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Cynicism and Diet Sodas

I must admit that my immediate response to an article linking cynical distrust to dementia hit home. When you read dozens of medical articles every week, a few inevitably apply to you. “Oh, dear,” I thought. “I’m known to be pretty cynical. I’d recently mislaid both my keys and wallet in one day. Maybe I’m doomed.”

But then I read the details of the cynicism-dementia study and I felt somewhat relieved. My cynicism applies mainly to the food industry, the pharmaceutical industry, and Chicago politics. About everything else in life I’m skeptical rather than cynical. I really do try to follow one of Jonathan Swift’s “Resolutions When I Come To Be Old,” namely “not to be peevish, or morose, or suspicious,” a real challenge for us both.

Back to cynicism
Working primarily with older patients, researchers in Finland created an eight-item “cynical distrust” psychological test they administered to 1,240 people of both sexes. Enrollees were asked to agree or disagree with such generalizations as “I think most people would lie to get ahead,” “It’s safer to trust nobody,” and the like.

As a side note, even though you yourself are probably much younger than the participants in this study it might be a good idea right now to measure your personal level of cynicism (at the bottom of this link) regardless your age.

When all the data was analyzed, researchers found that those with the highest level of cynical distrust had higher risks of developing dementia and also a higher death rate for their age. The conclusion was that “psychosocial and behavioral risk factors (e.g., cynicism) may be modifiable targets for prevention of dementia.” And for you HT readers under 50, the researchers also noted that “One potential subject for further investigation is to assess whether long-standing cynical attitude has more ominous outcomes than later-acquired cynicism and whether the change of attitude to a more positive one has influence on mortality.”

If perchance you feel yourself slipping into a negative and cynical view of the world even as you read this Health Tip, consider reprogramming your brain using daily affirmations. Your life will very likely be enriched by starting each day meditating on a positive new thought. Here’s a link to a small and totally nonsectarian organization that will send you an affirmation and lovely short video each morning, absolutely free.

Worthy of cynicism
But before we start feeling too good about ourselves, it’s really challenging not to be cynical as I report the following:

First, as background, in July, 2013, researchers from Johns Hopkins University reported in the American Journal of Public Health an analysis of the diet beverage and calorie intake patterns of 24,000 adults over 20. Their conclusions were entirely predictable. Overweight people drink more diet beverages and eat more solid-food calories than healthy weight people. You see evidence of this every day. Just listen to orders being placed at McDonald’s (“I’ll have a large fries with that, and, oh, a Diet Coke.”). Or watch the checkout line at a supermarket where Brobdingnagian bags of Bugles balance atop boxes of diet Barq’s. Any waitperson will tell you of the diner who orders a mega-meal, sips her soda, and asks, “Hey, are you sure this soda is diet?”

Feathers thoroughly ruffled, the American Beverage Association (ABA) called the Johns Hopkins study “flawed.” So they decided to buy their very own study, published in the June issue of Obesity. Not surprisingly, the lead investigators had previously received consulting fees from the Coca-Cola Company. The study is pretty pathetic: just 303 overweight people (remember, the Johns Hopkins research included 24,000) were tracked for 12 weeks. Half drank water, the other half various chemical swills laced with so-called “non-nutritive sweeteners” (NNS).

These studies cost money, but remember, my cynical friends, you can purchase the results you need and the ABA got its money’s worth. Over the 12 weeks, the NNS group lost four pounds more than the water group. Armed with the researcher’s concluding statement, “Water is not superior to NNS for weight loss during a comprehensive weight loss program,” the publicity division of the ABA can now swamp the Weight Watchers, the Jenny Craigs, and the Overeaters Anonymous people with their “scientifically proven” data. And since the main NNS is good old fashioned but mildly addicting aspartame, once your average WW enrollee has allowed her membership to lapse, at least she’ll leave permanently hooked on her diet drink, deluded in the notion that it’s actually helping her avoirdupois.

While the FDA continues to regard NNS products, like aspartame, as “GRAS” (generally recognized as safe), they’re actually not so safe. One small but vocal group has been gathering information and warning America about the dangers of aspartame for years.

Symptoms of NNS withdrawal
Here at WholeHealth Chicago we see a surprising number of patients with longstanding, unexplained physical and emotional symptoms who drink some serious quantities of diet beverages. Virtually all are overweight. Virtually all take on a deer-in-the-headlights gaze when we suggest they’ll need to go off their diet sodas. And virtually all experience withdrawal symptoms (usually headaches) when they do.

Aspartame/NutraSweet was invented at Big Pharma’s G.D. Searle & Co, which was bought by Monsanto (yes, the GMO people), and finally purchased by a private equity firm. Aspartame is embedded in 5,000 “food” products and regularly used by 250 million people around the world. Initially the FDA banned aspartame because animal studies showed it was causing brain tumors, but the then-Chairman of Searle, Donald Rumsfeld (remember him?), used his political clout to get it approved. Knowns, unknowns, whatever.

Information like this can make you cynical. Or just don’t think about it. Forget all about this beverage-industry funded “research,” bypass your predisposition to dementia, and sign up for those daily affirmations.

