- Processed food is addictive and promotes depression and early death. “The Hacking of the American Mind” explores how food companies and government policy deceived the public and turned food into a weapon of self-destruction
- Sugar and other addictive substances, as well as chronic use of social media, release dopamine that fuels addiction and depletes serotonin, which fuels depression
- Raising your serotonin level increases feelings of happiness. There are four ways to increase serotonin, and all are free: making human connections, contributing to a larger cause, coping with stress and cooking real food
The science is in: Processed food is addictive, can make you extremely unhappy and will prematurely kill you. How did this happen? And how have food manufacturers been able to deceive the world about these facts? Dr. Robert Lustig has written a new book, “The Hacking of the American Mind: The Science Behind the Corporate Takeover of Our Bodies and Brains,” in which he explains how and why this occurred.
He is perhaps most well-known for his brilliant research into sugar and obesity, and his previous book, “Fat Chance: Beating the Odds Against Sugar, Processed Food, Obesity and Disease,” was a New York Times Best Seller. Lustig is an emeritus professor of pediatrics in the division of endocrinology at the University of California, San Francisco, and a member of the Institute for Health Policy Studies. Since the last time I interviewed him, he’s also completed a master’s in public health law.
The Genesis of ‘Hacking of the American Mind’
The motivation for “The Hacking of the American Mind” began some 30 years ago, while still a postdoctoral fellow in neuroscience at Rockefeller University. There, he learned about the interaction between dopamine and serotonin in the brain. At the time, only basic correlational data existed, but there appeared to be a very specific interaction going on between these two neurochemicals.
“As I was researching the data for ‘Fat Chance,’ four years ago, it became very clear that the data had come in on the role of diet and behavioral health,” Lustig says. “In addition, we also now had neuroimaging studies. I realized everything was falling into place — that this issue, dopamine and serotonin, was actually at the core of what had now become our depression and opiate crises.
At the same time, I was giving Psychiatry Grand Rounds at a U.S. medical school in 2014. The woman who ran their outpatient treatment program took me on a tour of their facility. She was a recovered addict herself. She said something to me that was so jarring. She said, ‘When I was shooting up, I was happy. What my new life has brought me is pleasure.’
I thought to myself, ‘That’s wrong. That’s exactly turned around.’ But I didn’t say anything to her. I went home and talked to some psychiatry friends. They said, ‘Oh yeah, a lot of people seem to get addicted with this concept in mind.’ I said, ‘Well, there’s a book there.’ That was the genesis of this book.”
Why Processed Food Diets Fuel Depression
Tryptophan, which is the precursor for serotonin, is one of the rarest amino acids in our diet. But it’s a mistake to think the answer to depression is as simple as taking tryptophan to boost serotonin. The reason for this is because most of the tryptophan is converted to serotonin in your gut, and it does not freely travel into your brain. Lustig explains:
“Tryptophan is the only amino acid that can be converted into serotonin. Tryptophan is the rarest amino acid in our diet. Eggs have the most. Certain poultry and other avian species have some [tryptophan]. There’s very little in vegetables. Obviously, carbohydrates have virtually no tryptophan whatsoever.
It’s actually pretty hard to get tryptophan into your body to start with. Take processed food on top of that, then it’s even harder because it tends to be tryptophan-depleted. [Moreover], 99.9 percent of the tryptophan you ingest either gets turned into serotonin in the gut for your gut’s purposes, or it goes into your platelets to help your platelets help you clot. [So] very little tryptophan actually gets to the brain.
Top that off with the fact that tryptophan has to share an amino acid transporter with two relatively common amino acids: phenylalanine and tyrosine, which, by the way, are the precursors for dopamine. You can see that the more processed food you eat, the more dopamine you will make because you will have the precursors for that.
