Is Being Fat Related to Being Dumb? The US Case

♠ Posted by Emmanuel in ,,, at 5/16/2012 10:35:00 AM
Being apart from the Anglo-Saxon blogging crowd allows me to probe questions they are generally uncomfortable with but need to be asked. Yesterday we considered the general unresponsiveness of Anglophone academia to reforming higher education despite producing so many unemployed and unemployable graduates. Today I consider the unpalatable combination of being overweight and intellectual underachievement. Is there a link between the two? Once more, let us consider the United States which exemplifies much of both.

It is not exactly a secret that the performance of the United States' education system is middling at best compared to other developed nations' systems despite considerable spending on the godforsaken thing. What's more, recent OECD data suggests some from developing nations alike China are walloping American kids. Which is not difficult to do, really, but to see some PRC youth topping OECD league tables is a warning sign. Further evidence is shown in other standardized tests. Not only does the United States' youth underperform their international peers, but they are falling behind in exams administered by Americans themselves. Witness continuously falling test scores on the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) which high school students wishing to enter college must take. While some apologists have claimed this was due to more young people taking SATs alike minorities who haven't done as well as white and Asian students, that scores have been falling while No Child Left Behind (NCLB) is being implemented suggests a link between poor K-12 and test performance.

Meanwhile, today I came across an interesting feature on how already-fattening sugar impairs cognitive performance. As with most studies of this sort, there are generalizability questions insofar as the subjects were lab rats. However, it does point out future directions for study given the massive amount of sugar Americans consume:
"Because insulin can penetrate the blood-brain barrier, the hormone may signal neurons to trigger reactions that disrupt learning and cause memory loss," [UCLA researcher] Gomez-Pinilla said. In other words, eating too much fructose could interfere with insulin's ability to regulate how cells use and store sugar, which is necessary for processing thoughts and emotions.

"Insulin is important in the body for controlling blood sugar, but it may play a different role in the brain, where insulin appears to disturb memory and learning," Gomez-Pinilla said. "Our study shows that a high-fructose diet harms the brain as well as the body. This is something new." In the US, high-fructose corn syrup is commonly found in soft drink, condiments, applesauce, baby food and other processed snacks. The average American consumes more than 40 pounds (18 kilograms) of high-fructose corn syrup per year, according to the US Department of Agriculture.
That American kids are among the portliest in the world is well-known.and utterly unsurprising. What is new here though may be that a source of their obesity and mediocre academic performance may be traced to the same source: excessive consumption of sugars, more specifically high-fructose corn syrup. It's an eminently researchable question that may help in answering why the US is in such a wretched state educationally, financially, and unhealthily. There's certainly a good chance these are all linked. In academic jargon, portliness and thick-headedness should covary.

Reminiscent of the tobacco lobby denying negative health effects from consuming too much of their products, we too have similar interests doing the same for sugar. According to lobby group The Sugar Association, sugar is not the cause of obesity, nor is it a primary factor to increased caloric intake.Their wording is careful in avoiding the more readily verifiable observation that sugars do contribute to both problems. However, such PR is aided by heavy-handed lobbying to preempt legislation that may attach more health warnings to sugar. Lest you doubt their capacity for political machinations, they reportedly even petitioned US lawmakers not to fund the UN after the World Health Organization accused this lobby of watering down a report on the harmful effects of consuming excessive sugar.

Again, I wouldn't be so keen on criticizing the United States if it didn't hold itself up time and again as a shining example for the rest of the world. American exceptionalism, they call it. Truth be told, there are far better systems to emulate instead of following certain hubris-filled folks. For findings jobs for young people, study the German example. For improving academic performance at all levels, study Singapore.

True, there is no magic bullet to solving American mediocrity. However, it does help pointing out to these folks that they are mediocre in so many things and are thus not worthy of emulation but condemnation. Making tidy profits for sugar lobbies is all well and good, but if it comes at the expense of national health and even intelligence, well, tough. American society is broken, and there's no one fixing it in this respect as in so many others. But hey, sugary treats are cheap, so what the heck! Twinkies for all (kids especially).