Wednesday, September 30, 2020
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Time to stop networks running on sugar

You are the lead network engineer working a weekend upgrade. It’s 1am on a Sunday morning.  You are at the network colocation site. You have five hours to get all the servers and switches singing together.  Another 200 things to check before you are done and  you’re stressed, tired and hungry.  What do you do?

Hit the only source of food in the break room – of course – the vending machine.

In that machine, there is a cornucopia of sugary treats, but equally a nightmare of unhealthy calories which have led to a host of illnesses, obesity and problems with energy and concentration at work. Here at the network Colo, where trillions of bits of data pass through discussing world peace, health, managing finance or playing games, the real problem is diet. Sugar is the issue, and we need to determine a way to get it out of our life.

Not only is sugar the food of convenience in a data center, but in most stress and time-crunched environments worldwide.  You can find the ubiquitous sugar snacks in hospital emergency rooms, trading floors in financial firms, coffee shops on main street; the list could go on.

Sugar is one of the world’s oldest documented and addictive commodities and is affecting all of us, particularly those in high stress jobs.


Where did sugar come from? 

It’s generally thought that cane sugar was first used in Polynesia then spread to India. In 510 BC when Emperor Darius of Persia invaded India, he found “the reed which gives honey without bees”. Its production was kept a closely guarded secret, until the Arab invasion of Persia in 642AD, when they discovered the sweet plant and discovered how to make sugar. As the Arab empire expanded, they took sugar with them, spreading its use in conquered lands such as North Africa and Spain.

"The Landing of Columbus" — by Albert Bierstadt; 1893
“The Landing of Columbus” — by Albert Bierstadt, 1893

It wasn’t until the 11th Century Crusades that the rest of Western Europe caught onto sugar – with its use first being recorded in England in 1069, as a luxury ingredient. In the 15th century, when Colombus sailed to the Americas, he took it with him to grow in the Caribbean.

Perhaps the final piece in sugar’s long and illustrious history is sugar beet – first identified as a source of sugar in 1747. This alternative source was again kept secret until the 19th century Napoleonic wars, when Britain blockaded sugar imports to continental Europe. By 1880 sugar beet had replaced sugar cane as the main source of sugar on continental Europe.


Black holes of nutrition

Today, sugar has gone from a highly-prized fine spice to a ubiquitous addition to everyone’s daily food intake – often without our knowledge, in the form of high fructose corn syrup, (HFCS) often described as a key substance involved in the global obesity crisis. As an aside, between 1970 and 1990, US consumption of HFCS increased more than 1000% and currently accounts for 40% of all added caloric sweeteners.

When there’s nothing to eat, and you are stuck at a remote co-lo with no food options, it’s hard to resist the lure of the vending machine. Server farms and co-los have become black holes of nutrition, and it’s time we took action. 


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Too much sugar isn’t sweet

But, our bodies don’t need sugar to function properly, and most of us consume much more than we realise. Need we mention the 39 grams of sugar in a 12 oz can of Coca-Cola? That’s almost ten teaspoons! If we don’t need it, then why do we crave it so much?

Professor Susanne Klaus, a biologist at the German Institute of Human Nutrition in Potsdam, says our craving for sweet foods is inborn. She says sugar stimulates the brain’s reward system by triggering the release of neurotransmitters (dopamine) that promote a sense of well-being. In short, our brains love sugar, but our bodies don’t.

To some extent, we can blame our ancient ancestors for our innate love of sugar. Our bodies break sugar down into glucose and fructose. Fructose appears to activate processes in your body that make you want to hold on to fat, according to Richard Johnson, a professor in the department of medicine at the University of Colorado and author of “The Sugar Fix.”  In prehistoric times, when food was scarce, hanging on to fat was an advantage, not a health risk – and only having naturally occurring sugars available meant the sweetest food available – apart from honey – was vegetables and fruit.

Biologically predisposed

So, we are biologically predisposed to crave sweet things – but not to the extent that they appear with such ubiquity in modern times. Johnson postulates that our earliest ancestors went through an era of starvation 15 million years ago. “During that time,” he said, “a mutation occurred” that increased the apelike creatures’ sensitivity to fructose, so even small amounts were stored as fat. This was a survival mechanism: Eat fructose and decrease the likelihood you’ll starve to death.

Sugar’s relationship to dopamine makes sense from an evolutionary perspective, as sweet foods provide everything we now associate with dopamine – central nervous system functions such as movement, pleasure, attention, mood, and motivation – critical to survival.

large vending machine
Photo by form PxHere

Break the addiction?

Yet current research says sugar is not actually addictive. In the long term, though, excess sugar consumption can make us overweight, which increases the risk of diabetes, high blood pressure and cardiovascular disease. The catalogue of sugar—related illness makes for decidedly unsavoury reading.

More than half of American adults consume excess added sugars, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. In fact, the average sugar intake in the U.S. is 22 teaspoons per person per day — four times the amount World Health Organization research suggests is healthy.

The 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends limiting calories from added sugars to no more than 10% each day. That’s 200 calories, or about 12 teaspoons, for a 2,000 calorie diet. The WHO wants us to reduce that to 5%. And remember added sugars are a source of useless calories. Naturally occurring sugars, like those in fruit, usually come packaged with other nutrients. But added sugar simply contributes (unnecessary) calories.

sugar cane
Sugar cane image by mbpogue from PxHere

Time for war

The war is against added sugars. New FDA food labels introduced this year reveal the amount of added sugars in all foods, helping savvy engineers like you not only ascertain the level of extra sugar added to a product, but to actively decide whether to avoid it or not. 

