This episode continues our conversation on the topic of children and food. A few months ago we heard from Dr. Lindo Bacon about how the things we’ve learned about obesity might not actually be the whole story. Then we talked with Ellyn Satter about the approach she devised called Division of Responsibility, which holds the parent/caregiver responsible for the what, when, and where of eating and the child responsible for whether and how much.
We followed that with a conversation with Dr. Michael Goran, a world-renowned expert on the impact of sugar on our bodies, and specifically on children’s bodies – and co-author of the book SugarProof. While the research seems to indicate that consuming large amounts of sugar isn’t necessarily the best thing for us, when I dug into the original papers that form the backbone of SugarProof I found that the results didn’t always seem to be quite as large as the book indicated.
In this episode we take another look at sugar – this time from the perspective of sociologist Dr. Karen Throsby. Dr. Thorsby received her BA in English Language and Literature from Lincoln College, Oxford, and a MSc in Gender and later a Ph.D from the London School of Economics. She is currently an Associate Professor in Gender Studies at the University of Leeds, and is writing a book entitled Sugar Rush: Science, Obesity, and the Social Life of Sugar. For the book, she is analyzing over 500 UK newspaper articles about sugar, as well as policy documents, scientific publications, popular science articles, self-help literature, and documentaries. She wants to understand what happens when we demonize sugar as ‘public enemy number one,’ and along with it the fat body. She doesn’t aim to determine the ‘truth’ about sugar or offer prescriptions about what people should eat, but instead think about how this debate relates to how scientific knowledge is produced, validated, and appropriated, panics about health and body size, the role of generation, gender, race, and class, and the lived inequalities associated with food.
Jump to highlights:
(02:10) Introducing Dr. Throsby
(03:22) One of your big focuses is on the idea of sugar being addictive. Can you tell us why you start there? What does it mean to be addicted to something, and can we be addicted to sugar?
(09:46) We have to be really careful with any attempt to define addiction because some people and certain groups of people are seen as more liable to be seduced by sugar than others
(12:18) The neuroscientific model of addiction recognizes that addiction is more than a failure of will and morals but also factors in biological vulnerability which can affect some people more than others
(15:10) The idea that you could stop consuming sugar if you wanted to is part of the problem in the way that sugar is being figured because it ignores the social context within which consumption occurs
(21:18) The reason the book is called Sugar Rush is obviously it’s a play on the idea of having a lot of sugar, but also about the rush to blame sugar
(22:04) Sugar is often referred to as empty calories but actually, it’s a category of food that is absolutely laden with meaning that I think is really important
Other episodes mentioned in this episode:
- Sugarproof: The Hidden Dangers of Sugar That Are Putting Your Child’s Health at Risk and What You Can Do
Click here to read the full transcript
Jen Lumanlan 00:02
Hi, I’m Jen and I host the Your Parenting Mojo podcast. We all want our children to lead fulfilling lives, but it can be so…
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Jen Lumanlan 01:32
Hello, and welcome to the Your Parenting Mojo Podcast. Today we’re continuing our series of episodes looking at the intersection of parenting and food. Recently we heard from Dr. Michael Goran who’s co author of the new book Sugarproof: The Hidden Dangers of Sugar That Are Putting Your Child’s Health at Risk and What You Can Do, where we discuss the research and what that says about the impact that sugar has on our bodies and our children’s bodies. But when I was looking around to see who is looking at issues related to sugar that are beyond just what those are there that are happening in the body and really lifting their head up and looking at the broader social and cultural issues, I found the work of today’s guest Dr. Karen Throsby.
Jen Lumanlan 02:10
Dr. Throsby is Associate Professor of Gender Studies at the University of Leeds in England. She obtained a bachelor’s degree from Lincoln College, Oxford and completed a master’s and PhD from the gender Institute London School of Economics. Her research explores the intersections of gender technology, the body and health and explores how bodily transformations happen and what this says about the wider social context they live in. She’s currently working on a book called Sugar Rush: Science, Obesity and the Social Life of Sugar, which begins from the question, what are the social meanings and practices of sugar in the context of a war on obesity.
Jen Lumanlan 02:44
She focuses less on the truths about the dietary debates on sugar, but instead uses it to think about how scientific knowledge is produced, validated and used. Our panics around health and body size and the politics of food and its lived inequalities. Welcome Dr. Throsby.
Dr. Throsby 03:00
Thank you very much for having me.
Jen Lumanlan 03:02
We were just having a little chat before we started and I was saying that whenever we get a sociologist on the show, I always feel completely out of my depth. I acknowledge that I very much approach these questions from a psychologist perspective and I’ve invited Dr. Throsby to push back when I’m asking these questions in a way that’s really different from the way that she sees them.
Jen Lumanlan 03:22
One of the the major threads that run through your work is this idea of addiction and sugar being addictive. I guess I’m curious why do you start there? Then we can sort of talk about what does it mean to be addicted to somethin and can we be addicted to sugar? I know there’s 100 directions we can go from there but let’s start with that as an overarching concept.
Dr. Throsby 03:44
Sure. I think just to take a little step back from that is to think about the project that I’ve done, the research that I’ve done, which is a study of primarily newspaper coverage of sugar from about 2013 up to the present, which is when you start to get an increased interest in sugar as sort of the dietary enemy of the day. Then I looked at self help books, diet books, public health campaigns, anything I could find within that time period. What I’m interested in is how sugar is talked about and how it’s kind of represented, and what kind of role it’s playing. What function is sugar playing as an enemy, or as a sort of a slice of pleasure, and so on. This is how I came across these constant references to sugar as addictive. It’s used in a very unquestioning way, particularly in newspaper coverage which cites it as a kind of known truth. Sugar is addictive.
Dr. Throsby 04:52
In a sense, that therefore is what I’m interested in. Therefore what? If we are claiming that It is addictive, what does that mean? For me, there’s a number of questions that come out of that. I think, firstly, what does it mean to say that something is addictive? When you look at the scientific literature, there is very little agreement about what constitutes addiction and at the moment, we’re kind of moving towards a sort of neuroscientific interpretation of it but there’s no consensus around that really either.