They will actually crowd out the ability to get tryptophan across the blood-brain barrier … Yet, serotonin is the nidus of contentment, of happiness. It explains why diet is so problematic … “
Face-to-Face Interaction Has Neurochemical Effects
Many try to bolster their happiness through certain food choices, but this actually does not work, and Lustig provides compelling arguments that the foods you crave drive up dopamine and drive down serotonin. Rather, it’s experiences that make you happy. People can make you happy. You can make yourself happy. In his book, Lustig outlines a number of different strategies to become happier.
“Ultimately, the goal is [to increase] your serotonin,” he says. There are four ways to boost your serotonin, and they’re all free. They’re also things your grandmother likely told you to do. First and foremost is making human connections.
“Turns out that Facebook does not count as connection. When we’re talking about interpersonal connection, we’re talking about eye-to-eye,” Lustig says. “The facial emotions of the person you’re talking with activate a set of neurons in your brain called ‘mirror neurons,’ which are the drivers of empathy and specifically linked to serotonin.
To be able to generate a feeling of empathy, which ultimately turns into contentment/happiness, you actually have to connect. You can’t do it over the internet. You can’t have a connection with ‘anonymous.’ It just doesn’t work.”
On the contrary, social media generate dopamine, associated with pleasure, and hence can drive addiction. The main problem is that when dopamine goes up, serotonin goes down. So, online communication is actually a major causative factor of unhappiness.
Lustig also elaborates on how companies — both food manufacturers and electronics companies — capitalize on the biology of dopamine versus serotonin to get us addicted to their products. There’s even a book on this topic written by Nir Eyal, called, “Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products.”
Dopamine Versus Serotonin
It’s important to realize that the dopamine (or reward-generating) pathway is the same no matter what your source of pleasure is. It can be a substance, such as nicotine, alcohol, heroin or junk food; or it can be behavior, such as internet surfing, shopping or pornography. The problem, in a nutshell, is that dopamine is an excitatory neurotransmitter, and in excess is neurotoxic.
When dopamine is released, and the neuron on the other side accepts the signal, it can damage that neuron. Over time, excitatory neurotransmitters can cause cell death. To protect itself from damage, the postsynaptic neuron employs a self-protective mechanism — it downregulates its receptors.
By having fewer receptors, the dopamine cannot do as much damage. So, each time you get a “hit” or rush of dopamine, the number of receptors decrease. As a result, you need increasingly larger doses or “hits” to get the same rush. Eventually, you end up with tolerance, a state where even a large dose produces no effect. Once the neurons start to actually die off, you’re a full-blown addict.
“The point that you need to know is that it takes three weeks for the receptors to repopulate. The cravings can go on for upwards of a year when you’re addicted. This is a long-term process that sometimes requires medical intervention and medical management by physicians who understand addiction medicine,” Lustig says.
Serotonin, on the other hand, is not an excitatory neurotransmitter. When it acts on the serotonin-1a receptor (the “contentment” receptor), no damage occurs. Hence, happiness does not lead to addictive behavior. Keep in mind that dopamine downregulates serotonin, so it’s basically impossible to achieve happiness (related to serotonin) through pleasure-seeking behavior (related to dopamine).
One of the cheapest pleasures that stimulates dopamine is sugar. Many reach for sweet junk food when they feel down, thinking it’ll help them feel better, but neurochemical science reveals this simply cannot happen. Add the stress hormone cortisol to the mix, which downregulates the serotonin-1a receptor, and you have a recipe for both addiction and depression. “That’s what we’re seeing throughout all of civilized society, not just in America, but around the world,” Lustig says.
Other Serotonin Boosters
There are three other ways, besides connecting, that boost serotonin and happiness. The remaining three of the four Cs are:
1.Contribute: Meaning the act of contributing to something greater than yourself; making a contribution to society. “You can get happiness and contentment from your job, but there are certain criteria that have to be met,” Lustig says. “Most people, unfortunately, have a boss who is not contributing to their happiness. The workplace is not usually the best place to achieve meaningful contentment.”
2.Cope: Lack of sleep, insufficient exercise and multitasking are all causes of unhappiness. Sleep is extremely important for healthy serotonin production. Here, avoiding exposure to electronic screens is important, as blue light inhibits melatonin production, thereby making sleep more elusive. Electronics will also disrupt your sleep and deteriorate your health by exposing you to unnecessary microwaves, discussed in this recent article on depression.
