Thursday, February 20, 2014

Killjoy vs. Freak Flag

I read a recent story by Julia Llewellyn Smith about John Yudkin, an early proponent of the theory that sugar (not fat) is likely to be the main culprit behind many modern diseases. It contained the following paragraph:

"One of the problems with the anti-sugar message — then and now — is how depressing it is. The substance is so much part of our culture, that to be told buying children an ice cream may be tantamount to poisoning them, is most unwelcome. But Yudkin, who grew up in dire poverty in east London and went on to win a scholarship to Cambridge, was no killjoy. “He didn’t ban sugar from his house, and certainly didn’t deprive his grandchildren of ice cream or cake,” recalls his granddaughter, Ruth, a psychotherapist. “He was hugely fun-loving and would never have wanted to be deprived of a pleasure, partly, perhaps, because he grew up in poverty and had worked so hard to escape that level of deprivation.”"

While I am glad that such stories are gaining prominence, I object to the idea that saying no to ice cream, or keeping a sugar-free household makes one a killjoy.

If it were shown that the link between routine sugar consumption and heart attacks or Alzheimer's or breast cancer was, for example, even a fraction as strong as that between smoking and lung cancer, would you feel that turning down a piece of cake, or not keeping ice cream in the house, indicated insufficient desire for and approval of pleasure? Or contrary-wise, if you went to live in a place where children were normally given a cigarette after supper, would you just let it go in the name of good fun? Such a strong link has yet to be shown, but the body of evidence of such links has increased.

I contrast this idea with an essay by Kurt Harris a few years ago, containing this passage:

"When you go to the birthday party for your neighbor’s kid, and you eat the birthday cake, what message does that send?

You show up looking trim and fit. You are pleased if people ask you how you lost weight. After eating this way for a few years, though, you are perhaps most comfortable if no one says anything at all.

You are weary of the reactions -the incredulity, the mockery, the eye-rolling. Pushing 50, you’ve tried explaining how a diet high in animal fats and low in grains works to keep you slim, but you’ve learned that the segue to explaining why you are not just cultivating an attractive corpse due to all that arterycloggingsaturatedfat that you live on is tedious and it gets you nowhere.

So, when the rectangular slab of Hy-Vee or Piggly-Wiggly birthday cake – frosted 3/8” thick with a stratum of oily granular sugar running through the middle to boot – is proferred, you say “thank you”, flash a smile that only a trained psychologist would question, and accept it, holding the flimsy paper plate and plastic fork with both hands to keep it from tumbling onto the ground.

You repair to some corner of the party where you can nibble at the cake, maybe spill a few crumbs, and eventually hide the paper plate, now soggy with vegetable oil absorbed from the corpus of the cake.

Who are the agents of acculturation here?"


"If you are a vector for cultural change, which way is the arrow pointing?

Wear your Real Food Uniform.

Active Duty.

Fly your freak-flag high.

Say no to the cake."

Ruth may not have been deprived of sugar in her grandfather's presence, but perhaps she was deprived of something after all. As Yudkin was the author of a book entitled “Pure, White and Deadly”, I am left wondering at the power of acculturation to affect our choices.


  1. Acculturation is THE biggest factor.

    Just now I had a plate of leftover meat from yesterday's BBQ, warmed up in a whole roast chicken's worth of fat drippings (awesome, BTW), mum sees my plate and says "I don't see any veggies there, Ash". Thing is, she's on board with the VLC thing as is doing better than ever on semi-keto, but goes on to say "I don't think I could have a meal without some veggies or salad or something to go with it", a few years ago that would have been "I couldn't have a meal without bread and rice and chips followed by ice-cream" etc etc, but she changed her way of life to VLC because she was going downhill fast. Now it's been years of this, the carby options don't even cross her mind, so you CAN unteach acculturation.

    She also knows I study this stuff incessantly (the reason she's on her "protein diet" as she calls it) but still asks "don't you need greens for vitmans?". I didn't bother reciting the whole recent MDA brainfart, but just let her know that there's nothing putting some greens on a plate is going to add nutritionally to decent fatty meat, and like bread/sweets/etc once you go without for long enough you no longer particularly need or even want them.

    Then there's auntie - her sister - getting more and more health problems every year and befuddled by it all as she is RIDICULOUSLY conscience of being healthful - which of course to her is low sat fat/no red meat diet based on veggies and grains and heart-healthy seed oils... Was asking me about this stuff and I tell her it's pretty simple, but in the end she just does the infuriating thing and goes "well that's your belief, I believe everything in moderation" and all that BS, I briefly tried to tell her this is not what science/research/history says but she started using the word "belief" a lot again and hand-waves everything with a "well that's just stuff YOU read, I don't see how it's right versus what I know", and finished the evening with a "healthy jug of fruit juice". Lost cause, sadly.