Dr. Throsby 05:25
It changes sort of. It sort of evolves how we think about it – about addiction – and what counts as a potential site of addiction. It’s not just substances now. There’s a kind of expansion of what we consider to food, to online environments, to Twitter to all those things. For me, I’m interested in it because it’s given a great amount of certainty, that we all know what it means to say that sugar is addictive, when in fact, if you sort of scratch below the surface, there’s very little certainty there.
Dr. Throsby 06:00
My question then is, so what is it doing? What is that claim doing when a journalist says, but it is addictive? Or an anti sugar activist says it. what is being done? For me, I think it does two key things. Both of them not well, in my view.
Dr. Throsby 06:22
The first one is that it suggests that if we can pin it down as addictive, we then know what to do about it. Oh, we should just treat it like drugs, for example.
Jen Lumanlan 06:35
Which we know what to do with, right? We can fix that problem.
Dr. Throsby 06:39
As if there is no problem with drugs and addiction. We don’t really know what it means. It doesn’t give us a solution, necessarily. It also, and I think this is its primary function is to create a sense of urgency. Rhetorically, it functions, the claim that it’s addictive functions as this urgent claim that something must be done, and what that does then it authorizes a series of interventions that don’t need to be proven in order to be enacted because it’s urgent. It’s an urgent problem.
Dr. Throsby 07:23
It creates, in this case, sugar, which is usually the problem that’s being addressed is fatness, which also we don’t really understand very well either. It creates this sense of urgency that pulls against the need to stop and think about what are we actually doing socially when we intervene in these practices – with eating practices in this case?
Jen Lumanlan 07:50
Thank you for setting the scene on that. I want to go into a number of those areas. Your first contention that we don’t really know what addiction is, and also the idea that how we think about addiction is really changed over time. Digging through the references in some of your papers, I wasn’t familiar with this suite of literature but, seeing how from the 1930s where addiction is really seen as this moral flaw in people moving towards this nearer psychological model which potentially ignores the social context of it -somebody is not addicted in isolation – can you trace that for us and how does that link to sugar?
Dr. Throsby 08:37
I think one of the quite important things is that in those changes that have happened, say, from a very moral judgment about personal failings through to this very kind of biologized vision where it’s kind of written into the body in a way that we can’t be responsible for. That, actually, we never leave those earlier models behind and actually, we can see with addiction, drug addiction say, or alcoholism, or a presumed addiction to sugar, there is a massive amount of blame attached and kind of moral judgment attached to individuals. I’m certainly not saying that, but things that are kind of recognizable or known as addiction, I’m not saying they don’t exist. I’m not saying people are not under the sphere of alcohol or drugs in terrible traumatic ways, but we never leave these other judgments behind and we do judge people who are addicted to all kinds of things, although in different ways to different kinds of substances.
Dr. Throsby 09:46
There are kind of acceptable addictions: to exercise, for example, is much more acceptable than cocaine. I think there’s that shift, but also I think, for me, it tells us that we have to be really careful with any attempt to define. Not that definitions don’t have functions. We have to kind of have provisional definitions for lots of things but we have to be really careful with those and ask who is being excluded. Who is being brought into the center of vision, who then becomes the focus of intervention. I think where sugar is concerned, this becomes really important, because some people and certain groups of people are seen as more liable to be seduced by sugar than others.
Dr. Throsby 10:41
It’s incredibly classed, and it’s incredibly gendered. I think as soon as we start thinking about those models, we need to think about who are they speaking about? Who is considered vulnerable in those kinds of definitions and in those models? Who becomes the target of intervention, and surveillance, when we’re deciding what counts as addiction?
Jen Lumanlan 11:11
Thinking about the neuropsychological view of addiction, then, it seems like if it’s something that’s inside ourselves that we can’t help, then the most appropriate way to deal with that is to deal with supply. If you can cut off the supply, then the person won’t have to deal with their brains inability to cope with whatever is happening. I think we’ve seen that play out in the story of drug addiction we’re now also seeing that related to sugar and thinking about Dr. Goran’s book, where we’re talking about reducing the quantity of sugar that we’re taking in, and things like soda taxes, and those kinds of mechanisms – companies voluntarily reducing the amount of sugar and salt in their foods. We’re seeing this play out already. What implications does that have if what we’re saying is that a neuro psychological view of addiction is not necessarily the right way of looking at it, because it’s ignoring all these cultural and social factors?
Dr. Throsby 12:21
There are many appealing aspects to this kind of neuro scientific approach to it in that by saying it’s actually not a matter of willpower, for example. If you’re saying it’s about how the brain is structured and operating, that it’s kind of beyond your control in some way. It’s not just a failure of will. It’s not a moral failure, in that sense. It has a lot of appeal, I think and I think in many ways, it’s been mobilized as an attempt to try and shift blame away from individual failings, to think about the broader structures that might expose people to particular drugs or foods or whatever, but I think the analogy between drugs like cocaine, and oriental tobacco, and sugar starts to break down in these terms because you can’t abstain from food.
Dr. Throsby 13:25
Some people are in a position to control what is in their food to some extent. You could. I know a lot of people do completely remove added sugar, for example, but they’re still eating sugar. You can’t abstain in the same way. You can certainly reduce but we don’t think about wouldn’t it be great if people had slightly less cocaine. We think about them as they need to stop having cocaine because you can’t have a little bit. A lot of people feel the same about tobacco for example, you have to stop and so on. Alcoholics, obviously, are told you must not have any. I think this is where the analogy breaks down.
Dr. Throsby 14:13
In the UK, when Action On Sugar, which is an anti sugar organization in the UK, they launched in 2014 and they launched with the taglines that sugar is the new tobacco, which was a direct invocation of addiction of addictive properties, plus health harms from then consuming, but even Professor Graham McGregor, who’s the Chair of Action On Sugar, sort of later on in the newspaper commentaries said “Yep, we know it’s not really like tobacco.” It’s different but but we said it for emphasis. It circles back to the effect of it. The social effect of saying that it’s addictive is flagging up a great big warning.
