January 14, 2017

K&N (Knowledge and Nonsense) was published in 2007.  Publication of the book had a big influence on my career in the exercise and nutrition industry. The book has been published in Greek, led to the publication of a condensed version (Should I Eat The Yolk: Separating Facts From Myths To Get You Lean, Fit and Healthy) paved the path for many articles (translated to various languages), seminars and internet battles. K&N covers an array of topics, but is best recognized as a myth-busting book. Many of the myths addressed in the book still exist; they  refuse to die.  I have attempted to lay them to rest on many occasions.

Brief list of myths:

Fruit should be avoided while dieting- Drinking bottled water is safer than drinking tap water- Bottled water tastes better than tap- Hardcore dieting (consumption of bland foods and no treats) is only way to seriously drop weight- High protein diets are detrimental to bone health- Circuit training is the best way to maximize fitness levels, always- Heavy weight training makes you slow- Weight training makes you inflexible- Practice makes perfect- Certified trainer is synonymous with qualified trainer.

The pop myths mentioned above are just a few of the myths addressed in K&N. There are approximately 120 myths illustrated in the book. Since the book was published there have been new myths constructed and disseminated.  Many of the myths are modulated versions of older myths, but some are new in origin. One of those myths that stands out is the Sugar-Brain.

Proponents of the Sugar-Brain claim that consumption of sugar can activate the same brain reward mechanisms (dopamine pathway referred to as mesolimbic dopamine system) as the consumption of addictive drugs. This is true; so it is not a myth?  You have probably seen photos comparing the sugar-brain with the drug addiction-brain. Hold on before jumping to conclusions. The problem with the claim is the way it is presented (implications) and inferences made regarding the claim. The claim is a rhetorical device used to convince people that sugar consumption is bad, like drug consumption.

What is the mesolimbic dopamine system? Drug researchers have traditionally identified the mesolimbic dopamine system as the brain system mostly involved with drug addiction. This system may be extended to include cortical areas (in PFC)- mesolimbic cortical dopamine system (Kandel, 2012). Some sources refer to these systems as being the same; however, the mesolimbic dopamine system can be more accurately described as projecting from the ventral tegmental area to the nucleus accumbens (NA, often referred to as the major pleasure center in the brain), while the mesolimbic cortical dopamine system projects from the ventral tegmental area and extends to areas in the PFC. Their distinction is not important in the context of this article (either are involved with drug consumption and brain reward mechanisms- reward/pleasure circuitry). These circuits are rich in dopaminergic neurons. Dopamine cell bodies are located in the ventral tegmental area and substantia nigra. The focus here, is on the projection from the ventral tegmental area.

Objects, stimuli, activities or internal physical states can serve as rewards for humans and non-human animals. Rewards have positive value and facilitate feelings of pleasure and positive emotion; they act as positive reinforcers. Not only do rewards lead to the activation of dopaminergic activity, but so does expectations or anticipation of rewards. “[T]he flow of dopamine is set off by the simplest expectation of pleasure, even though the pleasure may not materialize” (Kandel, 2012, p.428).

The brain’s reward mechanisms are activated when we enjoy art, experience beautiful scenery, are exposed to attractive faces, listen to pleasant music, are exposed to humor or novelty, drive a sports car and experience romantic love. The Sugar-Brain could easily be called the Love-Brain.

It is a drastic over-simplification to suggest that – because, consuming sugar may lead to activation (the variability in activation is large) of brain reward mechanisms- it should be held in the same regards as drug use. “Dopamineric neurons in the striatum respond to all kinds of pleasure.” Eric Kandel- Nobel Laureate

I will continue to fight the war against mythology. I don’t suspect that pop exercise and nutrition  myths will disappear in the near future. Myths, of all sorts, are ubiquitous, easy to believe, appeal to cognitive miserliness, serve financial and status objectives, are congruent with wishful thinking, adhere to fallibility of memory and fall under the umbrella of the peripheral persuasion model. All of these things ensure myths continue to thrive.

What are the top sources of these myths? A few of the sources include- gym personnel, supplement salesman, coaches, media, assuming correlation is synonymous with causation, and the exaggeration of a little bit of truth. Arguably, the media plays the biggest role in the spread of myths of all types. Scott Lilienfeld (author of 50 Great Myths of Popular Psychology) commenting on the media’s role in the spread of psychology  myths:

“The primary source is the huge, burgeoning pop psychology industry: self-help books the internet, films, TV shows, magazines, and the like. But many of these myths also spring from the allure of our everyday experience; many of these myths seem persuasive because they accord with our common sense intuitions. But these intuitions are often erroneous. The public can defend themselves against shams by becoming armed with accurate knowledge.”

Props to Alan Aragon for the advice he gave me over a decade ago.

“When Jamie was in the beginning stages of writing Knowledge & Nonsense, I encouraged him to cover as many misunderstood and uninvestigated topics as possible. What resulted was an amazing brainstorm of ideas that could barely be contained within a manuscript more lengthy than many college texts. There are many topics in this book that I’ve always pondered but never had the time to investigate. I encouraged Jamie to make this book a mind-bending opus of breadth and depth, something that’s never been done before in our fickle, superficial industry…

And he did”