Friday, November 08, 2013

In Defence of Sugary Drinks

First published in the Western People on Monday.

“Well? Are you having a mineral?”

That was the inevitable question asked of any child in a pub in Ireland in the days when pubs were divided into lounge and public bars, distinguishable because the lounge had a carpet and the public bar did not.

The child was in the pub because one or both parents were also there, and feeding minerals into the child was considered the only way of keeping that same child quiet for the duration of the social event. And nobody saw any harm in it, as they smoked liked trains, drank like fish and drove home loaded. If anything, the child was getting off lightly – especially compared to what would happen him or her when he or she started licking all those toys painted with lead-based paint back home.

Anyway. That was then. Modernity now suggests that those well-meaning adults who bought all those minerals for all those children all those years ago would have been as well off standing the children a few bottles of stout, as at least that potion has that famous bit of iron in it. The innocent mineral, the fuel on which many a dry Pioneer dance was run, now turns out to be the real devil’s buttermilk after all.

This is an unexpected turn of events, to say the very least, but it is the current opinion of top scientists. A “Growing Up in Ireland” study recently showed that one Irish child in nine is putting on condition in a way children did not put it on heretofore, and it’s that wolf-in-sheep’s-clothing, the humble mineral, that’s at the cause of it.

It doesn’t seem obvious that sugary drinks would make you fat, as it’s reasonable to presume that any drink at all is just being run through the system. However, the problem lies in what the drink does during that short time when it’s passing through.

The body fuels itself on protein, carbohydrates and fats, in the main. Carbohydrates and sugar are chemically similar. So when the body senses that carbohydrate/sugar intake is increased, the body wants more and more of the good stuff. The human being, like any animal, is a glutton by nature. You don’t see a lion eat some of an antelope, and then wrap up the leftovers for later. The whole lot goes down the hatch, because that’s the way the carnivore is programmed, from long before people were able to stand upright.

So, when you’re glugging back a high-sugar drink, as far as your body is concerned, you’re in the same position as the lion who has just bush-whacked the antelope and is now licking its chops, getting ready for the feast. Your body adjusts its chemical balance to prepare for what it thinks will be a carbohydrate explosion.

And then: nothing. You finish your can and chuck it in the recycling, thinking no more about it, while your subconscious hits every alarm bell it has. I’m starving, it says. Where is the food I was promised? What’s going on? Am I going to die? I’d better get some food, and quick.

And then you feel a bit peckish, and wander to the press for a nibble of a biscuit or two. But the biscuits are a little dry and you see the drinks machine in the hall and you think, oh well, why not?

And so it goes on until you’re a great fat lump who can eat his tea off his own belly. And it all starts with a sup of sugary drinks.

Or so the theory goes. And it’s true, that sugary drinks increase your appetite for more sugar. It’s the nature of the beast.

But at the same time, it’s hard to believe that a can of Coke every now again is like some sort of bicycle pump for blubber, and everything is the drink’s fault. There’s a thing in public life now where somebody reaches for an explanation that sounds half-way reasonable and it’s then promoted as the final word on a topic within twenty-four hours. Groupthink at its finest.

We saw it recently when an English comedian was praised for holding his own in an interview with the BBC’s notorious tough Jeremy Paxman. But if people stopped to think, they’d realise that the comedian only sounded good. His actual opinion, when you boil it down, was that of someone who has to fight the impulse not to use his finger to read.

And it’s the same thing with the sweet drinks controversy. People want to see black and white where there are many shades of grey, like so many other things in life.

The real problem with sugary drinks is like the problem with so much else in contemporary society. We don’t know how to self-moderate. Our materialist, consumer society tells us at every point that we can never have enough of a good thing and our materialist, consumer society is completely wrong.

The book of Ecclesiastics tells us that to everything there is a season, a time to live and a time to die. In just the same way, there is a time to enjoy a can of Coke and a time to enjoy a glass of water, or buttermilk, or even that notorious strong, sweet porter on very special occasions.

Bans and taxes on sugary drinks are a way of abdicating our own responsibilities. The theory behind it is this: If there were no sugary drinks, I wouldn’t be the fat lump I am now. The theory does not entertain for a second that I would just have got fat on something else.

Sugary drinks aren’t the problem. Drinking sugary drinks all the time is a problem. Not being active, in body or in mind, is the problem.  Go for a run now and again, go easy on the chips and you’ll be fine. Whatever gets you in the end, it’ll hardly be an odd can of Coke on a hot day in McHale Park.