Dr. Throsby 15:10
At the same time, still actually, even through the neuroscientific model, shifting responsibility back onto the individual. It’s your responsibility as an individual then to, to know the dangers of sugar, and to find ways to restrict your consumption and to make the right choices. And so even though it seems to lift the responsibility, like almost all environmental arguments about sugar, about soda taxes and everything, in the end, it always comes back to individual choices that you could stop it if you wanted to which, for me is part of the problem of the way that sugar is being figured.
Jen Lumanlan 15:55
Why is that part of the problem?
Dr. Throsby 15:58
It ignores the social context within which consumption occurs. If we look, for example, at people living in poverty, with very little choice over how to eat, when to eat, what to eat, because of lack of money, lack of time, they’re often working multiple jobs, might not be able to afford to have a fridge, might not be able to afford to put the oven on. There’s over a million children eating out of food banks in the UK.
Dr. Throsby 16:35
By making it a matter of individual choice, and by focusing on sugar – I think this for me is another problem of talking so explicitly about sugar – is that it closes down the other conversations that I think we need to be having, which are about inequality, and poverty. And so you often hear people say, you know, okay, people who are poor, are more likely to be fat, and more likely to have higher sugar consumption. Yes. And that’s fairly well documented, but a government policy response to that is usually, “Ah, so we must target the poor people with our anti sugar, anti fat interventions, rather than saying, how can we make people less poor?” I think, by focusing so exclusively on sugar as the problem to be solved, it actually stops the conversation going any further. “Oh, we can’t sort that but we’ll do this.” That’s my concern about it really.
Jen Lumanlan 17:38
Definitely hearing echoes of our conversation with Dr. Lindo Bacon, where we talked about…
Dr. Throsby 17:42
Absolutely, I’m sure
Jen Lumanlan 17:43
Related to the view of fatness and how that shows up and that poverty is absolutely an issue that is intimately connected to that. Yes, it’s seen as a moral failing when somebody is fat and that we should target them with messaging to say, “And don’t be fat” rather than addressing the structural issues that are really at play.
Jen Lumanlan 18:11
Coming back again to this issue of addiction and one of the things that you really pulled out. You were just talking about tobacco and the parallel there and in one of your papers, you talked about how sugar is sort of seen as this unnatural processed food, and even that it has this crystalline appearance that’s similar to other drugs and has similar extractive processes as cocaine and opium and it seems like the popular press really latches on to those things, and draws parallels between them in a way that they wouldn’t if they look different and are used differently.
Dr. Throsby 18:50
If you look at some of the imagery that comes around the kind of anti sugar writing in journalism, and books and so on, one of the most common images is a kind of pile a little sort of cone of sugar on a dark surface, it looks suspiciously drug-like in this way, or little bags of, I mean you can’t miss it, really. The insinuation of it. I have seen there are a number of researchers and commentators who very explicitly make that point about, “Well, it’s processed in the same way as cocaine, or opium.”
Dr. Throsby 19:29
I mean, it’s frankly kind of ridiculous to say that because something looks like something else, it’s the same kind of problem. I’m not saying that sugar is a healthful food. I’m not defending it in that sense and this is something I’m often accused of basically sort of shilling for Coca Cola, because you have to be either anti sugar or you’re pro sugar. And that’s not my position at all. What I’m trying to say is that by making this connection, you exaggerate the threat that sugar poses for rhetorical purposes, which then smooths over a lot of the interesting differences in the way that we consume products that are not necessarily healthful.
Dr. Throsby 20:36
There’s a great deal of nuance and variation in the way that those products are consumed. So if we take illicit drugs out of the pictures of cocaine, and so on, but if we think about caffeine or alcohol for example, there’s a very complex picture about how we consume, what the social meanings of that consumption are, and what the risks might be, and what constitutes a risk. The short term health risk, or long term health risk or social risk of not consuming, for example, of turning down a treat that’s been baked for you, and so on.
Dr. Throsby 21:20
The reason the book is called Sugar Rush is obviously it’s a play on the idea of having a lot of sugar, but also about the rush to blame sugar. The kind of piling on to sugar. That’s what I’m interested in, really. I think by piling on and drawing those parallels with drugs, like cocaine, I think ends up losing so much of the important nuance about how and why sugar is kind of operating in our everyday consumption.
Jen Lumanlan 21:58
What are some of the ways that you see that happening then that sugar operates in our daily consumption?
Dr. Throsby 22:05
I think there’s a number of these that would be seen as problematic by a lot of people, but they’re also very pleasurable, so I think one thing is that sugar is very strongly associated with pleasure, but also affection love, common selati, eating together, being together. I think we all have very fond memories of dishes, perhaps that or cakes that a beloved grandparent might have made or candy or sweet that someone might have given that you see it and you think of that person, or the dish that my mom might cook for me when I go home, because she knows that I really like it. There might be a nice, sweet.
Dr. Throsby 22:42
I think you have to take that pleasure seriously. It’s often written off as a misplaced emotionality or an ignorance around it but I think you have to take seriously that those kinds of meanings of sugar.
Dr. Throsby 23:02
Sugar is often referred to as empty calories but actually, it’s a category of food that is absolutely laden with meaning that I think is really important. I think there is a whole issue that comes up in the newspaper coverage and in all the anti sugar books that is quite interesting about sugar as being hidden. I find really interesting that sugar is in foods where you might not expect it to be. In savory foods, for example, where you wouldn’t necessarily have a pasta sauces are a really common target of this that they have added sugar in them, and so on. I think the idea of it not only being hidden, but also was hiding, which comes up quite a lot of sugars, given this quite active personality as being kind of quite demonic, and nefarious as hiding away, and sort of doing all this hidden harm to our bodies and also hiding in the body. There’s a lot of warnings, particularly in the anti sugar, self help books but it doesn’t matter if you’re slim, that it’s still in your body, it’s hidden in the body as well.
