The Hacking of the American Mind: The Science Behind the Corporate Takeover of Our Bodies and Brains
Publish Date: September 2017
Difficulty Level: Medium Read
Dr. Lustig, an endocrinologist, has written two books on the impact sugar has on fueling the diabetes, obesity and metabolic syndrome. His other book, Fat Chance: Beating the Odds Against Sugar, Processes Food, Obesity, and Disease, is also a great read.
We chose this second book, because it speaks to the mental challenges that arise to make clean eating and fasting more challenging than we’d like them to be. Rather than focusing predominately on the biochemistry, Lustig delves heavily into the hormones and brain chemistry that keep us eating the foods worst for us long after our tummies our full.
The 5 big takeaways:
- Pleasure is not Happiness – There are two separate neurological pathways in our brains that can lead to enjoyable feelings. The dopamine-based pathway gives us fleeting and short-lived positive feeling that drive action and require bigger and bigger doses to sustain the same levels of enjoyment (think the pleasure experienced from drugs, gambling, or sugar and junk foods). Ever found yourself craving a sweet only to be immediately craving it again as you were licking the crumbs from your fingers? That’s pleasure and dopamine in action, not the sustained contentment we likely expected it to bring. Dopamine is the “reward” neurotransmitter that tells our brains we want more and when taken to the extreme becomes addiction.
The second pathway is serotonin-based. This pathway causes us to experience contentment, joy and a more sustained happiness (rather than from food or drugs, this surges when we experience connection, contribution, and are taking good care of our minds and bodies). The serotonin pathway allows us to feel satiated and content.
While we want and need both, our dopamine can overwhelm and drown out serotonin. And this is increasingly common, since these evolutionary advantages are maladaptive in a modern world. This imbalance can lead to an accelerating problem that results in obesity, poor health, addiction, and depression among many other things.
- Corporate America sells us pleasure disguised as happiness – Think of some of the largest marketers of “happiness” McDonalds, Coca-Cola, etc. they are telling you that their “Happy Meal” or brown bubbly soda will bring you joy and contentment, but the pathway that they utilize is all dopamine. Have you ever eaten one of their products over a series of days finding that the effect wanes overtime — requiring more and more to feel the same good feeling rush? That’s dopamine in action! Serotonin highs are much harder to manufacture and sell. R&D teams can’t easily conjure up love or deep meaningful connections in a food laboratory – but with enough smiling happy customers in a commercial and some upbeat music, it is relatively easy to conflate the two.
- Our brains are primed for hacking – Stress, sleep deprivation, and fear all lead to increased levels of cortisol, which begins to systematically wear down our pre-frontal cortex’s ability to resist dopamine inducing temptation. Our modern 24/7 news, hectic schedules, and constantly dinging and blue-light-emitting devices all contribute to an increase of stress, sleep deprivation and fear. The very same factors that increase dopamine (technology, lack of sleep, drugs, and bad diet) decrease serotonin, essentially hitting us with a double-whammy.
- The consequences are very real – If these cycles persist, where the need for dopamine escalates and serotonin is increasingly suppressed, addiction and depression results. It is not a coincidence that depression has been on the rise since the advent of processed foods (where dopamine-inducing sugar has become ubiquitous and our Omega 3-to-Omega 6 ratio has declined) and many (myself included) describe feeling addicted to sugar and/or processed foods.
- Seek contentment – To reverse these trends Lustig recommends a series of interventions including: (1) cut back on sugar, junk food, and dopamine-inducing activities, (2) supplement with Omega-3, (3) increase sleep, mindfulness, and exercise, (4) contribute to others through altruism, donations, volunteering, and being part of a community.
A few of my favorite quotes:
- “Scientists now understand that there is a specific ‘contentment pathway’ that is completely separate from the pleasure or reward pathway in the brain and under completely different regulation. Pleasure (reward) is the emotional state where your brain says, This feels good—I want more, while happiness (contentment) is the emotional state where your brain says, This feels good—I don’t want or need any more.”
- “Marketing, media, and technology have capitalized on subverting our brain physiology to their advantage in order to veer us away from the pursuit of happiness to the pursuit of pleasure, which for them of course equals the pursuit of profit.”
- “The food industry continues to put its thumb on the scales of objectivity, both figuratively and literally. Five out of six studies funded by the industry show no effect of sugared beverages on weight gain, while ten out of twelve studies by independent scientists show a clear effect on weight gain.”
- “But fear not, there does appear to be one dietary item that can mitigate the damage that sugar does to the brain and promote the biochemistry and the processes that can predispose us to happiness. And perhaps not surprisingly its presence in the diet correlates positively with tryptophan and negatively with sugar. What is this magic chemical? It’s omega-3 fatty acids, of all things.”
- “These past forty years have witnessed the twin epidemics of the negative extremes of both of these emotions: addiction (from too much pleasure) and depression (from not enough happiness).”
- “One study showed that omega-3s were equivalent in effect to Prozac in treating depression, and the combination was more effective than either one alone. In a related study, administration of omega-3s to patients with recurrent self-harm (e.g., cutting, picking, scratching, burning—the ultimate expression of anxiety) showed a reduction in suicidality, depression, and daily stress. A recent trial gave omega-3s along with minerals to eleven-year-old kids with conduct disorder or oppositional defiant disorder (the ones who routinely find themselves in the principal’s office), and within three months their aggression was reduced, and way better than talk therapy. Lastly, omega-3 consumption can help ward off depression in children and adults, and can serve as an adjunct to SSRIs in its treatment.”
- “Apparently, the draw of the screen is just too much for most people; the cell phone is like a slot machine. With every ding, a variable reward, either good or bad, is in store for the user—the ultimate dopamine rush.”
- “In the first fifteen chapters of this book, I hope I have made a cogent case that: (1) reward is not contentment, and pleasure is not happiness; (2) reward is dopamine, and contentment is serotonin; (3) chronic excess reward interferes with contentment; (4) business has conflated pleasure with happiness consciously and with clear-cut intent, specifically to get you to buy its junk or engage in hedonic behaviors favorable to industry; (5) government has passed legislation to make it easier to buy that junk or make easier access to engage in those behaviors to drive profit and GDP, and the Supreme Court has justified and supported these practices; and (6) buying that junk or engaging in those behaviors long-term and without thought can leave you and society fat, sick, stupid, broke, addicted, depressed, and most decidedly unhappy.”
About Dr. Robert Lustig (excerpted from his website: https://robertlustig.com/about/ ):
Dr. Robert Lustig is Professor of Pediatric Endocrinology at the University of California, San Francisco. Dr. Lustig has become a leading public health authority on the impact sugar has on fueling the diabetes, obesity and metabolic syndrome epidemics, and on addressing changes in the food environment to reverse these chronic diseases.
In his New York Times best selling book Fat Chance: Beating the Odds Against Sugar, Processes Food, Obesity, and Disease, Robert documents both the science and the politics that have led to the current pandemic of obesity and chronic disease. In the Fat Chance Cookbook, Robert provides practical examples for applying healthy eating principles with recipes by Cindy Gershen.
- Here are a few other fasting resources you may enjoy:
- The Hungry Brain — If you want to know about the role our brain in the modern world plays in weight gain, obesity, and chronic disease
- Pure, White, and Deadly — If you are curious about what science knows about the most popular powdery white substance and it’s a film!
- Some of Dr. Jason Fung and Dr. Megan Ramos’ other books: The Obesity Code, The Diabetes Code, and The Cancer Code
Link to the book: https://www.penguinrandomhouse.com/books/531013/the-hacking-of-the-american-mind-by-robert-h-lustig-md-msl/