Killjoy vs. Freak Flag

I read a recent story by Julia Llewellyn Smith about John Yudkin, an early proponent of the theory that sugar (not fat) is likely to be the main culprit behind many modern diseases. It contained the following paragraph:

“One of the problems with the anti-sugar message — then and now — is how depressing it is. The substance is so much part of our culture, that to be told buying children an ice cream may be tantamount to poisoning them, is most unwelcome. But Yudkin, who grew up in dire poverty in east London and went on to win a scholarship to Cambridge, was no killjoy. “He didn’t ban sugar from his house, and certainly didn’t deprive his grandchildren of ice cream or cake,” recalls his granddaughter, Ruth, a psychotherapist. “He was hugely fun-loving and would never have wanted to be deprived of a pleasure, partly, perhaps, because he grew up in poverty and had worked so hard to escape that level of deprivation.””

While I am glad that such stories are gaining prominence, I object to the idea that saying no to ice cream, or keeping a sugar-free household makes one a killjoy.

If it were shown that the link between routine sugar consumption and heart attacks or Alzheimer’s or breast cancer was, for example, even a fraction as strong as that between smoking and lung cancer, would you feel that turning down a piece of cake, or not keeping ice cream in the house, indicated insufficient desire for and approval of pleasure? Or contrary-wise, if you went to live in a place where children were normally given a cigarette after supper, would you just let it go in the name of good fun? Such a strong link has yet to be shown, but the body of evidence of such links has increased.

I contrast this idea with an essay by Kurt Harris a few years ago, containing this passage:

“When you go to the birthday party for your neighbor’s kid, and you eat the birthday cake, what message does that send?

You show up looking trim and fit. You are pleased if people ask you how you lost weight. After eating this way for a few years, though, you are perhaps most comfortable if no one says anything at all.

You are weary of the reactions -the incredulity, the mockery, the eye-rolling. Pushing 50, you’ve tried explaining how a diet high in animal fats and low in grains works to keep you slim, but you’ve learned that the segue to explaining why you are not just cultivating an attractive corpse due to all that arterycloggingsaturatedfat that you live on is tedious and it gets you nowhere.

So, when the rectangular slab of Hy-Vee or Piggly-Wiggly birthday cake – frosted 3/8” thick with a stratum of oily granular sugar running through the middle to boot – is proferred, you say “thank you”, flash a smile that only a trained psychologist would question, and accept it, holding the flimsy paper plate and plastic fork with both hands to keep it from tumbling onto the ground.

You repair to some corner of the party where you can nibble at the cake, maybe spill a few crumbs, and eventually hide the paper plate, now soggy with vegetable oil absorbed from the corpus of the cake.

Who are the agents of acculturation here?”


“If you are a vector for cultural change, which way is the arrow pointing?

Wear your Real Food Uniform.

Active Duty.

Fly your freak-flag high.

Say no to the cake.”

Ruth may not have been deprived of sugar in her grandfather’s presence, but perhaps she was deprived of something after all. As Yudkin was the author of a book entitled “Pure, White and Deadly”, I am left wondering at the power of acculturation to affect our choices.

20 replies
  1. Ash Simmonds
    Ash Simmonds says:

    Acculturation is THE biggest factor.

    Just now I had a plate of leftover meat from yesterday's BBQ, warmed up in a whole roast chicken's worth of fat drippings (awesome, BTW), mum sees my plate and says "I don't see any veggies there, Ash". Thing is, she's on board with the VLC thing as is doing better than ever on semi-keto, but goes on to say "I don't think I could have a meal without some veggies or salad or something to go with it", a few years ago that would have been "I couldn't have a meal without bread and rice and chips followed by ice-cream" etc etc, but she changed her way of life to VLC because she was going downhill fast. Now it's been years of this, the carby options don't even cross her mind, so you CAN unteach acculturation.

    She also knows I study this stuff incessantly (the reason she's on her "protein diet" as she calls it) but still asks "don't you need greens for vitmans?". I didn't bother reciting the whole recent MDA brainfart, but just let her know that there's nothing putting some greens on a plate is going to add nutritionally to decent fatty meat, and like bread/sweets/etc once you go without for long enough you no longer particularly need or even want them.

    Then there's auntie – her sister – getting more and more health problems every year and befuddled by it all as she is RIDICULOUSLY conscience of being healthful – which of course to her is low sat fat/no red meat diet based on veggies and grains and heart-healthy seed oils… Was asking me about this stuff and I tell her it's pretty simple, but in the end she just does the infuriating thing and goes "well that's your belief, I believe everything in moderation" and all that BS, I briefly tried to tell her this is not what science/research/history says but she started using the word "belief" a lot again and hand-waves everything with a "well that's just stuff YOU read, I don't see how it's right versus what I know", and finished the evening with a "healthy jug of fruit juice". Lost cause, sadly.