Dr. Throsby 24:15
When you eat sugar, it kind of it gets dispersed around the body, operates in the body in this unseen way. It’s been given this quite unpleasant, quite sneaky, carrot characterization, that I find a kind of interesting thing to attach to a food. And it fits very well with this idea that we have good food and bad food, which I find it a very programmatic way of categorizing, categorizing our food and I think, most recently, obviously, it’s really been it’s like the the standard bearer of the attack on sugar as the standard barrier bearer for the war and obesity. Now it’s become synonymous with obesity. So when you’re talking about sugar, you’re talking about fatness. Where sugar is seen as the now is positioned as the primary culprit in causing fatness, which then in turn is treated as as kind of quite catastrophic. And so it’s become kind of this. The primacy of it, I think is is really important that it’s become the, the food enemy of the day. In ways that makes it quite powerful.
Jen Lumanlan 25:36
Yeah, and I’m just okay, I’m so I’m putting myself in the position of a parent listening to this podcast episode and thinking, Okay, well, that’s all well and good. And, and I can see how it’s really interesting that people talk about hiding sugar. And yeah, I didn’t know sugar was in pasta sauce and, or that its distribution around the body. And I know they’re fatty liver is an issue where it sort of gathers around your liver as well. But but isn’t? Aren’t we eating too much sugar? And isn’t that bad for us? How do we hold those two things together?
Dr. Throsby 26:13
That’s the first thing, it depends on who we is. Okay. That, you know, but the consumption varies enormously. And what constitutes too much in terms of again, if I go back to my discussion around poverty, somebody may be sharing with their family, processed foods that may be high in sugar, or you know, other fat and salt and so on. But that that may be the best way to feed children where they know that they will eat the food and not be hungry, which is the primary health threat in the immediate term, having a hungry child. And, and so there’s, there’s not the luxury to think about long term health risks or something. So I think the wheat who the we is the we tend to refer to a very kind of middle class sort of vision of eating. Yeah. Having said that, clearly, sugar consumption has increased over say, the last 30 years or so. And as has the process as as processed food, and so on, and it may be some kind of problem. For sure. I’m not saying that sugar is, as I said, a helpful for not defending sugar. And but I think that for me, the immediate jump to sugar misses out lots of really important steps in thinking about food supply, food consumption, and who prepares the food, whose job is it if we have to reduce our sugar consumption by diligently reading labels, and making meals from scratch? Who is doing that work? Well, it’s women who are doing that work, women who are already massively overstretched. So this is what I mean, by needing to take a step back that the rush to sugar misses out all these other important steps that will be left unresolved, even if we reduce the amount of sugar that we eat. So I think and I guess, following on from that is the focus on sugar as bad stops us thinking about other kind of endemic health harms, that are also related to obesity, like, if you if you feel like obesity is a serious problem, and endocrine disrupters, sleep, sleep debt, and so on and so on. That, again, it’s that silencing of the other conversations. And I don’t really mean that as a kind of what about every, you know, what about this? What about that, but I think they’re actually steps in a conversation that, you know, if you’re a parent, clearly on an everyday basis, you have to decide what to feed your children. And there’s a series of decisions there, and demands, and I appreciate that and that people are trying to make the most difficult choices, and that the best choices are often in very difficult circumstances. But I think those other things that I was I was talking about are important, because they are they’re an invitation to stop and think about what is being made unspeakable by speaking about sugar,
Jen Lumanlan 29:23
okay. All right. And so um, it’s something that’s been in the back of my mind for a few minutes now, and one of the reasons we talked with Dr. Linda Bacon is because they don’t accept any funding from from industry. And so you’ve talked a couple times about not demonizing sugar and I just want to be crystal clear as it were. Do you accept any funding from the sugar industry from from?
Dr. Throsby 29:50
I mean, first of all, the sugar industry is not going to pay a feminist sociologist to do anything. That’s the first thing but also because When you look at my work, I’m actually very critical of those industries as well. You know, there, it wouldn’t I would never, I would never accept that kind of money from those big companies, partly because I think I mean, not just because not necessarily because of the products, but because of the labor relations, environmental destruction, and, and all of those things as well. But no, no, I got to position myself as kind of constructively critical of both of both ends of this debate.
Jen Lumanlan 30:34
Okay. Okay. Great. Thank you for clarifying that. And so, you mentioned that you’re a feminist sociologist, and we started talking a little bit about this gender gendered work that goes into Yeah, navigating sugar, understanding it, monitoring it, which Yeah, is in a heterosexual relationship is typically something that is taken on by the female mother in the household. And not only does it become my work to do this, it’s also my fault, if my child is rejecting certain foods, or is in a body that is perceived in a certain way. Yeah. What do you say about that? Yeah,
Dr. Throsby 31:17
I mean, whenever we talk about food, we’re always talking about gender. It’s always gendered as you, as you say, quite rightly, who is preparing the food, who’s buying the food, who’s planning the food, so even where men are sharing that labor, it’s off, it’s usually women who are doing the remembering the thinking that, you know, the writing the lists, and those kinds of things. And I say this, as I’m an I’m not a parent, and I’ve never parent a child. But I mean, there’s there’s ample evidence, yes, that this is a, you know, a predominant pattern. So it is women’s work. And so whenever you propose changes, or interventions into consumption, you’re generally making more work for women. And so what I feel about a lot of these sort of the anti sugar advocates as what I would like them to start off by talking about who’s going to do this work, because this is a serious issue. And it’s not just work then. But then it’s also guilt bearing. So it was a very common trope in the newspapers, which I’ve called the mortified mother story, which is where you, you, you, they get a mother who’s got, you know, two or three kids, and then they do a food diary for a day or a week, and then they count up how much sugar the kids are eating. And then basically, the mother gets a taking off from a nutritionist, and she has to sort of mend her ways. And then she ends up having to, you know, she’s reading the labels, she’s keeping a journal of how much sugar they’re having. She’s cooking food from scratch that she used to buy packaged food. And her labor is just kind of escalating, but it’s not recognized as work because it’s mothering. And so it’s completely invisible labor, in that sense, in the interest of others, and we know that, for example, you know, a lot of these the, these articles also talk about how can women then persuade their male partners, if we’re sort of in that heteronormative mode? How can they sort of persuade their male partners to either help as it’s called, or to eat differently. And so there’s lots of advice out there about how you can kind of sneakily make changes, so that no one notices that you change the taste very slowly. But of course, it’s the woman is doing all of the work on their behalf. And so I think that really matters because when a child is fat, for example, it is that the mother can match like who is targeted for blame that it’s her fault. Because the child is is fat, and that’s seen as kind of catastrophic, and a failure of mothering. I think the other way that it’s gendered that I find quite interesting is that women are figured as being kind of especially vulnerable to sugar. Now that kind of the sweetie eater type narrative. And it’s basically a way of making women childish. So this idea that children have got, you know, children will eat sweets, children have got a naturally sweet tooth, and women are kind of positioned as being like children, and unable to resist sweet foods and
