Ed Whitlock, age 85, just broke an age group record for running a marathon (the Toronto Waterfront Marathon) in under four hours. The age group record Whitlock set in 2016 is only one in a long list of running records he has broken since he retired from his job as a mining engineer. He breaks these running records without the use of any GPS device to keep track of pace and time, without the latest running apparel, and without carrying water bottles or sources of nutrition. In fact, Whitlock keeps up his amazing successful running achievements without following any special diet at all. In answer to a interview question from Postmedia Network’s Vicki Hall about the diet that keeps him going, he replies:
I don’t pay any attention to that. I’m really quite non-scientific with all of this stuff. I basically eat what I want to eat, and my wife says she can’t understand why I’m so thin when I eat so much. But then, I run a lot of it off. I certainly take more sugar than would be recommended. I eat more butter and fats than would be recommended. Carbohydrates are quite high. I’m not a vegetarian, but I don’t eat a lot of meat. But I really don’t pay any attention to that.
In a period of time unprecedented in society’s attention to the details of diet, whether or not one is an athlete, Whitlock’s confession that he pays little attention to diet is quite astounding. His admission to eating more sugar and fat than is recommended is refreshingly honest. Notice, too, that he eats sugar and fat, but has continued breaking running records well into his eighties. His dietary choices don’t seem to have negatively impacted his athletic performance. Why some people choose to eat more sugar than deemed acceptable by a culture increasingly antagonistic toward any products that contain sugar, companies that market sugar, and people who eat sugar, is obvious. Sugar is a treat. It brightens the flavor and texture of many foods, and it adds variety to diet. Eating dessert or candy leads to good emotional feelings. Moreover, sugar can be added to unpleasant substances to make them easier to take, as in the adage, “A spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down.” What’s not to like about sugar? Best of all, sugar is gluten-free! And yet . . . . yet . . . . books, articles, and Internet posts are rife with references to sugar as the next tobacco. It’s the latest food ingredient targeted by food alarmists as toxic and dangerous to one’s health. It’s been blamed for a rise in diabetes, a rise in obesity, and a rise in metabolic disease. Now, this attention to sugar by people who worry about what other people choose to put into their bodies would be harmless, but that their aggressive campaign to curtail individual freedom of food and diet choice is having a positive effect for their cause. The first step punitive action in the war against sugar , a soda tax meant to curb the consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages. is gaining popularity. Despite the 30 year low in soda sales recorded in 2015, on election day of 2016 voters in four more U.S cities approved a tax on sodas (but some of those voters may regret their support for the tax when they get hit with sticker shock as have Philadelphians). The idea behind the tax, for those people truly concerned about health, is that if people have to pay more for the taxed sodas, they will drink less soda and thus ingest less sugar. Entities that promote soda taxes assume people will replace their heavily taxed sodas with healthier beverage and food choices, although evidence shows otherwise. Politicians support the tax as a way to generate revenue which, under the guise of public interest, garners support from the general public.
This movement against sugar, a naturally occurring substance, is multifaceted. Politicians use the sugar’s bad reputation as a way to raise revenue by taxing products people believe are bad. Doctors and nutritionists, as well as entire industries (such as those that market weight loss plans, home fitness equipment, and publications geared toward weight loss) stand to profit from the demonization of sugar, just as they have benefitted from our collective (now seemingly waning) dietary fat phobia of the past forty or so years. The food industry, complicit with the various nutrition interest groups and businesses, is happy to develop and market products to suit whatever the current dietary demand of the moment. Having created fat-free shadows of naturally fat-containing foods, the industry has also flooded the market with sugar-free shadows of sugar-containing foods. With the goal of creating fat-avoidance behavior in our society achieved, these same forces are moving to spread sugar phobia throughout our land with the hope of creating sugar avoidance behavior. A public relations campaign to discourage our ingestion of sugar is gaining strength, with reports in the media detailing the negative impact ubiquitous sugar in the American (or Western) diet: it’s addictive and acts on the brain as cocaine does, it causes insulin spikes leading to weight gain, it causes heart disease, it causes sleep and mood disruptions, and it makes us stupid (which is the only reasonable assumption behind the widely spread idea that Big Food brainwashes people into buying products with sugar, to which we get addicted, so that we buy more sugar-laden products.