  2. I dont understand this. Why accept something you have absolutely no intention of eating just so as to not hurt someone's feelings?

    1. I agree, many offices are obesogenic environments with people desperate to be liked foisting cake and sweets on others. Nightmare.

    2. I never eat the foods at family or social gatherings. People have gotten used to me. But not partaking does seem to make others uncomfortable. It was never worth it to me to feel bad just to make someone else who does not live in my body feel more secure about their own food choices.

  3. I don't eat cakes or sweets offered to me, the same is not true for my kids. This is the real rub of being a LC parent. Cakes Biscuits and sweets are offered and available at shocking rates. The challenge for parents is balancing the harms of the sugar hit versus the psychological harm of being deprived or singled out. We had a strict no-sugar policy until my daughter was two and now she is allowed one high quality (cake or chocolate, not luminous empty things) item when they are offered at parties etc.

    Sally Fallon had an interesting take on it, that she raised her children as well as she could so that when they had the odd piece of junk food they would not be too badly affected by it.

    It is hard to imagine the Llewellyn Smith article taking the same tone about fat in the diet. With certain eyes you can see the food companies really getting the PR machine going.

    1. I agree: LC parenting is really tough. Even if you go with "one high quality item when they are offered at parties", in my experience, a party or other special occasion occurs about once every week or two. This rate might even be okay for some.

      For children on keto for epilepsy, the cost of a single indulgence is immediately obvious. My situation is more subtle. It takes days or more for my mood to destabilise with exposure to plants or carbs. It's complex enough that I don't really know how much I could get away with, but the cost of erring is one I don't like paying, so I don't test the boundaries a lot.

      Having this experience, though, makes me wonder about those with less acute problems than I have. Is having a slice every other week making life a lot harder in ways that are less visible than a seizure? I find it quite plausible. For example, if your child's mood is off sometimes, it's easy to put it down to being a child. Or if she was a little slower at learning to read, it could be just where she naturally fell on the curve. But what if taking out the occasional sugar and the gluten fixed it? How much handicap is fitting in worth?

      And you're right, feeling deprived is also a cost. I know plenty of adults who are still struggling to make peace with food because of the deprivation their well meaning parents imposed. It's not an easy issue.

  4. Children get candy everywhere and from everybody. I don´t understand that. Everybody knows by now that sugar is not good for you to say the least. Even as an adult I get strange looks when I say that I don´t eat sugar or grains. The funny thing is that people understand that when I say "I want to lose weight", even though I´m not overweight. If I say that I do it for health reasons, they just think I´m weird. I think people are weird because they still believe more in advertisement than in science or good sense.

    1. I agree. It's bizarre. Maybe one problem is that many people think of sugar as innocuous—empty calories, and nothing more. They don't see it as disease causing.

    2. It seems mostly because children get such a "high" off sugar and adults enjoy making children feel good(never mind the unpleasant crash).
      However offering a child an opiate would be frowned upon, go figure!

  5. Sugar is like acceptable poison, despite its addictive qualities, and the cumulative damage, the very pervasive nature of sugar makes it seem less harmful than it actually is; because the effects are slow in manifesting, people don't perceive the true harm. I am guilty of this, too with my own grandchildren. I remember when we had a similar view of cigarettes.

    1. Yeah. It's tricky, because it's almost certainly never true that a single cigarette, or a single piece of cake is going to cause harm. So if you consider each choice in isolation, it's rational to choose the pleasure.

  6. Read "Sweetness and Power" by Syndey Mintz. It is a fascinating exploration of the history, sociology, and anthropology of how sugar became such a huge part of the modern diet.

  7. Coffee is another "accepted" and very pervasive poison in my opinion. It raises glucose and causes blood sugar problems. I have a friend for whom coffee is a "gateway" drug. First is is the coffee (he loves the culture of the coffee shop as well as the taste of the coffee itself), then it is the sweet he must eat, and the tobacco he must smoke to balance out the imbalance the coffee. From there, he goes to alcohol and finally crack cocaine. This is no exaggeration. I saw theaters innumerable times.

  8. I had an interesting 'social' experience recently--for my 75th birthday! My family (sister and niece) are very supportive of my way of eating, but they wanted to take me to a new, eclectic restaurant where they serve a variety of dishes that are quite elaborate. My sister checked with them in advance to see whether they could 'accommodate' me, telling them that I eat only meat or fish, no sauces, etc. They assured her that they could.

    I had a delightful meal, including ceviche, lamb chops, and filet mignon.

    Since the restaurant knew it was my birthday, they presented me with a small cake--which we took home. My family told me that the cake was delicious. I had no desire for it, since sugar is my enemy. Blowing out the candle was enough of a 'celebration' for me:-)