Jen Lumanlan 34:28
self control. Yeah,
Dr. Throsby 34:30
yeah. And so there’s, there’s a kind of really interesting narrative there about who is most vulnerable to sugar and, and to its kind of temptations and who’s able to control their own bodies and women generally don’t come out of this very well, which again, I think should and yet are expected to exercise control. In all of these other ways, and of course, over their own bodies. The pressure on women to control their food consumption and to control and manage their body sizes is compared to I know men experience this kind of pressure, but the boundaries of acceptable body size and the pressure on women is a completely different order of things. And, and so there’s this kind of tension that women have to navigate between being apparently just completely kind of seduced by sugar, and yet needing to exercise absolute control at all times over their bodies and surveil their bodies and those of the children and men for whom they’re, they’re responsible. So I think gender has to be present there in this discussion about who’s doing the work, who’s carrying the blame, in all of these discussions,
Jen Lumanlan 35:39
okay, and so just to sort of bring this from the theoretical to the practical use a gender has to be present in this discussion. What does that mean for a family who is trying to understand I do I follow the world health recommendations, World Health Organization recommendations for, you know, 25 grams of sugar a day, which seems to be based on really shaky evidence, mostly dental cavities, rather than anything else? What do we actually do about this?
Dr. Throsby 36:08
Okay, yeah. I mean, again, as I said, I’m not a parent. And I think not being a parent changes the dynamics of a household. A lot. Yeah, it’s a very different dynamic, although we know that the gender division of labor still persists, whether there are children in the house or not generally, I think, what I think, I guess, without wanting to kind of tell people what to do in situations that I haven’t experienced, I think that the sharing of that work, is a really key step. Not just getting people on side in terms of Shall we try and reduce the amount of sugar we’re eating as fat as a collective endeavor, which I know Michael Gordon’s book is very much about that, isn’t it about a kind of family endeavor, which, you know, I’ve got a lot of time for that kind of, it’s a very, it’s a kind of very generous, generous and inclusive way of thinking about it as a family project. And have a lot of time for that. But that also has to include, I think, how is the work of this going to be done? And who is going to do the work? And if it doesn’t work out, who’s going to get the blame for it, that a lot of these projects are either explicitly or implicitly driven by women? And others sort of go along? You know, but are they cooking half the meals? Are they doing the shopping? Are they reading the labels? Are they calculating how many teaspoons of sugar the children have had? Are they right? You know, if you want to do that, you know, so I think, for me, it’s that it’s, it’s this, this doesn’t happen by accident. And that the work doesn’t happen by accident, right? And yet, it’s made very invisible.
Jen Lumanlan 37:50
And so we’re actually in a pretty interesting situation to be talking about this right now. Because we are doing the sugar proof experiment, okay, to reduce sugar in our household. We actually did it a couple weeks ago. And then I found out I’m, your mortified mother narrative is coming up, you know, I found out that my daughter was in camp, and they were feeding her popsicles in the afternoon. And so I don’t know that I felt that I failed, but it was just kind of a. And so we’re doing it again. And and we’re not being sort of super hardcore about it. But we are sort of being very conscious about it. And yes, a lot of this work is is on me. And yesterday, we my daughter, and I had to have a conversation with my husband who likes to eat this baked chocolate goodie in the morning that I had happened to bake before I realized that we were going to do this again. And my daughter Charisse was saying what it’s not fair that he is that in front of me. And so I was actually recording an interview yesterday while this conversation was happening in the back here in the next room, and came out and sort of helped them to reach an agreement that he would not eat this in front of her that he wouldn’t be prevented from having it but he would he would not eat in front of her. But yes, you know, it’s not to say that he’s not a an equal participant here, but that yeah, it’s it’s very much me and to some extent her saying, You know what, we need some help from you on this too. And I can ask him to cook and he will put two meals on the shopping list that he’s he’s gonna be he’s gonna be responsible for cooking in the next two weeks. But if I forget to ask, and if I don’t ask them to be cooked that night, then it’s not going to get cooked. Yeah. So yeah, we’re absolutely seeing that play out. So I’m curious about how how would you shift this interaction?
Dr. Throsby 39:41
I mean, it’s so difficult, isn’t it? And I think one of the things about I think sugar in particular, but the kind of these things in general, they are these that very complicated things, our attachment to food, our attachment to our roles in the household, because also there is a lot of pleasure to be had from mothering and caring and providing food Wouldn’t you? No, I’m not saying this is all just sort of torture and torment, you know, by any means. But I think these are very complicated things. And I think one of the things that feminism, actually that feminist thought had can teach us about this is that you can be as aware as you like, of the gendering of certain social practices and ideas. And there’s not always that easy to change. And we can think about body dissatisfaction, for example, I work within critical fat studies, I’m very sympathetic to Linda bacon’s ideas, for example, I think I have, you know, a fairly well developed understanding of how these kind of discourses of oppression and so on are operating, and so on. And yet, you know, much as I try not to, I still have, you know, I still have those moments when I’m just like, oh, you know, my life would be so much better if we’re 20 pounds lighter. You know, and I know, that’s nonsense, but it’s those things, you can’t just step outside of them for knowing that they are a problem. And I think it’s the same with domestic relations. Because, you know, these are people who we love we care for, we’ve built lives with, we’ve fallen into habits around who does what these are, these are tricky things to challenge and change. And I think, you know, so I think it’s important not to think of any of this as straightforward, just as changing and what we eat is not necessarily straightforward, either, because we have habitual patterns of eating, having your chocolate treat in the morning, you know, or whatever. The thing is that you that, you know, that habit that you have. And I think that it’s really important to be kind to ourselves, when we look at our social relations, when we look at our eating habits, or the way we think about our own bodies, and to kind of think about, you know, not not allow this idea that we’re all kind of individually able to take responsibility for all these things to kind of take over to the point where we end up just feeling like we’re failing the whole time.