The new guidance recommends no more than 50 grammes of added sugar a day – that’s on top of the naturally occurring sugar in food. Research suggests the average American consumes about 17 teaspoons of added sugar per day. The new guidelines recommend limiting added sugar to no more than 10 percent of calories per day — in a 2,000-calorie diet, that’s about 12 teaspoons or 200 calories’ worth of sugar.

Sadly the new labelling – the first major change to food labelling in 20 years – was launched in March, when our collective minds were more focused on that guy coughing, masks and hand sanitiser. 

The new campaign is part of the FDA’s comprehensive, multi-year Nutrition Innovation Strategy, designed to empower consumers with information about healthy food choices and to facilitate industry innovation toward healthier foods.


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You’re killing me, sweetie

Mass industrial farming, food innovations and technology have made sugar abundantly available. Bluntly speaking, our bodies are not built to process the large amount of processed foods – read sugar – we are consuming, and we are killing ourselves with over consumption. And while eating too many high-sugar foods, we’re avoiding the natural wholefoods that are good for us, and so nutritional deficiencies and diseases start to form.

It gets worse: consuming a western diet for as little as one week can subtly impair brain function and encourage slim and otherwise healthy young people to overeat, scientists claim. In the research, Richard Stevenson, a professor of psychology at Macquarie University in Sydney, said: “After a week on a western-style diet, palatable food such as snacks and chocolate becomes more desirable when you are full. This will make it harder to resist, leading you to eat more, which in turn generates more damage to the hippocampus and a vicious cycle of overeating.”

Researchers found that after seven days on a high saturated fat, high added sugar diet, volunteers in their 20s scored worse on memory tests and found junk food more desirable immediately after they had finished a meal.

Technology to the rescue?

Our modern technology driven work is partly to blame for the high sugar, quick-fix society we live in, so it’s no surprise that technology should come to our rescue. But it’s more down to an individual’s power to say no to sugar than relying on technology to control our willpower.

In the same way that sugar has creeped in an uncontrollable way into our diet, the technology to stop consuming it has moved onto our phone in an almost silent way. Diet apps help us judge what we are eating. You can quickly find MyFitnessPal, Calorie Counter, Lose It!, and other apps that track the content of the food we eat. Others are even more direct about sugar content.  

The ‘Change4Life’ food scanner allows users to simply scan barcodes to discover the sugar content of an item. Smart Sugar and Sugar Detox do much the same except with a much greater emphasis on sugar content.

While these require you to have the app and be willing to make the effort, health insurance companies are now starting to offer discounts to those who correctly manage their diets. Health insurance customers receive a loyalty card or a way of having their grocery purchase list sent online directly to the health insurance company.  Most large grocery chains now offer this service.  If the customers makes healthy diet choices, they are eligible for discounts to their policy that could go as high as 25 percent. This big data technology is a potential future for identifying how to stop bad foods that have too much sugar.

All these options are good, but don’t help those working in a time-shortened, high pressure position where the only food accessible has a high sugar content.

Dopamine fasts in Silicon Valley

Meanwhile, Silicon Valley techies are reportedly undertaking ‘dopamine fasts’, which extend beyond food to include abstinence from external stimuli, believing “we have become overstimulated by quick ‘hits’ of dopamine from things like social media, technology and food.” Silicon Valley Psychologist Dr Cameron Sepah says dopamine fasting is based on a behavioural therapy technique called ‘stimulus control’ that can help addicts by removing triggers to use. He refined it as a way of optimising the health and performance of the CEOs and venture capitalists he works with. He says his patients report improvements in mood, ability to focus and productivity.

Of course, there are those that suggest abstinence is a good thing, and that labeling it dopamine fasting is simply a fad, a 21st century re-branding of the ancient Buddhist practice of Vipassana silent meditation.


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Working in world of unhealthy choices

The question has to be asked – when did the network industry or any industry decide that junk food was ok? Remote buildings, odd shifts, long working hours and only access to junk food are a literal recipe for health disasters. 

Even if you try to take a healthy pre-made meal with you, security can be so high that you are not allowed to enter the premises with food. So we are stuck with the dreaded vending machine. 

When, how and why did we agree that this was normal – that this was ok?  

The network industry is decidedly modern. It doesn’t have legacy issues, and server farms certainly don’t have long historical quirks to deal with. A blank slate for many state-of-the-art locations could, and should, include elements that encompass human health and wellbeing, a large part of which is access to healthy food, right? 

It’s no surprise that server farms occupy remote locations – with good reasons we all understand – so why has the focus been on technology and not ensuring health and welfare of those inside the building? 

server farm
Server farms are hotbeds of unhealthy food

Good food is worth the good fight

Given the plethora of soda-branded vending machines, it feels like as an industry, we’ve decided junk food is all we deserve. Why are we being denied ‘real food’? 

There is a rising tide of healthier vending machines and as an industry, the very least we can demand is access to such machines, as a first step. But let’s not forget that many so-called ‘healthy’ snacks are still highly processed foods. 

And vending machines aren’t going away. A recent report declared that (Covid-friendly) v-commerce solutions will grow 2% per year to 2029 in the US, in a global sector poised to reach over US$94.6 billion by 2025. Last year, 2019, was a record year for vending machine providers. 

Is the network engineer and vending machine a 21st century re-imagination of the cop and doughnut? Sugar creep is real. You have a little here, a little there, and before you know it, you are unwittingly consuming a ton more sugar than you realize. 

As an industry, we need to collectively demand better food options in the workplace, to help us to help ourselves. Before we all end up shaving decades of our lives thanks to a diet heavily reliant on processed junk food laden with added sugar and salt, let’s take action to make network sites healthier places to be. 

 

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Will Rankin
Will Rankin
Will is a business journalist who loves digging out the facts and unboxing the truth

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