  2. Alan
    Alan says:

    I dont understand this. Why accept something you have absolutely no intention of eating just so as to not hurt someone's feelings?

  3. N Matheson
    N Matheson says:

    I don't eat cakes or sweets offered to me, the same is not true for my kids. This is the real rub of being a LC parent. Cakes Biscuits and sweets are offered and available at shocking rates. The challenge for parents is balancing the harms of the sugar hit versus the psychological harm of being deprived or singled out. We had a strict no-sugar policy until my daughter was two and now she is allowed one high quality (cake or chocolate, not luminous empty things) item when they are offered at parties etc.

    Sally Fallon had an interesting take on it, that she raised her children as well as she could so that when they had the odd piece of junk food they would not be too badly affected by it.

    It is hard to imagine the Llewellyn Smith article taking the same tone about fat in the diet. With certain eyes you can see the food companies really getting the PR machine going.

  4. L. Amber Wilcox-O'Hearn
    L. Amber Wilcox-O'Hearn says:

    I agree: LC parenting is really tough. Even if you go with "one high quality item when they are offered at parties", in my experience, a party or other special occasion occurs about once every week or two. This rate might even be okay for some.

    For children on keto for epilepsy, the cost of a single indulgence is immediately obvious. My situation is more subtle. It takes days or more for my mood to destabilise with exposure to plants or carbs. It's complex enough that I don't really know how much I could get away with, but the cost of erring is one I don't like paying, so I don't test the boundaries a lot.

    Having this experience, though, makes me wonder about those with less acute problems than I have. Is having a slice every other week making life a lot harder in ways that are less visible than a seizure? I find it quite plausible. For example, if your child's mood is off sometimes, it's easy to put it down to being a child. Or if she was a little slower at learning to read, it could be just where she naturally fell on the curve. But what if taking out the occasional sugar and the gluten fixed it? How much handicap is fitting in worth?

    And you're right, feeling deprived is also a cost. I know plenty of adults who are still struggling to make peace with food because of the deprivation their well meaning parents imposed. It's not an easy issue.

  5. 1981Mogli
    1981Mogli says:

    Children get candy everywhere and from everybody. I don´t understand that. Everybody knows by now that sugar is not good for you to say the least. Even as an adult I get strange looks when I say that I don´t eat sugar or grains. The funny thing is that people understand that when I say "I want to lose weight", even though I´m not overweight. If I say that I do it for health reasons, they just think I´m weird. I think people are weird because they still believe more in advertisement than in science or good sense.

  6. John Velden
    John Velden says:

    It seems mostly because children get such a "high" off sugar and adults enjoy making children feel good(never mind the unpleasant crash).
    However offering a child an opiate would be frowned upon, go figure!

  7. Digby
    Digby says:

    Sugar is like acceptable poison, despite its addictive qualities, and the cumulative damage, the very pervasive nature of sugar makes it seem less harmful than it actually is; because the effects are slow in manifesting, people don't perceive the true harm. I am guilty of this, too with my own grandchildren. I remember when we had a similar view of cigarettes.

  8. L. Amber Wilcox-O'Hearn
    L. Amber Wilcox-O'Hearn says:

    Yeah. It's tricky, because it's almost certainly never true that a single cigarette, or a single piece of cake is going to cause harm. So if you consider each choice in isolation, it's rational to choose the pleasure.

  9. Esmée La Fleur
    Esmée La Fleur says:

    Read "Sweetness and Power" by Syndey Mintz. It is a fascinating exploration of the history, sociology, and anthropology of how sugar became such a huge part of the modern diet.

  10. Esmée La Fleur
    Esmée La Fleur says:

    I never eat the foods at family or social gatherings. People have gotten used to me. But not partaking does seem to make others uncomfortable. It was never worth it to me to feel bad just to make someone else who does not live in my body feel more secure about their own food choices.

  11. Esmée La Fleur
    Esmée La Fleur says:

    Coffee is another "accepted" and very pervasive poison in my opinion. It raises glucose and causes blood sugar problems. I have a friend for whom coffee is a "gateway" drug. First is is the coffee (he loves the culture of the coffee shop as well as the taste of the coffee itself), then it is the sweet he must eat, and the tobacco he must smoke to balance out the imbalance the coffee. From there, he goes to alcohol and finally crack cocaine. This is no exaggeration. I saw theaters innumerable times.

  12. Emmie Warren
    Emmie Warren says:

    I had an interesting 'social' experience recently–for my 75th birthday! My family (sister and niece) are very supportive of my way of eating, but they wanted to take me to a new, eclectic restaurant where they serve a variety of dishes that are quite elaborate. My sister checked with them in advance to see whether they could 'accommodate' me, telling them that I eat only meat or fish, no sauces, etc. They assured her that they could.

    I had a delightful meal, including ceviche, lamb chops, and filet mignon.