Jen Lumanlan 41:57
Okay, all right. Yeah. And I think that that perspective of, of not seeing this as a failure, you know, my daughter has a cookie for somewhere. That’s not a failure. That’s not failure on me.
Dr. Throsby 42:10
She had a cookie, and, you know, the world didn’t end. You know? It’s, I think, I think with food. That the absolute is, is a problem. Yes. In many ways. Yeah. And I think the good bad is a problem thinking about food as good bad, because then we think about bodies as good as good or bad. Do I have a good body? Do I have a bad body? Yeah. And I think those absolutes and binaries become really, really problematic.
Jen Lumanlan 42:38
Yeah, yeah. And that sort of leads into one of the discourses that’s kind of popular right now is around our bodies being evolved to seek out sugar to help us lay down fat in preparation for times of scarcity. Because our bodies are built to equip built to live and exist in a world where sugar isn’t available, the time now is available the time, what do you make of that discourse.
Dr. Throsby 43:03
I mean, this has come up a lot through the kind of paleo type diets, the low carb, high fat, there’s lots of sort of versions of that. And we so we hear about that a lot. And then this, this broader explanation about that we want sweet food. And again, it is very strongly associated with babies in the fact that breast milk is very sweet and sort of an acquired taste that we have. My, my feeling about these claims is that they’re incredibly vague. And that they presume, a kind of natural or pure state from which we have deviated. And it’s a pure state of like being driven by our desires in an environment that provides us with what we need. I mean, that’s the the imagined sort of purity of it, that you’d be you know, you’d come across a tree full of berries, every so often you scarfing down, and you get your sugar, your Sugar Rush, but you’re not having them every day. But I think one of the my concerns about this is a lot of this is based on research around eating habits that we really don’t know very much about. We’re talking about a massive period of time, that the the period of time that’s being referred to, is massive, absolutely massive. It’s also incredibly geographically dispersed. And so there’s, you know, in a sense, if you really look at these different eating practices, what you could say is the human body is incredibly adaptable, in terms of how, what it can survive on, but there’s a kind of generalization around Hunter gathering an image of it, that is actually assumes a great deal of uniformity across a huge span of time. The other thing that bothers me about it as a lot of it is based on research, and particularly the sort of the Paleo side of it is based on on research that was done basically by colonial powers by White men going to visit, sort of modern day hunter gatherers. So sort of surviving hunter gatherer communities without an first one, the first thing is that they tended to only follow the men because they thought that they were the most important thing. So if the men are hunting, you’re going to get, you’re going to see hunting, but not see that the everydayness of also that sort of vegetable, and fruit gathering and production. But also even if you look at the kind of archaeological data, the you’ll you’ll get remains from hunting, because there’ll be bones and tools and so on. But obviously, the vegetables that we can and fruits that were consumed, don’t leave any trace. And so it doesn’t look like they ate that. I mean, of course, they’re not eating sugar in the sort of process bag of sugar sense. But so there’s that. So what we see people doing and what’s being gathered, but also looking at modern day hunter gatherers, who communities who don’t, that don’t eat traditionally eat very much sugar, are also profoundly affected by colonialism, and the violence of colonialism. And if we think about, there’s often people talk about Aboriginal communities, for example, who have terrible problems with diabetes, and cancers, and so on. And that sugar is often held responsible for this. But what we were not talking about is the the horrendous racism and dispossession, that has forced people into a particular pattern of eating. So again, to kind of control the amount of sugar these individuals are eating is really scratching the surface. So I think, you know, clearly, we’re eating more sugar than we used to. We’re eating more refined sugar, and processed and processed food, whether whether you can then say that there is a pure kind of self that precedes the contemporary body. I’m not convinced by that. Because we know that bodies change if we think about epigenetics, and like each generation food and exposure to the environment changes the way the body responds to food and the way that genes are kind of expressed. The idea that we could ever return to this pure kind of pre social, self seems very problematic to me.
Jen Lumanlan 47:29
Okay, so So where are we headed? Then? It goes back to this this pre social pre, me ideal hunter gatherer body that that didn’t have or I guess, existed in a world that didn’t have sugar. We’re not in that world anymore. No, no, clearly, we can’t go back to that. Excuse me? Are we headed into a world where we we need to be the ones who controls this? Or we need? Are we headed into a world where we’re looking to companies to control this or governments to control or accessing sugar? Or something else? Some other model? Where are we going? Do you think?
