Bad Habits, Chemical Dependencies, and Cultural Values

by | Aug 1, 2023 | Resilience

Are our bad habits actually cultural values?

I was struck this week by two reports. One, which described the soaring rate of global diabetes, became an eSavvyHealth news brief. The other was to the effect that July is the hottest month on record, and likely the hottest in something like 120,000 years. 

These events have two things in common. First, they portend large scale disasters, disrupting the lives and threatening the health of billions. Second, they represent the effects of dependencies that are not just individual, but also cultural—dependencies on the consumption of increasing amounts of the chemical sucrose in highly refined food products and sugar-laden beverages, and on the release of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere due to burning of fossil fuels. 

And they have something else in common: both events were completely predictable—and preventable—based on information that has been available for decades. 

The connection between diabetes and sucrose (which is half glucose and half fructose) was first observed in the 12th century, and then again early in the 20th century.1 A primary mechanism of that connection, fructose’s disruption of the body’s management of energy, has been understood since 1989. Evidence that sugar stimulates addictive-type responses in the brain, responses which can impair an individual’s ability to manage food intake, appeared in scientific literature two decades ago. In the time since, considerable evidence of the connection of obesity and diabetes to the consumption of concentrated fructose has accumulated.2 

Still, perhaps the clearest evidence that sugar has long been known to be damaging to health is the actions taken by the sugar industry to suppress scientific research on the matter, starting more than 50 years ago, discovered and described in a 2017 study carried out by scientists at UC San Francisco.3 

As to climate change, the rather basic physical process by which increased carbon dioxide in the atmosphere causes the planet to retain heat (the greenhouse effect) has been known since the late 19th century, and the potential resultant effects on global climate were calculated right around the year 1900. In accordance with those calculations, the average temperature of the Earth has been climbing steadily for the past 40 years.4 Recently the rate of increase has accelerated, which was also predicted. 

But, as with sugar, the most damning evidence of the connection between carbon dioxide emissions and climate change is the attempt to suppress knowledge of that connection by fossil fuels industries. According to Harvard research fellow Geoffrey Supran,

 “…there were systematic discrepancies between, on the one hand, what Exxon and ExxonMobil scientists said about climate-science privately and in academic circles, versus what Exxon, Mobil, and ExxonMobil said to the general public in The New York Times and elsewhere. That analysis showed that ExxonMobil misled the public about basic climate science and its implications.”5

So, we knew these disasters were coming, or at least some of us did, and they did their best to warn the rest of us. Why, then, did we let them happen?

Here’s where science is not as helpful, because we’re in the realm of human social, political, and economic behavior, rather than physics and chemistry. But it does put me in mind of my own experience with another chemical dependency: tobacco. 

I smoked heavily in my 20’s, a pack a day of unfiltered cigarettes. It’s not that I didn’t know it could be unhealthy, I just didn’t think it would be unhealthy for me, even though I was thoroughly addicted. After all, throughout my youth I had seen many adults who smoked, both people that I knew or much-admired characters in TV and movies. Smoking was part of my culture. I did know that some of those people had died suffered from or died of lung cancer, but it seemed to me it was a very small percentage. 

I might well have continued smoking for decades were it not for the birth of my son. The effects of second-hand smoke had been getting some attention. I was careful not to expose my 9-year-old daughter to second-hand smoke, or at least I thought I was being careful enough. But when my son was born I realized that approach would not work with a dependent and helpless infant who I was constantly around. So I quit.

Is there a lesson here? Well, for one thing, my bad habit stemmed not only from the fact that my addicted body demanded the chemical nicotine, but also that the culture I grew up in consistently showed nicotine consumption in a positive light. The combination made me willing to devalue my own health, and it was only when it looked like I would also be threatening the health of a baby did I muster the determination to lose the habit. 

Over the past several decades, there has been considerable cultural influence in the direction of consuming increasing amounts of sugars, especially in ultra-processed foods, and also in favor of continuing to pour carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, all augmented by the PR and misinformation campaigns of the sugar and fossil fuel industries. So I get why it’s hard to quit. But it seems to me that the consequences of not quitting, in terms of impact on our children and their children, are compelling. As individuals, and as populations, we are subject to two powerful and opposing forces. Personally, I hope that our children are the winners in that tug of war.

Dave Hendry

Dave Hendry

Position

Dave Hendry is co-founder of The 5 Fundamentals of Health and Fundamentals of Health Alliance. He has an extensive CV in research, education and curriculum development.

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