Be well,
David Edelberg, MD


Leave a Comment

  1. Mery Krause says:

    We took the test and Dan scored 10 while I scored 20 which only proves that opposites attract, as the old saying goes. He was very cynical in regards to the study and it’s findings. Can you imagine that???

  2. Robert Radycki says:

    When I was a young man and first met my European wife, she noticed I was burping after taking my daily dose of carbonated soft drinks. She suggested that I drink water instead. I thought at first it was a bizarre suggestion. I tried it and noticed that I stopped burping and I felt better. That was over 40 years ago and I am still drinking water in lieu of diet this and diet that.
    However, I still digest my daily dose of cynicism after watching and listening to the TV and the slick ads reaffirming your stupid choice to ingest their unhealthy products. Thanks again for yet another stellar article, Dr E,

  3. John Cox says:

    For what it’s worth, Jonathan Swift (quoted and alluded to in this column) suffered all his adult life from what is now thought to have been Meniere’s disease. For his last few years, it afflicted him so severely that he was judged insane. I think his cynicism is closer to the doctor’s skepticism, and in Swift’s case, his outlook was almost certainly caused by his disease, rather than the other way around. In any case, I wouldn’t trade his brilliant satire for complete mental health (whatever that is), but maybe he would have wanted to.

  4. Addie says:

    “Fact” is a matter of viewpoint. That’s why I appreciate your link to daily affirmations. Even if it’s true most people would lie to get ahead, it’s also true many would not. It’s great that many people would not lie! I’ll stick with that. Too bad happiness, positive thinking and great expectations are regarded as anti-intellectual. In re Swift: His negative satire was meant to have positive effect.

  5. Ida says:

    Thanks for the newsletter.

    Two quick things

    1 – The design and music of the affirmations is very sad and dated – and not in a fun, retro way. Can you recommend an alternative with National Geographic level photography and decent graphics and an upbeat announcer?

    2. I don’t think it’s fair to just send the reader off to read what other people think about Diet Coke and aspartame. What I read will depend on where I read it, and I don’t know who to trust. But I do trust you, or at least respect your opinion- what do you think? If aspartame is “mildly addicting” that explains a lot of my habit. What else is going on? If I’m normal weight am I giving myself dementia and heart disease in a few years by drinking a couple Diet Cokes a day?

    The reason I took the time to comment is because both of these issues (affirmations and aspartame) are big ones for me, and probably most of your readers, so I hope you will reply.


  6. Jude says:

    I am cynically looking at the elements of that study, Dr. E. True, there appears to be a higher rate of developing dementia among the more cynical patients–but in the end, there were only 14 cynics with the disease versus 9 non-cynics. Still not a huge bunch, statistically. My own completely unscientific study of the two people I’ve known with dementia: both extremely cheerful folks. But, I also have to say that cynical hostility, as phrased in the study, might be way different from cynicism. Then, too, cynicism that comes from real-life experience isn’t something you’d want to powder over with affirmations. What about we dig deep into the causes of our mistrust, take whatever actions we must about them, and develop personal stress-lowering practices, including strengthening our bonds with family and friends?
    I find that I still need my fight-or-flight mechanisms at the ready when I get mail from my insurance provider!

  7. Dr E says:

    To Ida
    I’m not quite sure how a ten word affirmation or a photo of scenic beauty can be “dated,” but there’s no accounting for variations in taste.
    You’ve missed the point of the aspartame story. There’s no connection (yet) between aspartame and dementia. The study I reported link “cynicism” with dementia. Considering the hundreds of millions of gallons Earthlings swig of aspartame containing drinks and considering that no major health issues have surfaced, just enjoy your Diet Cokes. Confession: I drink about 1-2 a month. Every time I do so, I am surprised that people actually like the raw chemical taste.
    To Jude
    I reported the cynicism/dementia study because I found it intriguing. Like you, I was pretty skeptical. I’d never heard of the University of Eastern Finland, where the study was done, and when you go to their website, they are really (really) pleased about the publicity this study is getting. This all reminds me of the endless debates about who is healthier and/or lives longer, optimists or pessimists? The articles all have the same degree of science as the tip boxes at Starbucks of “cats” vs “dogs”.

  8. Linda Sauer says:

    If you have GI issues the first thing a Gastro will tell you is to stop drinking soda pop. Caramel coloring along with NNS are a toxic soup for our bodies. Thanks for the article Dr E!

  9. fm smith says:

    dear doc,
    being a tolerant person i will allow you the
    use of auvoirdupois. but continued usage
    of Brobdingnagian will sorely test our doc/patient relationship.

  10. Dr E says:

    To FM
    It’s spelled avoirdupois.
    If I have used Brobdingnagian in previous Health Tips, then this proves the cynicism/dementia connection

  11. Judith Allison says:

    Did it occur to anyone else that maybe dementia starts developing early in life and cyncism is the first symptom? !!!

  12. Dr E says:

    Hi Judith
    No, that did not occur to me, but now it does. Seriously spooky

  13. Toni Kulma says:

    When I gave up all NNS a few years ago I got headaches and I also had sores in my mouth for a few weeks. How is that for toxic withdrawal?

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