The Hacking of the American Mind: The Science Behind the Corporate Takeover of Our Bodies and Brains
© 2017 Robert Lustig
Robert Lustig is an endocrinologist who gained public recognition when he delivered a lecture entitled “Sugar: the Bitter Truth”, which exposed the opioid-like effects of sugar, its saturation in the American diet, and how fructose in action resembles a toxin. I don’t remember how the timing of my watching that worked with my switching to a low-processed foods diet and subsequently losing nearly two hundred pounds, but in my subsequent health reading to understand my experiences, I began learning about metabolic syndrome, insulin resistance, and other factors that connected to Lustig’s arguments perfectly. His The Hacking of the American Mind continues his campaign against the ubiquity and deleterious effects of sugar, but broadens it to a general attack on how corporate America (except for the medical and pharmaceutical giants who only want us to be healthy, naturally) conflate pleasure and happiness, using brain chemistry to addict us to the pursuit of their products, despite the attending health costs of depression, obesity, etc. Hacking is at once wholly promising and disappointing: promising because of the importance and ambition of its subject, and disappointing for the breezy and casual style in which it is treated.
Lustig opens by differentiating between pleasure and lasting happiness, first drawing on the observations of philosophers before switching to his own specialty. Although wisdom traditions across the world have recognized the futility of pursuing pleasure to achieve happiness (even the Epicureans, who defined pleasure as the only good, nonetheless promoted voluntary simplicity to avoid the hedonic treadmill trap), Lustig argues that we now know the neurology underlying the pleasure/happiness distinction. One is derived wholly from dopamine, and the other from serotonin. Although dopamine rushes can be intense, they are also short-lived and provide diminishing returns: to protect the participating neural connections, the body downregulates their sensitivity. The result is that people who want to replicate the same high have to indulge in the originating behavior all the more, creating a cycle of addiction and depression. Anything that triggers dopamine rushes can thus become addictive: food, sex, gambling, video games, etc — and if it’s actively promoted through advertising, dopamine rewards are involved. This has become a progressive problem in industrialized nations, because dopamine triggers are increasingly cheap to come by, allowing people to self-sabotage their mental health in the pursuit of pleasure – and physical health problems quickly follow. This is especially the case with Lustig’s bête noire, sugar: here he recapitulates his argument against sugar, especially fructose. Although Lustig addresses other common sources of addiction and misery, particularly smartphone usage and opiods, he returns to sugar repeatedly: this is understandable given Lustig’s profession, how destructive fructose is to insulin regulation, and how ubiquitous sugar is in the American food supply. As Michael Moss documented in Salt, Sugar, Fat, sugar is abundant even in food products that aren’t ‘sweet’; it’s commonly used as a preservative and a bulkifier. Lustig’s prescription is to “connect, contribute, cope, and cook” — rapidly dialing down our consumption of social media, taking tech sabbaths and spending real time with in-the-flesh people, finding ways to volunteer and help in our local communities, and hitting multiple birds with one spatula by learning to cook. Not only will shifting to fresh foods eliminate much of the processed rubbish from our diets, but it’s a technical skill that delivers satisfaction and is a convenient way to bring people together. Few things rival the company of good friends around a dinner table, that’s for certain.
Hacking was a must-read for me because it addresses so many important issues to mental and physical health: metabolic syndrome, consumerism, and their common fuel of addiction. As much as I wanted to love the book, though, and hasten to recommend it, it’s riven with problems. Lustig is an inconsistent author, at times so breezy and quick with pop culture references as to undermine what should be a sober and earnest call to arms, and at others employing so convoluted a sentence structure that a reader has to circle the block a few times to parse what’s being said. The casualness is far more pervasive, though, which diminished the book’s credibility — especially when it marks not just style, but treatment of subjects outside biochemistry. There are outright mistakes (referring to Obamacare as something that had been done away with, referring to Trump as the first populist president, mischaracterizing agape as religious zeal) and a general cavalierness even within his stronger beat. For instance, when remarking on how cigarettes were once promoted as a curative for obesity, he treats this merely as addiction transference despite nicotine’s known effect as an appetite suppressant. As much as I loved the topic and respected Lustig’s goal (and agreed with his prescription, limited as it was), the book read as messy. It wasn’t the forceful, clear argument that the author delivered in his original “Sugar” lecture, and that the subject merited. Even so, it’s worth your time if you, like me, are concerned about how the western way of eating, and the compulsive nature of consumption (of stuff, of The News, etc), destroy people’s health.
Salt, Sugar, Fat: How the Food Giants Tricked Us, Michael Moss
Drunk Flies and Stoned Dolphins: A Trip Through the World of Animal Intoxication, One R. Pagan
Affluenza: The All-Consuming Epidemic, various
The Year of No Sugar, Eve Schaub
The Obesity Code, Jason Fung
Spark: Exercise and the Brain, Jason Ratey
Dreamland: The True Tale of America’s Opiod Epidemic, Sam Quinones
Why We Get Fat, Gary Taubes
American Mania: When More Isn’t Enough, Peter Whybrow