The Hacking of the American Mind: The Science Behind the Corporate Takeover of Our Bodies and Brains
By Dr. Robert H. Lustig
Avery Publishing Group
Dr. Robert Lustig is a pediatric endocrinologist and obesity research scientist at the University of California-San Francisco. He has become alarmed and saddened by the increase in children developing chronic diseases formerly only seen in adults, such as type 2 diabetes. He offers some of the reasons why our nation’s children, as well as adults, are all increasingly sick and discusses what we can do about it.
Two caveats: Lustig adheres to “medical doctor opinions” about the value of pharmacology for depression; he also places ultimate faith in the Mediterranean diet. Otherwise, his conclusions about how to stem the tide of chronically broken bodies and dysfunctional brains are right on. In his conclusion, he offers the key to happiness, and I personally believe he is correct. Lustig opens with a John Butler Yeats quote: “Happiness is neither virtue nor pleasure, not this thing nor that, but simply growth. We are happy when we are growing.” Distinguishing between pleasure (reward) and happiness (contentment), he explains that our twin modern epidemics of addiction and depression stem from too much pleasure and too little happiness.
Reward is short-lived (about an hour). How long does a person remember the pleasure of going for that second piece of chocolate cake? Contentment, on the other hand, is long-lasting. It is that sense of achievement you feel watching your children succeed in life, or witnessing the garden you planted in the spring grow and provide delicious produce in the summer and fall. Reward is also a fight-or-flight type of excitement with blood pressure and heart rate going up—such as watching your horse run in a big race. Contentment slows down your heart rate, lowers your blood pressure and leaves you feeling calmer. (Reflect on a day at the beach with your family.) Finally, reward is driven by dopamine and contentment by serotonin. Both are neurotransmitters but work very differently.
The book’s first part covers the neuroscience of addiction in considerable depth, with a focus on dopamine. Lustig states, “You might call dopamine the dark underbelly of our consumer culture. It’s the driver of desire, the purveyor of pleasure and the neurotransmitter of novelty, the lever that business pushes to keep our economy going, but at a clear, perceptible, and increasing cost. . . .We are perpetually in need of the next shiny object.” Lustig addresses the problems and core similarities of modern addictions that include opioids, alcohol, tobacco, Netflix binging, sugar, texting, Internet surfing and social media.
Serotonin is the neurotransmitter associated with contentment. While Lustig believes that SSRI drugs can help very depressed people, he acknowledges that they don’t work for everyone, nor do they work forever. One of serotonin’s precursors is tryptophan. The amount of tryptophan in your diet influences how well you sleep and your level of contentment. People who eat eggs and fish have the highest blood levels of tryptophan. Lustig points out that many processed foods do not contain eggs or fish, both of which are tricky to process and allergens to some. For people who rely mainly on processed foods, their diet is likely quite low in tryptophan.
Lustig also admits that animal feed determines the quality of the amino acids in the animal’s meat. Corn-fed beef is lower in tryptophan than grass-fed beef, and the same goes for corn-fed chicken. This is yet another reason that most Americans are short on tryptophan in their diet. Please pass the grass-fed—or better yet pastured—beef!
Lustig reviews how our intake of refined sugar has increased through the centuries. People in the Middle Ages used sugar in tiny amounts. Up through the mid-1900s, sugar was a condiment, eaten in modest amounts. In the last fifty years, however, sugar has become a dietary staple. It is addictive for the same reasons and through the same mechanisms as alcohol. Metabolic syndrome (including heart disease, hypertension, blood lipid problems, type 2 diabetes, nonalcoholic fatty liver disease, and chronic kidney disease) is on the rise mostly because of this rather new dietary staple.
Lustig also covers some of the government policies that have put the interests of corporations before people and helped bring us to the level of illness that we are experiencing as a nation. The Supreme Court was instrumental in allowing the “relentless marketing of products.” The appointment of Justice Lewis Powell to the Supreme Court in 1971 was a game-changer for personal rights, with the end result that corporations now have both the rights of corporations and the rights of individuals.
In the mid-1970s, Justice Powell voted with the majority on some very important cases, including Va. State Pharmacy Board v. Va. Citizen Consumer Council (1976), which allowed for the drug ads that we now see on television; Buckley v. Valeo (1976), which did away with limitations on campaign spending and individual donations in elections; and First National Bank of Boston v. Bellotti (1978), for which Powell wrote the majority opinion. This latter case basically said that corporations could say whatever they wanted and could vote with their dollars.
Lustig also reports the good news that we can take back control and offers some strategies to do so. These include connecting through religion, social support and conversation; contributing through altruism, volunteerism and philanthropy; coping through sleep, mindfulness and exercise; and cooking. In fact, his final conclusion, which weaves together all of the strategies, is the part I love most (emphasis his): “I offer to you my single most important key to happiness: cook real food for yourself, for your friends, and for your family. It’s connection in that you will be sitting down with people you like (and maybe even love); it’s contribution because you are making something worthwhile; it’s focusing so it’s easier to cope and unless you spike with something, it’s non-addictive.” By cooking real food, Lustig adds, “You may lose weight, and you will definitely reduce your risk for all of the chronic diseases of metabolic syndrome. And you will be sticking it to the companies who are trying to addict you and your family.”
I wish this could be an unqualified Thumbs Up, but unfortunately, the food Lustig wants us to cook is the “Mediterranean Diet,” with lots of fish, beans and greens, and not much beef, bacon, butter or broth. I love the emphasis on cooking, but if Lustig cooked a Wise Traditions diet, he would be so much happier!
Nevertheless, my thumb is UP! And my hat is off to Dr. Lustig for writing such an informative book that unravels so many of the threads that have brought us to this point of crisis as a nation.
This article appeared in Wise Traditions in Food, Farming and the Healing Arts, the quarterly journal of the Weston A. Price Foundation, Summer 2019