Many reasons exist to protest government and societal manipulation of our sugar consumption the way they have our fat consumption, many of them not even directly related to diet. The foremost reason to reject government oversight of our food choices is the uncertainty that the obesity epidemic used as an excuse for the movement against sugar (and fat, etc) is real. Another reason is that evidence presented as an excuse to interfere with personal dietary decisions regarding sugar consumption is that all the evidence about the ill effects of sugar on our health is supposedly scientific. All the politicians, doctors, and health professionals that denigrate sugar cite the results of research conducted by nutritional and medical experts to support their positions. We have a history, however, of accepting on faith the ever-changing nutritional guidelines recommended by the government, the medical community, and the health industry, just to find out after changing our diets or behaviors accordingly that the studies cited to support the dietary recommendations were misguided, reported incorrectly by the press, or just simply wrong. Since, as a society, we increasingly put more faith in the knowledge of experts and less faith in knowledge and wisdom gained from human tradition combined with personal experience, we tend to let experts tell us how to manage our personal lives.
The modern societal dependence upon knowledge gained through science as purveyed by experts is foremost a problem related to how we know what we know; as applied to our concern with sugar’s affect on the human body, it is only tangentially a dietary issue. The danger of relying on experts is that people are left twisting hither and thither in the wind as we rush to change our lives and habits according to the newest information, only to find out years later that we unnecessarily changed our behaviors – often against our personal preferences and beliefs – based upon flawed data published by flawed experts and incompetently reported by the media. Even scientists themselves are concerned that we are making public policies and individual decisions based upon the mostly incorrect results from most research now published. Furthermore, nutrition studies are among the most flawed. Yet as a society we continue allow people using incorrect data influence our food choices and eating behaviors.
Readers of this blog post will notice that, having just pointed out the weakness of research conclusions as a source of knowledge for making our life decisions, I used a study to support my assertion that conclusions reached researchers in the discipline of nutrition are among the most incorrect. Herein is another problem with the rising tide against the use of sugar in our diets. Someone else can just as easily counter my point with a study that arrives at the opposite conclusion. Even scientists themselves counter studies with studies. With so much confusion associated with the nutrition information we receive through the media, our doctors, and other sources, relying on one’s own experience with diet choices seems the best option for people who watch their health carefully; however, anecdotal evidence is always dismissed as evidence in the discussion of health and diet choices. Here we must ask just WHY anecdotal evidence is always discredited, especially when its related to an individual’s eating choices and the effects of those choices on his health or in his life. Of course, scientists say that anecdotal evidence is invalid because it cannot be reproduced, but it need not be reproduced when we’re discussing individual diet choices. In fact, given the weakness and unreliability of nutrition and other types of scientific studies, individual nature of our human bodies, variety of lifestyles we choose, and diverse cultures in which we’re raised, the only kind of evidence that should count in one’s dietary choices are his own: hence, anecdotal. Instead of respecting the fact individual bodies respond differently to sugars, fats, and other elements of the foods we eat, health professionals make general recommendations and the government makes general regulations (based on their own ideas of what constitutes a healthy diet) that apply equally to everyone, regardless of weight, over-all health, and lifestyle.
The constant attention paid to what we eat, the foods we need to stay thin, the nutrients we need to avoid all manner of illnesses, to the point of increasing legislation, and thus government oversight, of our individual eating habits is a result of the nutritionism: the medicalization of food in Western societies. Nutritionism is an ideology, rather than a science, as Gyorgy Scrinis explains in his excellently written article “Ideology of Nutritionism.” As a pervasive ideology for the past few decades, proponents of nutritionism have promoted a reductive view of food and diet, evaluating foods by their individual nutrients and relationship to overall health and thereby removing foods from their natural sensual and cultural contexts. Food has individual, cultural, and social contexts that cannot be reduced to the single concern of its relationship to health. These human contexts are, of course, inter-related. The foods we grow up eating as individuals, on a daily basis and on special occasions, are driven by cultural values and habits. One’s right to choose his own diet is also an important element of his individual freedom. For an individual to be free, he has to have the right to decide, without negative judgment or repercussion, what he puts into his body. As Scrinis points out in his article, food does have a sensual context. This context is related to individual likes and dislikes. People choose to eat foods they find pleasurable in taste, aroma, and texture. Sometimes the sensual pleasure may arise from the memory a certain food provides an individual, and often the pleasure arises from the comfort a particular food provides an individual. Influenced by the medicalization of food, policy makers, doctors, and nutritionists seek to deny our individuality and replace our sensual enjoyment of foods that are flavored with fat, sugar, and any other supposedly nutritionally deficient ingredients (along with all the individual memories and experiences associated with our enjoyment of our favorite “unhealthy” foods), with supposedly healthy, rational choices, no matter how lacking in pleasure the dictated choices may be. But in accepting this cold, clinical view of food, we lose the best of the relationship between food, individuals, and society. Food is love. Food is comfort. Food is family, place, and memory. Food is celebration, but food is also mourning. Food’s social, spiritual character is perhaps more important to individuals than its nutritional function, at least in wealthy societies where food scarcity is virtually non-existent.