3.Cook: If you cook, you’re likely going to increase your tryptophan, reduce your refined sugar intake and increase your omega-3 fats (anti-inflammatory) and fiber. Overall, this will result in improved gut health, which has tremendous impact on your mood and mental health.
“Numerous investigators … have shown that your gastrointestinal flora tell your brain what they want through signals that go through the bloodstream, and potentially even neural ones as well. If you do not feed your bacteria, you cannot get happy. Eating real food you prepare yourself is super important,” Lustig says.
Eating Real Food Helps Optimize Tryptophan and Other Vital Brain Nutrients
As mentioned, a big part of the happiness equation is to increase serotonin by optimizing tryptophan. However, the dilemma is that most of the serotonin produced in the gut is used there locally. It does not enter your brain. Lustig explains:
“There are many diversions for tryptophan away from the brain. It can be metabolized in the intestine itself. It can be metabolized in the platelets. It can be turned into kynurenine, which is a secondary metabolite in the liver. It may not be transported across the blood-brain barrier because of phenylalanine and tyrosine taking up the aromatic amino acid transporter.
In addition, of course, your serotonin neurons must be functional. There are things that will kill off serotonin neurons, including party drugs. For instance, MDMA, or Ecstasy, is a famous dopamine and serotonin killer … Once you’ve lost those serotonin neurons, it’s pretty hard to get any sort of happiness signal.”
So, how do you boost systemic tryptophan? One of the keys is to eat real food, and to make sure you include high-tryptophan foods, the highest of which is egg whites. You also need omega-3 fatty acids, especially DHA, which is a component of every cell in your body. More than 90 percent of the omega-3 fat found in brain tissue is DHA.
“Omega-3s are probably the single most beneficial thing you can put in your body. They are anti-inflammatory. They are anti-Alzheimer’s. They increase membrane fluidity. Therefore, they increase neuronal distensibility, which means it’s less likely that any given neuron will die,” Lustig says.
“The problem, of course, is that when we took the fat out of the food, we took ALL the fat out of the food. It’s been a real chore to get the medical cognoscenti to turn around on this. I do want to do a shoutout to the American Heart Association, because they have now debunked their long-standing cholesterol-fat hypothesis.
They now recognize that saturated fat was not the demon they made it out to be, and that there are seven classes of fats, and that you actually have to consume omega-3s. You have to consume monounsaturated fats. In fact, you do have to consume some saturated fat because it’s a major component of membranes.”
The Corporate Takeover
So, how have food companies contributed to the problems of food and drug addiction? According to Lustig, “If you look at the Supreme Court decisions that took place between the mid-’70s and mid-’80s, they took away individual rights and loaded up corporate rights in a very distinct fashion.” In his book, he describes four specific Supreme Court decisions, one of which basically deregulated corporate speech.
Corporations can say anything they want, whenever they want, regardless of whether it’s actually true. Our current epidemics of opioid and food addiction are outgrowths of corporate dishonesty.
“We are now seeing the advent of the post-truth society because of how the Supreme Court chipped away at our own individual rights,” Lustig says. “By doing so, corporations have affected our ability to experience pleasure and happiness. They’ve actually inserted propaganda into our limbic system, our reward generating system, so that we constantly seek reward at the expense of our own happiness.
This is why we currently live in the world we live in. The late political philosopher from Princeton, Sheldon Wolin, wrote a poignant book called ‘Democracy Incorporated: Managed Democracy and the Specter of Inverted Totalitarianism,’ [in which] he envisioned that corporations and government … would become one and the same.
If you look at what’s going on in the White House today, you can see that Wolin’s nightmare scenario has been realized. It’s fascism in the sense that we don’t seem to have a voice of our own. It’s not fascism in the sense that it’s corporations that’s told us what to do. It’s that we’ve basically abdicated our own responsibility for our own health and safety.”
