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The Hacking of the American Mind - a Book Review by Matthew Romans

The current Covid-19 situation has given many working people a lot more free time recently, and I'm certainly no exception. I've tried to put my extra time to some good use, and I've managed to read a few books. One book I recently finished is "The Hacking of the American Mind", written by Robert H. Lustig, MD, MSL. Lustig is a professor of pediatrics in the Division of Endocrinology, and is a member of the Institute for Health Policy at the University of California, San Francisco. On top of that, Lustig has a law degree, so he brings a unique insight into the current state of our bodies and our brains. Several years ago, I watched an excellent lecture given by Dr. Lustig called "Sugar, The Bitter Truth." I believe it is still available on YouTube; it's definitely worth watching.

The author covers a lot of ground in 344 pages (including notes), but the basic premise of the book is that over the course of the past half century our brains and our bodies have been fundamentally changed by a host of environmental factors. Some of these factors include ubiquitous advertising, social media, changes to the traditional Western diet, addiction, and also the endless pursuit of seemingly elusive happiness and contentment. He discusses the changes in advertising policies, and highlights the hypocrisy of food companies marketing sugary snacks and sodas directly to children, while contrasting the drastic changes that the tobacco companies were required to make in the late 1990s (with a great reference to the premise of the movie "The Insider").

Prominently featured throughout the book are the neurotransmitters dopamine and serotonin. Dopamine is the reward neurotransmitter that says, "I want more." Those battling addiction, whether to alcohol, drugs, or even food are constantly seeking that reward. On the other hand, serotonin says, "I have enough", and a higher production of this neurotransmitter is found in people who have achieved a state of contentment.

Dr. Lustig is a pediatric endocrinologist, so he tells sad tales of very young children in his clinic being diagnosed with Type II (adult-onset) diabetes. He groups the following set of diseases (obesity, diabetes, heart disease, cancer, stroke, and dementia) collectively as metabolic syndrome. These are the diseases that are overwhelming our current medical system and causing insurance costs to skyrocket, even for those not afflicted with these diseases. He brings up some excellent points and data in a section called "Health Care is Sick Care" in which he details the current state of the system. Dr. Lustig's opinion is that, "These diseases aren't killing us outright; instead they're sucking us dry. And if you think that other people getting sick is their problem and not yours, chew on this: 65 percent of all health care expenditures are paid out of government dollars. That means your taxes." It sounds pretty grim.

Why are we, on the whole, so unhappy and unhealthy? How can we find contentment? The author mentions what he calls "The Four C's": connect, contribute, cope, and cook. By connecting he means to establish a social network that's not exclusively digital, and to actively engage with family, friends, and other trusted people. In the contribute section, he recommends philanthropy, volunteerism, and finding self-worth through accomplishment. There are many healthy ways to cope with the stresses of daily life, especially getting proper sleep, practicing mindfulness or meditation, and performing regular exercise. He also says that multitasking is overrated! Finally, the best way to know about the nutritional content of the food you consume is to cook it yourself. Cook for yourself, cook for your family, and cook for and with your friends. It builds camaraderie, gives a feeling of togetherness, and can give one a sense of accomplishment. It will also help you win the battle against sugar.

I recommend this book to Total Results clients, as well as to friends and family. While some of the social things that Dr. Lustig recommends are very difficult to implement in our current health/political environment, I also think they carry an even greater meaning right now. Dr. Lustig can teach us a lot about what is making Americans increasingly unhappy and unhealthy, and he shows some very simple strategies that we can implement right now to make things better. Give it a read!

Posted May 20, 2020 by Tim Rankin