"Sugar: it's in everything we eat, we love it, and it's absolutely killing us”. So begins a Huffington Post article written a couple of weeks ago.
Sugar has become an increasingly hot topic in recent years. In the last 5 years alone, we’ve begun to notice a shift in the language: toxic, poison, killer. (With gluten, too, but let’s stick with one train of thought at a time.) These words are not being screamed at us in panic-stricken hysteria, but there are many experts who consider these labels appropriate and are starting to emphasise the dangers with more authority.
One of the leading anti-sugar campaigners is Dr. Robert Lustig from the UCSF Division of Pediatric Endocrinology, who rose to fame after his talk Sugar: The Bitter Truth was posted on YouTube. The video, uploaded in 2009, runs for 90 minutes, goes into detail about the biochemistry of how sugar affects our bodies, and will shortly pass 6 million views — virtually unheard of for any academic lecture that’s as long as a feature film.
Lustig has been featured on 60 Minutes (America), in the 2014 documentary Fed Up (2014) produced by Katie Koric, and was a key influence on the work of Gary Taubes (You may know Taubes from his bestseller Why We Get Fat and his landmark New York Times article, Is Sugar Toxic?)
Lustig depicts sugar — fructose specifically (not glucose) — as the cigarettes of the 21st century. For Lustig, his main concern as a doctor is people getting sick and dying early, but for others watching the video, the scary impact that sugar has on fat regulation, its addictive properties, and the way it shuts down the hormone that tells us when we’re full, will be among the major take aways from the lecture.
Lustig is critical of those who seek to reduce obesity to a cut-and-dried issue of people being lazy and lacking will power. The agricultural revolution, modern farming practices, and the corporate powers that be have seriously altered our environment, which is playing havoc with our biochemistry. Our capacity to regulate our emotions — to apply our emotional intelligence — is under siege in subtle and pernicious ways, far more than we may be aware.
To illustrate the concept of the “toxic environment,” and the role of EQ, consider the diagram below.
The first reaction the human body has to any environmental stimulus is emotional. Emotions come first; thought (cognition) follows after. Put another way, emotion travels by airplane; logic takes the bus.
Our bodies have evolved with the ability to effectively bypass our thoughts and immediately activate behaviour. This adaptation has been very necessary for all species’ survival. For example, we might see a long and green-scaled object in the grass and suddenly jump back in fright as a shot of adrenaline is fired through our veins. A second later we realise it’s just a harmless garden hose.
What just happened here? Why did our body react before were consciously aware of any threat?
What happened was our amygdala — a key part of the brain responsible for processing emotions — took the sensory information that passed through our eyes and before it reached our neocortex (thinking brain), it “hijacked” our body by activating the "fight, flight or freeze" response — unsure of whether it was a real threat or not. In life and death situations, it pays to be irrational. (If you waited a few more milliseconds to be rational, and the snake was real, you might already be dead.)
This is one example of automated behaviour bypassing logic. A more common example is ingrained habit. Some experts estimate that as much as 40% of our daily activities are habitual — where our brains are essentially on autopilot.
When our brain isn’t on autopilot, our behaviour can be changed at any moment by our thoughts. Our behaviour ultimately goes on to impact the people and objects in our environment which in turn have the potential to impact how we feel.
Most importantly, the diagram above tells us that if we’re looking to change our lives in any meaningful way, there are at least three powerful levers that we can choose to pull: 1) changing our environment, 2) changing our biochemistry (emotional state) and 3) changing our thoughts. We have to be careful, though, because we’re dealing with a dynamic feedback loop; changes made in one area will affect the others.
For example, imagine we start consuming a diet that doesn’t agree with our genetic profile — for example, excessive refined sugar and gluten while at the same time removing fibre, green vegetables, essential vitamins and minerals. Slowly and perniciously, our upset biological balance can begin to colour and distort our thinking, making us grumpy, unable to concentrate, and inexplicably annoyed with the people around us. People in our environment will in turn act negatively towards us and begin to reinforce a hostile environment loop. More negative neurotransmitter chemicals will be release that assemble the emotions of fear, anger, sadness and stress — which will in turn influence our thoughts and behaviour — and the loop goes on.
There are many more examples that could be given to illustrate the emotion-thought-behaviour loop. The above model is only a very simple one — it can’t do justice to the true complexity of a human system. Thought influences feeling and feeling, in turn, influences thought, and both feeling and thought react to influence behaviour in ways that scientists still don’t fully understand. What complicates this picture further are the sets of genes that may predispose certain individuals to a given illness, disorder or emotional state. The role of genetics is an important one that should never be underestimated in any discussion of human behaviour.
For the purpose of understanding the behaviour of most people in the general human population, the commonsense view is that all meaningful change begins with a change in one of the key levers in the diagram — the most obvious being thought.
“Fundamentally, we are a product of choice, not nature (genes) or nurture (upbringing, environment). Certainly genes and culture often influence very powerfully, but they do not determine.”
Sugar might not be the most destructive force in the universe, but it is something to give us pause to reflect on our little universe (i.e. the factory of trillions of cells that collectively makes us human beings). Small things in our environment have the capacity to bolster or jeopardise our emotional intelligence in big ways. The question is, do we know what?