attrition.
*I use the term “behavioral” as an accepted shorthand but what we really mean when we say this is “cognitive, behavioral, emotional, neural, environmental.”
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