    Since the restaurant knew it was my birthday, they presented me with a small cake–which we took home. My family told me that the cake was delicious. I had no desire for it, since sugar is my enemy. Blowing out the candle was enough of a 'celebration' for me:-)

  13. Unknown
    Unknown says:

    I don't know if you're still accepting comments here, but I don't agree with a lot of these comments. Alan (near the top) said, "Why accept something you have absolutely no intention of eating just so as to not hurt someone's feelings?"

    You do it because that person spent a lot of time and effort in preparing what he/she thought was a delicious meal. It's simply rude to do otherwise. Accept a small slice of the stupid cake (say you're dieting or whatever), then mingle, mash up the cake a bit with your fork, and when no one is looking, set it down in the kitchen.

    Or, just say you're stuffed from the meal and couldn't possibly eat another bite. Accept a nice big slice of cake to take home with you. What you do with it later is up to you.

    Be considerate of others' feelings. Don't be rude.

  14. L. Amber O'Hearn
    L. Amber O'Hearn says:

    I think it's a matter of personal integrity to be honest, and in certain cases to make a point of standing up for something you believe in. Given that there is no way I'm going to suffer the consequences of eating what is essentially poison to me (and it could be considered rude of you to suggest I hurt myself in that way for the sake of politeness), my choices are to pretend some excuse, to pretend, as you suggest, that I'm going to eat it later, to simply say "No thank you." without making any excuse, or to give true reasons why I'm not eating it.

    Of course, there is no need to be rude about any of those choices, but think about this: If this is an ongoing relationship and you pretend you're taking it home for later, that kind of dishonesty assumes they wouldn't understand, which is disrespectful and condescending, and worse, could lead them to keep doing it, so that you are actually wasting their gift over and over and deceiving them about it. Imagine how that would feel if they knew you were taking their work and secretly dumping it in the trash, when they could have given it to someone else who wanted it, or done something for you that you really could appreciate.

    If the person is close to you, you owe them your honesty. If the person is not close to you or isn't likely to be in that position again, then a simple "No thank you." doesn't require an accompanying lie.

  15. Newman
    Newman says:

    You bring up some very good points. I just don't think you need to be mean or rude about it. I've heard of some people who go off on a tirade about "I'm not putting that poison crap in my system!" As you said, a simple "No, thank you" is best.

    For a get-together once, I made an onion tart that had bacon bits in it. I knew one of my guests was semi-vegetarian, but I wasn't thinking about that when I made the appetizer. She tasted it, said it was heavenly, and then asked what was in it. When I got to the bacon bits, she literally screamed at me, "You gave me PIG?!?!?!?!?" I apologized profusely, said I had forgotten, and really did feel bad about it. I don't think she ever forgave me, nor I her for that rude outburst. I wish she had she simply said, "Oh my, I thought you knew I don't eat pork." There's just no need to be rude.

  16. L. Amber O'Hearn
    L. Amber O'Hearn says:

    I agree with you! Normally I would only rant about the unhealthiness of it is if I were feeling challenged by the person to defend myself, and even then, I would endeavour to be respectful about it.

    I have a story about an interaction with a vegetarian friend/acquaintance from maybe 6 years ago. I happened to see he was seated at the café I went to, and so I sat at the adjacent table and made small talk. He was well aware of my diet and had been for years and had always been clear that he didn't approve of it. At some point he got up and bought a slice of sweet baklava, and offered me a bite, which I politely declined, even though he was being provocative to do so. I didn't take the bait. He then cut a piece off and put it on a plate and put the plate on my table. An hour later, I got up to leave, and made a polite comment about the sweet. I forget my exact words; perhaps I thanked him and suggested he have it. My friend became angry and said, "What is wrong with you?! A single bite won't hurt you!" I left feeling perplexed. I would never in a million years put a slice of beef on his table and complain about his choice not to eat a single bite even though I don't agree with the reasons for his choice.

    The point of the story is that some people appear to be particularly invested in my choices being like theirs, and do not accept and respect my behaviour even when they know what it's based on. It seems as if it is threatening to them that I don't eat sugar.

  17. Epona
    Epona says:

    I have struggled for quite a long time with my Significant Other. When we go on vacation, he often encourages me to eat anything. It is vacation after all! He has seen me go Paleo and lose 35 pounds and maintain it for over 5 years. He has seen me lose control and gain it back and then some. He has seen me most recently go low carb/keto and lose 40 lbs, yet on my birthday next week, I bet he will encourage me to have dessert. I haven't had the heart to tell him I am thinking about going carnivore, since he just paid for a winter vegetable CSA and I have a garden producing summer veggies right now. I have been stalled at my weight loss for 6 months and I was really hoping the Keto would help with my migraines. I know my inflammation is down from what it was a year ago, but I am still on meds for psoriatic arthritis as well and my skin is starting to act up again.

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