Crack for Lunch: Tricking Our Brain with the American Diet

We all know Americans have a weight problem. For years we have blamed fat people for their inability to “exercise more and eat less.”  We need to rethink that attitude. Research is now showing that much of the food in the typical American diet does not play fair with our body’s natural mechanisms for signaling satiety. The more we eat, the hungrier we feel.

Scientists are seeing evidence that our processed food, especially the food that is deliciously high in sugar and fat, affects the pleasure centers of our brain in much the same way cocaine does. The food gives us a nice hit of happy endorphins that override our appetite-regulating hormones. Complicating matters is the caloric density of our convenience foods. Normally, as we eat our stomach recognizes both the physical sensation of becoming filled and the more chemical knowledge that calories have refueled us. Our modern, processed food lets us meet and exceed our caloric needs long before our stomachs are physically filled. For example, compare the physical space needed for 500 calories of fresh vegetables vs 500 calories of french fries. Thus craveable processed food pack an obesity encouraging double punch — decreasing our satiety signals while giving our pleasure centers a delightful ping.

Packaged foods, convenience foods, fast food, and school lunches are the top culprits. They leave us paradoxically both hungry and full. They contribute to sluggish afternoons. They decrease productivity at work and learning in our schools.

A quick look at the school lunch menu for my kids’ first week of school shows a highly processed diet of  pizza, popcorn (breaded & deep-fried) chicken, fried french toast sticks with fried tater tots, and pasta. Yes, there are vegetables served as well but they are frequently unappetizing and uneaten. Now I know school lunches are horribly underfunded and they feel they need to fix what kids will eat. However, the inexpensive foods served in school lunches reflect our agricultural policies and the heavy lobbying of the meat and dairy industries, not the nutritional needs of our students. The Department of Agriculture sets our official nutritional policies, not an independent, health and science based entity. Given the emerging science about processed food, this needs to change.

Compelling evidence shows higher levels of meat consumption associated with increased cancer risk and links excess iron to Alzheimer’s disease. According to the documentary Forks over Knives, in the early part of the 20th century, Americans ate 120 pounds of meat (beef, pork and chicken combined), 40 pounds of processed sugar, and 295 pounds of dairy each year. All these numbers have more than doubled and along with them cancers, heart disease, and obesity.

We have known for years that we should eat more vegetable and we as a nation have struggled to do so. Now that we are starting to understand some of the body chemistry involved, perhaps it is no wonder that despite all the obvious health benefits, we can’t eat just one.

Sugar is Toxic, Get it Out of Schools

The most comprehensive study of sugar toxicity, specifically as it relates to causing diabetes, was published on February 27th. Mark Bittman, writing for the NY Times, does a wonderful job summarizing the study and explaining why it is such a game changer in the debate about sugar. The bottom line is that we now have conclusive proof that sugar causes diabetes as surely as cigarettes cause lung cancer.

As Mr. Bittman explains, our dramatic upswing in chronic disease is not caused by obesity alone. It is caused by our over-the-top consumption of sugar. Our body handles sugar differently than other calories. While each 150 kilocalories/person/day of total calories relates to an insignificant 0.1% rise in diabetes, each 150 kilocalories/person/day of sugar is associated with a 1.1% increase in diabetes. For every 12 ounces of sugared soda or fruit drink or juice in a country’s food system, the rate of diabetes in that country increases by 1%. This is true whether the sugar is in the form of high-fructose corn syrup or cane sugar.

It is time for us to finally act on the use of sugar in schools. In many elementary schools it is common, and expected, for parents to provide sugary treats to the entire class to celebrate their child’s birthday. As allergies have become more prevalent, pre-packaged and nut free treats have been mandated. Frequently this also means sugar drenched “fun food”. This practice of celebrating birthdays with food at school needs to stop. It is obvious to anyone who has observed a classroom, short-term these high-sugar birthday breaks can cause behavior problems in some kids. Now we know they may also be causing long-term damage to young bodies by priming them for insulin resistance.

More disturbing to me than the birthday party treats is the growing tendency for teachers to motivate and reward students with candy. From high-stakes testing drills to speech therapy to merely walking quietly down the hall, teachers bribe students to comply with candy. Frequently this happens without even the parents being aware. Just yesterday, I happened on my child at school with his speech therapy teacher and a bowel of candy. If he said the words correctly he got a piece — just like treat training a puppy. My child has been in speech therapy all year and never once have I been consulted or informed that candy was one of the standard motivators. We have known for a long time that sugar can, at least psychologically, be craved. Now we know it is also toxic. Given all this, schools need to implement policies against sugar bribes. We would be appalled if teachers to let compliant students have a drag on a cigarette for every correctly spelled word on a test. We need the same attitude toward sugar rewards.

My kids have been in three different elementary schools in two different districts over the last 6 years. Every single one of them, has used sugar in the classroom. None of them informed the parents, either before or after the fact that sugar was one of the behavior modification tools used in the classroom. It was always information I had to drag out of my children, usually after they had a particularly bad day. This needs to stop. Teachers and schools should start treating sugar as a toxin, like they treat peanuts and stop allowing it and using it as a classroom shortcut.