By: J. Justin Wilson
Newspaper: Las Vegas Review-Journal
When I was a kid, I dreaded trick-or-treating at my friend’s house because I knew I was going to get a killjoy treat – specifically, a toothbrush. I felt sorry for my friend even more: His mom told him he was “allergic” to sugar. (Your body needs the sugar glucose to function.)
However, today it seems like the people who want to tell us all scary stories about food are channeling my former toothbrush-wielding neighbor. You might remember the news buzz from February about a few researchers who believe sugar is “toxic” and should be regulated like tobacco or alcohol.
So is it time to trade the candy bowl for toothbrushes and carrot sticks? Not in the least. It doesn’t require a Ph.D. in nutrition to know that comparisons of candy to cocktails are nonsense. Obesity is a product of calories consumed exceeding calories burned (e.g., by eating too much or exercising too little), not eating any particular food or drinking any particular beverage.
One sweet feast per year is hardly enough to cause obesity. Indeed, according to National Cancer Institute data, kids get less than 3 percent of their calories from candies. Focusing on a single ingredient or nutrient is a proven path to fat-fighting failure. (Remember “fat-free”?)
That hasn’t stopped activists, however, from demanding “sugar-free zones” around schools, lest kids lay eyes upon a cookie. But banning treats would work just as well as banning booze did in the 1920s. When schools have banned bake sales and candies, kids have found ways around them. In Colorado, kids held “napkin sales” with sweet treats in the napkins until they got caught. In Texas, a reporter called the sugary black market scene “Willy-Wonka-meets-Casablanca.”
Another horror story is that sugar is somehow addictive like cocaine. When researchers put people in a brain scanner and give them sugar, their brains’ pleasure centers light up. But far from justifying the grim position of the toothbrush-and-celery brigades, this isn’t significant.
Music causes similar reactions, but you don’t hear people rushing to ban the Monster Mash. Any sort of enjoyment – whether eating candy, listening to music, playing video games, exercising, or falling in love – means that our brain’s pleasure centers will light up, but not that the activity is drug-like. A research team from Cambridge University investigated food and found that “criteria for substance dependence translate poorly to food-related behaviors.” Translation: cookies-are-crack is a ghost story.
Ultimately, solving the obesity problem is a matter of personal and parental responsibility. In fact, if we adopt paternalist measures like the gummy-bears-are-gin crowd proposes, we might actually make things worse. A report in the peer-reviewed journal American Family Physician found that “be[ing] accountable for one’s decisions” and “foster[ing] a strong sense of autonomy, internal motivation, and self-efficacy toward weight loss maintenance” were associated with successful weight loss. Banning foods and creating legions of cupcake cops to enforce those bans don’t promote any of those things.
Enjoying a night of fright with some candy won’t turn kids into hopeless food junkies or make them fat. The scary stories about our favorite confections are becoming an annual tradition, as sure as trick-or-treating itself, but they’re just that: stories. Brush your teeth after the feast, but there’s no need to pass out brushes, toothpaste or floss.