Does Sugar Make Grown-ups Cranky?

Parents have long held onto a myth that sugar will make their kids hyper and then ultimately cranky when they crash from their sugar high. That myth has been dispelled by a considerable body of evidence. But now we’re noticing that sugar might make grown-ups cranky. Increasingly it seems that the subject of sugar can make otherwise bright, reasonable people get cranky and stop listening to each other.

A pretty broad agreement that too much sugar has found its way into too many of the foods and drinks we consume is the jumping off point for some of this crankiness. Beyond that point of agreement, we start running into strong opinions and too much crankiness.

Robert Lustig started some of this with his suggestion that sugar is toxic and should be regulated as a controlled substance. As such thinking gained traction with some scientists and public health advocates, a calm and reasoned discussion about what to do about this “toxic menace” became more difficult.

Yes on D, Berkeley vs Big SodaSugar-sweetened beverages have become the focus of much of this crankiness. In public health circles, the virtue of  a tax on sugar-sweetened beverages — an idea that’s been around for decades — is taken as an article of faith. At the annual meeting of the American Public Health Association (APHA), advocates did a victory dance to express their euphoria over the passage of a soda tax in Berkeley CA. Reporting in its official blog, the APHA summarized its symposium on the subject:

Attempts to enact soda taxes have failed over and over again, in big cities and small communities. And all that losing is precisely why public health has finally won.

But a pair of thoughtful reviews published in Advances in Nutrition leaves one wondering just how big this victory really is. Mark Pereira reviews the relationship between sugar-sweetened beverages and obesity and concludes:

The totality of evidence to date demonstrates a pattern across observational and experimental studies of an increased risk of weight gain and obesity with higher intake of SSBs. However, it remains difficult to establish the strength of the association and the independence from other potentially confounding factors.

The field needs higher-quality experimental studies in humans, with relevant direct comparisons between sweetened beverages and their sweetened solid-food alternatives.

Eric Finkelstein and colleagues evaluated the evidence for food and beverage taxes and concluded:

Current evidence indicates that, by themselves, targeted food taxes and subsidies as considered to date are unlikely to have a major effect on individual weight or obesity prevalence. While research suggests that the effects are modest, food taxes and subsidies may play an important role in a multifaceted approach to reducing obesity incidence.

Some public health advocates have no patience with this sort of deliberation. Crankiness quickly builds and degenerates into ad hominem attacks. Careful scientists are caricatured as pawns of an evil food and beverage industry. Some folks on the other side of this debate caricature earnest public health scholars as self-righteous crusaders.

The worst outcome is the extinction of reasoned discussion between people of diverse views.

“Wisdom is the reward you get for a lifetime of listening when you’d have preferred to talk.” — Doug Larson

Click here to read the report from the APHA annual meeting, here to read the review by Pereira, and here to read the review by Finkelstein et al.

Cranky, photograph © Ana C. / flickr

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6 Responses to “Does Sugar Make Grown-ups Cranky?”

  1. November 30, 2014 at 10:07 am, Yoni Freedhoff said:

    Given the fact that I know you fully understand the incredibly complex nature of obesity, am confused Ted, by your continued suggestion that public health interventions for obesity must somehow first prove single-handed impact on its incidence or measure before enactment. Single sandbags don’t stop floods and when building levees, knowing in advance which sandbags are the most important is a luxury that the emergent nature of flooding understandably denies.

    Moreover, I must also point out, that just because someone doesn’t share your opinion, doesn’t make them “cranky” and ironically, said characterization, is in fact an example of the ad hominem style attack that you purport in this post to oppose.

  2. November 30, 2014 at 7:37 pm, Ted said:

    Thank you for taking the time to comment, Yoni. I hope you know that I respect your point of view.

    I’m not sure where you find that I’ve suggested public health interventions must first “prove single-handed impact on its incidence or measure before enactment.” I don’t believe that.

    I do agree with you that the problem of obesity will not be solved by any single measure.

    I also agree “that just because someone doesn’t share your [my] opinion, doesn’t make them ‘cranky.'” You and I agree on some things and disagree on some things, but I’ve never found you to be cranky.

    But I really do take exception to your characterization of my comments about crankiness as “an example of ad hominem style.” An ad hominem attack is an attack on a particular person, rather than the position they are taking. I did not attack anyone. I do object to crankiness — and I’ve observed it — on both extremes of debates about the impact of sugar and measures to reduce its health impact.

    People can be skeptical about the potential effectiveness of an SSB tax without being an industry pawn. Likewise, people can favor giving an SSB tax a try without being a self-righteous crusader.

  3. December 01, 2014 at 10:35 am, Yoni Freedhoff said:

    Ted, this blog consistently ascribes emotions and intents to those you disagree with. Reading about a person’s position and being primed by you to believe that it’s founded in “crankiness” is most certainly an ad hominem attack. So too is your suggestion that desire for action stems from “impatience”. Again, I chose to comment because I found it ironic given your call to action here being civil and non-emotional discourse.

    True, your attacks don’t target one person, but they are there to deliberately stack your argument with generalized ad-hominem style imagery suggesting that public health advocates passions are fueled by unbridled negative emotions rather than reason and that anyone who disagrees with you is a just a crank.

  4. December 01, 2014 at 7:29 pm, Ted said:

    Yoni, I’m glad to know how you interpret what I’ve written. Since what you’re saying doesn’t reflect what I think, I must work hard to express myself more clearly in the future

    I suspect that some of your assumptions about the people with whom I agree and the people with whom I disagree are incorrect. For most everyone I can think of, I agree with some of their ideas and also disagree with some other ideas they have.

    I have never and would never call someone a crank. I will freely admit, though, that I am sometimes cranky. There’s a big difference between being cranky and being a crank.

    Finally, I genuinely don’t understand how something I write can simultaneously be “ad hominem” and “generalized.”

    Thanks again for sharing your thoughts about what I’ve written.

  5. December 02, 2014 at 5:59 am, Yoni Freedhoff said:

    Ted, you know I’m fond of you and respect you as well, but when you paint public health advocates with one emotionally negative brush, you do them and yourself a disservice – a disservice this very post seems to note isn’t helpful to anyone.

    I should point out, it’s not a paintbrush you use all the time, just some of the time and each time it makes me scratch my head. Here for instance, intentional or not, you’ve very clearly suggested that those in public health who support SSB taxes, or who feel SSBs are an important sandbag in a hopeful levee, are just cranky impatient children. I’m not sure how I’m misinterpreting that, nor how the fact that you didn’t list the people you feel are behaving like children changes the fact that you’re responding to their arguments by questioning their characters. If you do feel there are those behaving this way, rather than generalize, name names. Point me to the public health advocate who doesn’t provide or have a basis other than “impatience” to consider SSBs concerning or worthy of taxes, or to the actual ad hominem attack that another used in their arguments or concerns, or to the one who believes that “evil” drives corporations.

    Ted, please call out those public health advocates who you feel are cranky children, hell, call me out if they include me, I can take it, but you’ve struck me over the years as a thoughtful and complex man, and these sorts of postings, belie that impression.

  6. December 02, 2014 at 9:55 am, Ted said:

    The fondness is mutual, Yoni. Thanks for mentioning that that not everything I write bugs you as much as this post did.

    I did not say and do not believe that SSBs are unimportant. I did not say and do not believe that SSB taxes are are an unworthy idea. I think people on both sides of this issue have good points to make.

    The point of this post was simple. The very subject of sugar brings out crankiness. The crankiness comes out on both sides of the argument. We need less crankiness. That’s it. That was the point.

    You’re a smart guy, Yoni. I’m sorry that my writing was not clear enough to get the point across.