The EatREAL Trust Mark
Speaking of living in a post-truth society, you might not realize there’s no regulation against restaurants blatantly lying about what they’re serving you. Larry Olmsted, in his book “Real Food/Fake Food: Why You Don’t Know What You’re Eating and What You Can Do About It,” addresses this. There are no consequences, no regulatory action, for lying to customers. The deception will only enrich them — until or unless they’re publicly outed and perhaps boycotted.
One way to protect your interests when eating out is to make sure the restaurant is affiliated with Responsible Epicurean and Agricultural Leadership, better known as EatREAL, a nonprofit Lustig helped create. It teaches restaurants what they “should be doing,” and provides a trust mark to the public — a green fork.
The High Cost of Added Sugar
Processed fructose, mostly in the form of corn syrup, has become a major contributor to the $3 trillion health care budget in the United States, and there’s clear data linking sugar consumption to de novo lipogenesis — a disease process associated with fat accumulation in the liver, causing insulin resistance, hyperinsulinemia, metabolic syndrome and associated diseases. That includes Type 2 diabetes, hypertension, lipid problems, cardiovascular disease, cancer and dementia.
“We have the mechanism by which this occurs. In fact, our paper in Gastroenterology1 demonstrates that if you take sugar out of the diet of children with metabolic syndrome and substitute starch — calorie for calorie exchange, glucose for fructose exchange with no change in calories … — in 10 days, you can reverse metabolic syndrome.
You can reverse the insulin resistance. You can reverse the liver fat. You can reverse the burden on the pancreas. Basically, all of the metabolic perturbations go away. This is the smoking gun,” Lustig says. “In addition, we have a paper in BMJ Open2 which models what could happen in terms of health care expenditures and disease rates if we reduced our sugar consumption by 20 percent, which is what taxes would do.
Or if we reduce sugar consumption by 50 percent (which is what the United States Department of Agriculture suggested we do), for nonalcoholic fatty liver disease alone … the United States, over the next 20 years, could save $103 billion, just on that disease alone. Ultimately, this is where the money goes. This is why health care will be defunct. This is why Medicare will be broke by the year 2026 …
We have to deal with health. Health is going down the tubes. There’s no amount of health care that can fix what’s wrong with our diet, unless we fix the diet first … The bottom line is we are in trouble. But you can’t fix a problem until you recognize what the problem is. This book, ‘The Hacking of the American Mind,’ demonstrates how the science, how the biology, ultimately has influenced not just our health, but in fact, our policy.”
In the past, people had a much better understanding of happiness and pleasure. Lustig’s book describes how these terms have been purposely conflated and confused by businesses and governments because it helped sales. To turn the trends of addiction around, you have to understand the difference between the two.
“So, what’s the difference between pleasure and happiness? There are seven differences: Pleasure is visceral; happiness is ethereal. Pleasure is short-term; happiness is long-term. Pleasure is usually achieved alone; happiness is usually achieved in social groupings. Pleasure is taking; happiness is giving. Pleasure can be achieved with substances; happiness cannot be achieved with substances.
The extremes of pleasure all lead to addiction, whereas there is no such thing as being addicted to happiness. Finally, pleasure is dopamine and happiness is serotonin.
Understanding the difference between the two is something, for some reason, that the American public just never got. We have to make them get it in order to turn this problem around. Academics don’t get it. Businesses don’t get it. The federal government certainly doesn’t get it. We have to make them get it. That’s why this book is so crucial.”
I couldn’t agree more, and “The Hacking of the American Mind: The Science Behind the Corporate Takeover of Our Bodies and Brains” will certainly help you understand the distinction between dopamine, serotonin and the variables that help optimize these neurotransmitters. Most importantly, the way he explains it all has the power motivate healthy behavior.
“The bottom line is it’s about the science,” Lustig says. “There will be detractors who will say this is garbage. But the bottom line is there are 600 references to the primary literature to demonstrate that this is not gobbledygook. The science actually predicts the phenomena that we see and the society we’ve become.”
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