Dr. Throsby 48:07
I mean, again, I think it’s hugely variegated, on the, on the basis of class, for example, and access, like who’s heading in which direction, I mean, you can see, you know, a whole a whole kind of tranche of, perhaps people like myself, people like you, who I’m White, I’m middle class, I’m very privileged, I have a good income, I, you know, I can control my own food, I have the social cultural capital, to cook a pizza, you know, particular kinds of food, to prepare foods, and so on. Where you can see a narrative of control is very appealing from that perspective, I see myself as controlling my body and my diet, whereas actually, you know, I It’s only that’s a that’s a facet of my privilege, and to be able to do that. And so I think, in a sense, again, I keep saying this, but it comes back to these issues of inequality, and who has access to what resources I mean, clearly, they’re the, you know, the food companies, the big food companies are, I don’t think we should be surprised that they’re so kind of powerful, and, you know, investing so heavily in marketing and in the products that they’re making, but they clearly don’t necessarily have people’s health and best interests at heart. But at the same time, by by just sort of, for example, banning fast food, joints in certain areas, which is something that’s been sort of positive a lot in the UK. So in particularly poor areas to stop fast food joints opening and so on. Again, it comes back to this this thing, Why could you not make those poor areas less poor? Because we know that when people have more money, when they have more job security, on they have no problem? Pay live in a health healthy environment. They they eat, they eat better, and they are healthier that the biggest predictor of illness is poverty. That’s if we look at the work of Michael Marmot it’s, it’s, it’s really well established. So I think, you know, to, to talk about sugar, or to talk about obesity, actually, I think as well is, is a distraction in the sense from this broader issue, while at the same time wanting people to be able to make food choices that work for them, that make sense to them. But at the same time, I think it also has to be an acceptance that the choices that people may make, may not be the ones that those making the policies have in mind.
Jen Lumanlan 50:52
But at least there they would be choices, right, rather than something you have to do because yeah, the only options available to you. Yeah, and and I some of the examples in some of your papers about the way that this is classic, I hadn’t realized, I think this this shows up particularly in the UK with the sugar tree farm reality show, which I never heard of. And, and you cited a newspaper article where Peter Davison who all my UK listeners will know who he is. Yeah, you know, who Doctor Who is. And I guess he collapsed and was taken away in an ambulance when when they’re on this sort of sugar free diet. And and this is, you know, newspapers making fun of him, because it wasn’t the working class woman from Essex, which, which is actually where I’m from. Originally, I heard that they would expect to be the weakling. You know, he was sort of reduced his his his middle class status wasn’t a protective factor for him in that environment.
Dr. Throsby 51:51
No, because he it turns out that he was eating more sugar than and then when he they stopped him, he stopped eating sugar, and the effect on his body was that sort of completely filled him. Yeah, and there was this shock that it wasn’t I think it was Gemma Collins wasn’t it? Yeah, it’s from a show called The Only Way Is Essex Yeah. And, and there was this real kind of like, Who would have thought that that kind of middle class White man would have would have been so kind of taken over by sugar. But I think we can also see it more broadly in this this class pneus, in the assumption that working class people cannot be trusted to manage their own desires. And so another good example is the celebrity chef, Hugh fearnley witing. Store. I don’t know if you’re familiar with him, if your audience will
Jen Lumanlan 52:38
be, I think my my listeners may not, but I know of him from,
Dr. Throsby 52:42
I mean, he’s quite a kind of his kind of public school educated, quite posh celebrity chef, who’s kind of very interested in sort of social causes. And he got into he did a program called Britain’s fat fight on the BBC. And as part of that, he launched a campaign called wh sugar, which is a play on a High Street store called wh Smiths. That that really targets a working class demographic, it sells newspapers and comics and books and stationery, and sweets and snacks. And it’s it, it does that thing with a with the aisles leading up to the checkout where they maybe have chocolate, or they’ll have the big bars of chocolate on the checkout, which you can buy cheap for, you know, cheap if you buy something else. And so we started this campaign about this. And sort of we’d go into these stores or photograph himself surrounded by bars of chocolate and things. But what really struck me that the campaign was about kind of protecting working class people from their own inability to resist temptation. And we never, ever get a sense that he is tempted by it. He’s in this space, but he’s not tempted. Right, but someone else might be. And so this kind of completely unspoken sense of his kind of White male privilege, and in a sense, sort of protecting him from the weaknesses of others, and that you have to go in and, and, and stop other people being exposed to otherwise they will consume to excess. And so there’s, and I think this for me, connects to what I see as being one of the broader issues that is framing the attack on sugar. And that is the connection to austerity in the UK. So for those who aren’t familiar with this, it was really comes around after the financial crash. And around 2012 2013. We had a whole series of policies under the David Cameron’s Conservative government that basically reduced welfare support, cut all public services. And it came with a narrative that people who made claims on benefits on the welfare system were over consuming public resources to the detriment of the health service of the nation’s ability to prosper, and they became targets as kind Have skivers and scroungers getting getting more than they deserved, sort of illegitimately, and that the attack on sugar starts in the UK at almost exactly the same time. And the language, so I’m not saying one cause the other, right. But they kind of fed each other, that the language of austerity is completely embedded in the language of anti sugar. So of people over consuming of people not taking care of themselves, and therefore becoming reliant on state, and using their health service, and wrecking the health service and so on. And then the language of economy starts coming up, the idea that it comes up with cuts and benefits, people were told, Well, if you if you bought sensibly, if you, you know, if you were careful with your money, you would have enough. And the same comes with the sugar, where people have been encouraged to make these tiny economies into a teaspoon saving here, a teaspoon saving there, a teaspoon saving there, and it won’t even be a problem. It’ll be really easy. And, and so the language kind of it fed into it, that we had these kind of image of these working class people over consuming and unable to control their consumption, and then being urged to make these sort of tiny economies for the safe state, for the sake of the nation, and to protect the health service. And so the language kind of it fed, they fed into each other and really gave it gave it some force in the UK context.
Jen Lumanlan 56:36
Anyway. Yeah, I’m not sure we’ve seen the same here. We’re not having the massive circle support.
Dr. Throsby 56:43
At least we’ve had it
Jen Lumanlan 56:44
Yes. Yes, exactly. Okay. And so so as we sort of come to a conclusion here, to me, the the macro level path is somewhat clear, we shouldn’t be focusing on telling people what to eat, we should be focusing on alleviating poverty, on raising everybody’s standard of living so that nobody is forced to eat a certain food, because that’s the only food that they can afford that they that they should be able to choose what foods to eat. And they may not choose to eat, what the traditional sort of middle class White view of a balanced diet is. But at least they have a choice. I’m curious to see, firstly, whether you agree with that. And secondly, on a on a micro level, on a on an individual family level, I know you don’t make prescriptions, you’re very clear in your work that you don’t make prescriptions about what people eat. But, but what what advice would you leave parents with who are navigating these different families?