The rise of nutritionism, expressed through the attempt of people in power to dictate and control what we choose to put into their bodies, is threatening our social and individual relationship with food. The ideology denies individual differences in metabolism, genetics, and activity levels. It turns people into identical machines that, if only greased, oiled, and fueled correctly will run perfectly, indefinitely. We need to reclaim our humanity as well as our individual dietary autonomy. We need to reclaim our humanity and respect each other’s individual physical differences. We need to respect our individual and cultural food choices, and we need to celebrate that we live in a land where we have so many foods from which to choose. We need to recover food from the ideology of nutritionism, and restore its spiritual nature, then we can properly love food again. The answer of our champion octogenarian runner Mr. Whitlock to the final question of his interview, when asked what advice he’d offer to others about staying active into old age, is applicable to our concern with dietary advice as well:
I don’t give people advice. I believe everybody has to decide what is best for them. I don’t believe I know what is best for anybody else. I’m not too sure I know what’s good for me, but I certainly don’t know what’s good for anyone else.
Like Mr. Whitlock, I am a proponent of individual freedom. Although I have my idea about what makes food healthy and delicious (and my ideas are evident throughout my blog posts), I don’t force my ideas on others. I am surrounded by people who still believe fat is evil and thus eat fat-free everything. I’m also surrounded by people who eat fat but believe that sugar is evil and thus eat sugar-free everything. I quietly support my friends’ and family members’ choices to omit fat and sugar from their diets. I am sad, however, that they won’t eat very much of this delicious, rich, gluten-free, grain-free Coca-Cola cake, which contains the best of both butter and sugar worlds. This cake is moist, dense, and super delicious; butter and sugar make it so!
To develop and deglutenize this cake recipe, I adapted the Coca-Cola cake recipe on the company’s website. I substitute a gluten-free, grain-free blend of cassava, almond, and coconut flours. Instead of two cups of sugar, I used one cup of brown sugar and one cup of cane sugar. I increased the number of eggs to three (for additional structure provided by the additional protein), and the amount of buttermilk to 3/4 cup (to accommodate thirsty gluten-free flours). I also increase the amount of vanilla to 2 teaspoons in both the batter and the frosting. Instead of using 1/2 cup of vegetable oil in the batter, I substitute 1/2 cup butter so that my recipe uses 1 cup of butter and no oil. Finally, I omit the marshmallow entirely from the recipe. I use Mexican Coca-Cola, sweetened with cane sugar instead of regular Coca-cola which is sweetened with corn syrup, but regular Coke will work fine. Finally, I increased the baking soda by 1/2 teaspoon, so that my recipe uses 1 1/2 teaspoons. *The flours I use in my recipe may be replaced with two cups (or 250g) of gluten-free all purpose flour mix.
- 1 cup cane sugar
- 1 cup brown sugar
- 100 g almond flour
- 100 g cassava flour
- 50 g coconut flour
- 1 cup Mexican Coca-cola
- 1 cup butter
- 3 tablespoons natural cocoa
- 1½ teaspoon baking soda
- ½ cup whole fat buttermilk
- 3 eggs
- 2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
- ½ cup butter
- 3 tablespoons cocoa
- 6 tablespoons Coca-Cola
- 1 box (16-ounces) confectioners' sugar
- 2 teaspoons vanilla extract
- 1 cup chopped pecans
- For the cake: Preheat oven to 350 degrees. In a bowl, mix the sugar and flour. In a saucepan, mix the butter, cocoa, and Coca-Cola. Bring to a boil and pour over dry ingredients; blend well. Dissolve baking soda in buttermilk just before adding to batter along with eggs and vanilla extract, mixing well. Pour into a well-buttered or oiled 9- by-13-inch pan and bake 35 to 45 minutes. Remove from oven and frost immediately.
- For the frosting: combine the ½ cup butter, 3 tablespoons cocoa and 6 tablespoons of Coca-Cola in a saucepan. Bring to a boil and pour over confectioners' sugar, blending well. Add vanilla extract and pecans. Spread over hot cake. When cool, cut into squares and serve.