Dr. Throsby 57:42
Yeah, I mean, first of all, yes, I on that macro level, I think the question should always be about kind of poverty and inequality, not about a specific food item, that sugar is not responsible for these kind of, like, devastating inequalities that we have in the UK, I know in the US as well. So on that level, but and I think that’s important, because I think sugar is being used as a distraction, not necessarily by people, like, you know, people like Michael Gore, and, and so on, who are, you know, engaging in a specific kind of health mission, but I think politically, certainly, it’s being used as a distraction. So there’s that, on the practical level, I mean, having, as you say, having said that, we all still have to decide what to have for tea tonight. And you do, you know, we all have to decide what to eat. And, and all of those things. And so it’s all very well to say we have to resolve poverty, but you know, someone who’s got kids, it’s got to give them something to eat, and decide. So there are a series of difficult decisions. I think, for me, personally, it’s been really interesting working on sugar. It hasn’t, it hasn’t actually changed my attitude to sugar, but I also having said, I don’t agree with absolute prescriptions on food, I’m a vegan. And so I absolutely don’t eat a whole kind of a whole kind of set of foods. You know, for a very specific set of ethical reasons. I also don’t drink caffeine for health reasons, because I didn’t sleep. And so I feel like I already have quite a lot of restriction, food restriction. And I’m very concerned about piling restriction on restriction in that sense, but having said that, because of you know, the privilege that I enjoy, I eat you know, largely I’ll eat an entirely plant based diet largely made from scratch I don’t eat processed food because I can, you know, have the time and money to cook food that I like for myself. And so I’m in a very privileged position. I don’t have children if I had children I think I would want them to, to know about food, to know food, to have a choice of food to try different foods to know what it’s like to cook and handle food to know how much food costs you know, what’s expensive food, what isn’t to build their skills, if you like in choosing their in choosing their diet as they grow. As they get older, I would want to limit the amount of fast food and heavily processed food that they ate. Mostly because I would want them to be eating something else, like, you know, those things. But at the same time, I think that if I had a child, I would want her to know that whatever size or shape her body is, she’s fabulous. And that it doesn’t say anything about who you are as a person. And it’s not a moral, it’s not an achievement to be thin, it’s, we have a diversity of bodies. And I would want her to know that and then to be able to be sympathetic and understanding of some of the different struggles that people have with that. So I think I would want them to be able to develop their own tastes, develop their own skills, with food and make choices, make informed choices, but also to be understanding about other bodies and to enjoy food.
Jen Lumanlan 1:01:01
I was waiting for that.
Dr. Throsby 1:01:04
I think he would say that so much of the anti sugar. Campaigning is, is rather joyless. Yeah, actually, a I think it fails to recognize the pleasure to recognize as legitimate some of the pleasure that we get from this kind of food, but also food as as pleasure not just as a kind of, in terms of taste, but also socially, as being very pleasurable, as well, and very important. And I think I would want I would want children to learn that, you know, food is a site, an important site of pleasure, as well. And it doesn’t need to be governed by kind of constant rules and prescriptions.
Jen Lumanlan 1:01:45
Yeah, and that maybe that even that aspect of it holds holds as much weight as the the caloric and the nutrient intake that you’re getting that we shouldn’t neglect that and see that as something that’s irrelevant, or don’t even pay attention to it. But that is an integral part of what eating means. Yeah,
Dr. Throsby 1:02:05
yeah, exactly. And so I don’t know if you’ve seen the work by screeners. And he talks about Yagi screeners who talks about Nutritionism, which is a kind of the the governing way of thinking about food which sees it own entirely in terms of the nutrients that, that it holds, rather than thinking about foods or eating or those kind of broader practices.
Jen Lumanlan 1:02:29
Yeah. Awesome. So a whole lot of relax, then.
Dr. Throsby 1:02:33
It is easy to say if you don’t have children. Yeah. You know, and I would never want to tell anyone how to bring up their children because it’s never something I’ve done and I would have been terrible at it.
Jen Lumanlan 1:02:43
I thought the same to never had any desire to do this job. But here we are. Alright. Well, thank you so much for for really sort of pushing our thinking on this in ways that challenges some of the conventional ideas around sugar in specific and an eating more broadly, as well. I really appreciate your time. Thank you very much for having me. And so all of the references for the papers that we’ve discussed today can be found at your parenting mojo.com forward slash Sugar Rush.
Hi, this is Jenny from Los Angeles. We know that you have a lot of choices about where you get information about parenting, and we’re honored that you’ve chosen us as we move toward a world in which everyone’s lives and contributions are valued. If you’d like to help keep the show ad free, please consider making a donation on the episode page that Jen just mentioned. Thanks again for listening to this episode of The Your Parenting Mojo podcast. Don’t forget to head to your parenting mojo.com forward slash record the intro to record your own messages for the show.
Avena, N.M., Rada, P., & Hoebel, B. G. (2008). Evidence for sugar addiction: Behavior al and neurochemical effects of intermittent, excessive sugar intake. Neuroscience & Behavioral Reviews 32(1), 20-39.
Benton, D. (2010). The plausibility of sugar addiction and its role in obesity and eating disorders. Clinical Nutrition 29, 288-303.
Courtwright, D.T. (2010). The NIDA brain disease paradigm: History, resistance and spinoffs. Biosocieties 5: 137–147.
Lenoir, M., Serre, F., Cantin, L., & Ahmed, S.H. (2007). Intense sweetness surpasses cocaine reward. PLoS One 8 (e698): 1-10.
Throsby, K. (2019). Pure, White and deadly: Sugar addiction and the cultivation of urgency. Food, Culture & Society 23(1), 11-29.
About the author, Jen
Jen Lumanlan (M.S., M.Ed.) hosts the Your Parenting Mojo podcast (www.YourParentingMojo.com), which examines scientific research related to child development through the lens of respectful parenting.